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Is it worth it?

In Conditional Validation I was talking about how Malcolm Bradbury saying "They're good. Keep going" was enough for Ian McEwan to - well - keep going. We tend to think that the "they're good" is the important bit of that, but I more and more think that in some ways "Keep going" - said by someone whose knowledge and judgement you trust - is just as important. The thing is, they're two sides of the real question, which is "Is this worth doing?".

Mind you, Hilary Mantel said on Front Row that having won the Booker twice is no help at all, when you sit down to work on a new book: it's like the first day you started to write. In other words, the energy doesn't come from the pleasure of doing something know you're good at or are admired for - because that evaporates at the sight of the blank page. The energy to start in (again) and keep going comes from the knowledge that it will all turn out to be worth it, when you finally get to the summit. It's that knowledge which keeps you going over the endless immediate difficulties and setbacks of the terrain. Every step, every day, every month, every novel.

I realised this all over again recently, when the novel I'm working on was being profoundly awkward, at a moment when I had let into my psyche more of the routine book industry doom and gloom than was wise. As a result I was feeling the routine hysterical conviction that the novel, as a creative form and a way of earning money, is dying. Some writers and would-be writers seem positively to relish* feeling like that (or I assume they do, or why would they blog and tweet and grumble about it all the time?), but all it does to me is make it extremely difficult to get on with the novel.

But this time, my agent happened to ring up to see how I was getting on; I said something about how disheartened I was. "Well, let me tell you why I'm optimistic about the long-term future," said my agent, and proceded to do just that. When your agent's been in the trade long enough to have only just missed Allen Lane, you believe what she says. And I put down the phone, rolled up my sleeves, and barrelled into the novel with as much energy as if I'd just had two strong coffees and a fan letter.

The novel hadn't miraculously solved its own problems, and the industry hadn't changed a hair: what had happened was that the work that the novel still needed suddenly seemed worth the energy and time and loneliness, and (let's admit it) occasional boredom that it was going to demand of me. When I thought that all might be pointless, I had no energy. When I thought it was worth it, the energy came rushing back.

And I think making it seem worth it is also one of the functions of a teacher. I was surprised, in writing But Can You Teach Creative Writing?, to realise how important a part of my job isn't just to provide a safe space for experimenting, say, or technical tools: it's to help the writers to feel that what they do is worth it, that there's a goal worth aiming for, that it's realistic to think they might reach it.

But in the end, I think you have to decide for yourself what makes it worth it, and then do your damnedest to seek out those things. And, perhaps, be prepared to acknowledge that they're beyond your reach, and either change your idea of what makes it worth it, or give up. For me it's having readers. Coming from the storytelling, not the journaling end of becoming-a-writer, I know that If I had no mechanism for reaching readers, I wouldn't write. But not everyone is like that: for some the act of writing is self-fulfilling.

And one final thought about what your writing is worth. As Claire King was discussing on her excellent blog some time ago, what we pay for something is a crucial component of what we feel it's worth. There are lots of good reasons for giving your work away for free on occasions: for charity, as review copies, as exposure in a place you want to be seen, as a twenty-four-hour ruse to get yourself top of a "bestseller" ranking. But I do think that anyone who consistently doesn't expect to be paid for their professional creative work is sending out a very strong message: that they don't think their work is worth it.

Far be it from me to tell anyone what to do with their life. But, I don't know about you, but my life is far too short to spend on anything as frustrating and badly paid as writing, if it isn't, also, profoundly worth it in all the ways that matter. I want it to be good. I want to be able to keep going. I need to feel it's worth it.


* I asked a psychotherapist friend why so many people seem determined to hear and even relish only bad and depressing news.  "It's a form of masochism," she explained. "They're getting off on it." So next time someone insists that we're all going to hell in a handcart and refuses to hear your evidence for the reasonableness of a bit of optimism, you can quite legitimately and exactly describe them as that technical term: a w***er.


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Thanks, Emma, for another thought-provoking post. Easy to see what keeps us going through the good times but when the going gets tough …? The behaviourist would say it's the intermittent reinforcement (just like a gambler): how can you jack it all in and go and clean lavatories for a living when the very next email might be from a reader whose life's been transformed by reading one of your short stories? Sound advice to work out what drives you and whether it's forthcoming but I imagine your psychotherapist friend would also say that for some of us the motivation is quite deeply buried it's hard to access it.

Emma Darwin

I agree about the intermittent reinforcement - so maybe one of the ways we have to keep ourselves feeling its worth it is to find that reinforcement, whether it's doing an open mic night, or finding a course, or blogging...

But, yes, the motivation isn't always obvious - or, at least, the real motivation may not be what it appears to be to others. Which might, of course, mean that you think (and then act) quite laterally, and do something tangential to the central act of writing stuff and getting people to publish it.

In my teens and early 20s I absolutely and totally wanted to be an actress, but I wasn't particularly good, and wasn't, actually, driven enough to try to squeeze a career out of it. Now I realise that between writing and teaching, I'm fulfilled in all the ways that I thought acting fulfilled me. Only I'm better at both writing and teaching.


"because that evaporates at the sight of the blank page."

Woman, don't ever stop musing about this writing business. You are a goddess!

Emma Darwin

Aw, thanks, Paul!

Alison Wells

Yes, thank you very much for this post which I'm reading at a timely juncture, wrestling again with a problematic novel onto which I have also attached a variety of hopes (while more straightforward projects wait) and wondering whether this book just can't be fixed after 2 years work, then receiving a funding rejection in the post. I am aware of constantly wrestling with the voices of doom and gloom versus the determined ones. Sometimes just a line of text pleases me, or a comment on a blog, those interim cheerleading moments you mention. Intrinsically I know I love writing and hope through it to be able to reach out and interact with the world through words and events. Energy is the key thing, I've been very aware and mindful of how I can keep my own energy, mentally, physically, creativity, minimizing my focus on the sad clamour and focusing on the good parts.

Emma Darwin

Oh, bleurgh to the rejection Alison - bad luck! There are times when it's so hard to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start again again again. And how hard it is, is as much about energy as about what's actually knocked you over, isn't it.

I don't know about you, but for me the proof of whether you should keep going or give up is sometimes whether, when you've picked yourself up etc., and can see the beast clearly, you can see what it needs next and whether you can do it. If you you can, then the energy comes back and you can and do start again. If you can't, that's my marker of when it is, actually, time to set this project aside, and move on to something else.

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