I take part in a scheme called Apprenticeships In Fiction. The idea is simple. An established author takes on unpublished writer as his apprentice and tries to help them get their manuscript to the point where it is publishable. I find it an interesting exercise for many reasons, not least because after you’ve been writing for a certain number of years, you forget what it’s like when you start off – how uncertain you are about everything – and sometimes it’s worth remembering those feelings.
The other day I got an email from my apprentice that said, ‘Over the past 3 weeks I have started the first chapter many times only to question everything about it. Have you ever been in a place were nothing is good enough? If so, what have you done to get through it.’
I could see immediately that here was a whole backstory of suffering behind that email. It reminded me of a question I once put to my brother, who was for many years a professional dancer. He used to practise for hours on end and one day I asked him, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of dancing?’
‘Of course I do,’ he replied.
‘So what do you do when that happens?’ I enquired.
‘I dance,’ he told me.
I tried to tell this to my apprentice and explained that the frustration that he was experiencing was simply part of the creative process. There was no way round it; the only way was through it.
I believe it was Ringo Starr who wrote, ‘If you want to play the blues, you’ve got to pay your dues.’ Now Ringo is not known as a great poet or philosopher but he summed it up neatly, all the same. You have to suffer for your art. Everyone thinks that suffering is emotional – doomed love affairs, drug-addiction, the death of friends – that sort of thing. Well, of course, you do need to have experienced the full range of human emotions to write about them but that doesn’t mean you have to have led a tortured life. Jane Austen never got married, almost certainly never had sex and seldom left her village, but she was a great writer all the same. The struggle is just as much about overcoming inner demons as those in the external world. And a big part of that struggle is mastering the art of writing itself. The words don’t necessarily want to do as they are told. You have to make them.
I teach a class in the University of London. Every week at least one student begins the session by expressing surprise and dismay that he or she is finding the writing process so difficult. I do my best to help and I try to be as sympathetic as I can, but I have to point out that they shouldn’t be surprised because writing is difficult. Just because you can think and speak, you shouldn’t imagine you will automatically be able to write. You have to work at it and sometimes you get really sick of doing that. So what do you do when that happens? You write, that’s what.