All the posts I mentioned at Getting Published 2013
Feedback, humility and the sword of truth

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.

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* 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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