In late February I went along to listen to a talk given by Baroness P.D. James called ‘Murder and Mystery: the Craft of the Detective Story’. She gave us a brief history of her life, focusing on how she developed her Adam Dalgliesh series and Death Comes to Pemberley, which was recently adapted by the BBC. It was an interesting insight into the thoughts and creative process of such a noted author, but one thing which James said really stuck with me:
If you are an author, you will write.
It’s not a radical idea. It’s the genius paradigm: you couldn’t stop Shakespeare writing plays, Mozart lived for composing masterpieces, painters gonna paint. The idea that true creative souls must find an outlet is precious to those of us who believe ourselves to be creative souls. The question ‘why do you write?’ has been polled a hundred million times on every writing site which has ever existed, and the response ‘because I need to’ (or something along those lines) is always popular.* Creativity is a force of personality, not something which can be learned from WikiHow, and for unpublished authors and poets in particular the idea that writing is a compulsion rather than a skill makes us feel less like lazy, feckless wannabes and more like tortured but time-restricted geniuses. Stephen King probably has probably been quoted saying something to support this idea, so it is law.
*Super scientific research: my writing site of choice (Critique Circle) asked the eternal question in February, and 54.6% of those who responded answered, ‘Writing is to free the stories trapped in my head. They will not let me rest until I get them out’. I am going to scientifically refer to this category of response as the ‘genius category’ because I’m not entirely convinced I used the word ‘paradigm’ correctly in the second paragraph… (Here is the page the poll is on, for your viewing pleasure. You need to be a member to view the page).
Fake it ’til you make it.
While I completely understand the thinking behind this idea and often feel the romance of creative passion and the oppressive drive of imagination myself, I also think it’s a horrible way to think about writing. When someone says ‘I know I am a writer because I need to write all the time or I’ll go mad!’ it turns creativity into a pissing contest. Every other Wordslinger in the room examines their own drive to write, and if it’s anything less than ‘Dangerously High’ then ahhhhh… Hobby writer.
There are two ways to respond to the call of the genius category:
- Acknowledge you aren’t motivated by a constant and unrelenting urge to write;
- Pretend that you are.
Lots of people choose option one, and I don’t blame them. There are plenty of other great responses to the question, ‘Why do you write?’ which may not place you in the genius category, but hold a different and equally valid sort of pride. For example, the second most popular response in the aforementioned poll was, ‘Writing is for people to enjoy. I want people to laugh, cry, think, be comforted, or be challenged’ (29.2%). This category of creative – and this, I think, extends to all of the creative arts – has the audience in mind. They are the storytellers, concerned about creating art to be shared. It’s a motivation I think we can all understand. Some want to entertain, some want to provoke; it’s difficult not to consider how your work will be received, and so we tailor the style, the content, the meaning, with our particular reader in mind.
Personally, I hate it when people put so much emphasis on the entertainment side of storytelling that they scowl upon those who deign to think about meaning (see my previous post which includes a mini-rant on the subject) and so I am suspicious of anyone who calls themselves a ‘storyteller’, but I can see what they are getting at.
‘Art without an audience is simply an act of mental masturbation’
– Couldn’t find a source for this, lots of people have said it..
On to the second way one can respond to the challenge of the geniuses: fake it. This is what I do.
I don’t simply mean that one should proclaim oneself to be a creative mastermind at all opportunities, Wilde-style (I mean, if one wants to do this one can but I doubt one’ll make many friends). What I do when faced with the problem of wanting pure author-ness to pump through my veins but not really feeling it – whether this be due to writer’s block, distraction, or feeling like writing is becoming a bit of a chore – is try to get into the ‘author zone’. I suspect many of you will already get what I’m saying.
For me, that means putting on my glasses, busting out my fancy pen and notebook, and dressing in my ‘lounge jammies’ in an attempt to play the part of the sloppy but sophisticated young soul who will write many future novels. I even call myself by a different name while I’m writing, because if I adopt the character and look the part I am much more likely to get in that zone and finish that story. Starting this blog was part of constructing that role, because ‘Jude Jones, Author’ is a modern writer. I even read more now than I did a year ago, because ‘Jude Jones, Author’ is aware of what the market is doing.
The cake is a lie.
So, when the polls are busted out and I’m asked ‘Why do you write?’ I hit the button that says ‘Because I have to’ because, rather ironically, I feel I have to. And it’s all a lie – there, I’m breaking rank, I said it! Day-to-day me has a dangerously vivid imagination, yes, but it’s usually occupied by characters that I have no intention of writing about. To produce short stories, chapters, or even blog posts, I need to put on my costume and adopt a persona – I need to convince my mind that it belongs to an author before I can start producing the kind of ideas and standard of writing which I aspire to someday publish. I split myself a little, maybe, but only to separate the useless Netflix-addicted slob from the inspired literary mastermind which I know is in there somewhere. And it works. I’m not saying that what I produce is genius, but at least I feel like I’m producing something which fits the image I want to achieve.
As my idol, Dr Frank N. Furter, once said, ‘Don’t dream it, be it’. Well, once a day I put on my corset, draw on my eyebrows, and perform the fabulous number called writing. I just hope I don’t get shot with a beam of pure anti-matter at the end. I might break character.