George Orwell, one of my great writing heroes, wrote a famous essay called “Why I Write”. In it, he comes to several conclusions about why people are driven to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – all of which are perceptive and pertinent, but the one which always sticks in my mind is this one:
“Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.”
It makes it sound like a very vain and arrogant sort of an ambition, but like Orwell I cannot deny the truth of it. Everyone and their brother seems to want to write, to claim that they are working on a novel or a script or some non-fiction opus about the history of parish boundary markers in nineteenth century King’s Lynn or what-have-you. But to actually achieve it, to have a book professionally published, seems like something unusual and noteworthy and special. Something of which to be proud. An achievement.
Which is odd when you think about it, because writing in itself is not a special skill. It is something almost all of us can do – read and write. We are all taught it from almost as early as we can remember. We all have the ability to put words into sentences, to build them up like the bricks in a wall. The act of writing is not a mysterious and revered skill, so nor should – in theory – be the act of writing a novel.
If a madman burst into your home and held a gun to your head and demanded you write a novel, you would be able to do it. Everybody would. It might not be very good, it might be the worst novel ever written in the history of the world. “John lived in a house and he had a dog and one day he went into the street and he found one million pounds. Then he went into the town…” et cetera and so forth. You could keep on piling the sentences one after another until you got to, say, 50,000 words, and you’d have a novel.
But if the madman demanded a portrait, or a symphony… There would be no chance, for most of us. We’d be dead.
So in spite of it being a bog-standard, basic ability that everyone has, the only thing I have ever wanted to do for a living is to write novels. I can think of nothing more marvellous than to have a novel published. To see my name in print.
It’s always been like this. Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. In the same way that some small children desperately want to be an astronaut, or a fireman, or a famous actor, I have always wanted to be an author. Sometimes an author and something else – a Royal Navy officer when I was about seven, or a Formula One team owner when I was about twelve – but always someone who writes.
The thing about those other ambitions, and indeed many or most childhood dreams, is that they are eventually shed. You will come to an age when you have to accept that you will never play for England, or have a number one hit. But there never comes an age where you really have to stop deluding yourself that you might one day be a novelist. After all, you do occasionally see the odd report about someone in their dotage finally having their first book published. So there’s never a point, while you’re still physically capable of putting words together, that you stop thinking “Maybe, just maybe, one day...”
It has always been my ambition, and I suspect that it always will be. When I was a child it was perhaps the desire to be seen as clever for writing stories. To impress people. But also the simple joy of constructing a narrative – of forming a story in your head and putting it down on paper and making it exist in written form.
It’s not so joyous and fun as once it was. Occasionally, it can be a fairly miserable experience, when you look back at something you’ve written and realise how utterly devoid of any emotion or character or interest it is. Orwell also once wrote, it might even be in the same essay actually, that writing a novel is like having a long bout of some terrible illness, and you’re just glad when it’s over.
This is within the context of having a dead-easy life really, of course. Trying to write novels is a piece of cake compared to being a nurse or a coalminer or even things like raising children.
But it’s all I have ever wanted to do, so I shall continue trying to do it. I have occasionally been told to stop – a very good friend of mine once implored me to get an ambition I was “less crap at”. But if I didn’t write, if I weren’t at least trying, I just wouldn’t be me. I will almost certainly never have a novel published. Nobody will ever keenly ask at a bookshop or a library for the new one by me, or recommend a book of mine to a friend, and a stranger will never laugh or cry at something I have written, or be glad to have a tome of mine to read on the train.
But if I weren’t at least striving for it, there’d be nothing else to me. My life would be even more of a waste of time than some would already consider it to be. So I have to write, because that’s who I am.
Or at least, who I want to be. I want to be able, one day, when I am introduced to a stranger and asked what I do for a living, to be able to say: “I’m a writer.”