The Guardian newspaper recently published their Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. Inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, they asked a selection of published authors to enlighten the aspiring public with their tips on how to write. Given that more Britons dream of becoming a writer than any other profession, it seems remarkably magnanimous of Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James and AL Kennedy, among others, to share their secrets with a public greedy for literary fame, hovering in the margins ready to pounce upon the amazon top ten list and emerge, victorious and snide, clutching some literary award and the adoration of legions of fans.
Or perhaps these writers are just too polite to tell the aspiring public what their real advice to would-be authors is: Don't bother. Accept defeat. If you're reading this bullshit in the desperate hopes of gleaning some enlightenment from it, you probably don't have what it takes, and in all honesty, you should never write again.
Think about it. Do you really want to be a writer, oh ambitious public? You really want to spend ten hours a day locked to a laptop, chained to your monkey mind, pushing out the niggling concerns that impinge upon writerly creativity, like how you're going to pay the rent this month, and if it's still OK to eat that loaf if you cut off the green bits. Because most writers, as the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society revealed this month, actually earn fuck all. The median earnings of a writer are about $6,000 a year, meaning that many have to rely on a second source of income: be that a generous partner, loving parents, a part-time job in Rite Aid, or selling themselves to some soul-sucking corporation.
At the age of thirty, while my friends secure mortgages and spawn children and eat in fancy restaurants without worrying about the bill, while they know exactly how much money will come into their account every month, so that they can predict exactly how much cash they can spend in Fred Segal's on the spring collection, I mooch around in thrift store clothing, bumming cigarettes from strangers, living in student accommodation with roommates on food stamps, cultivating a monthly heart attack come rent-day. I never know how much money I'm going to earn. It might be 100k a year (it did happen, once); it may be, like 2009, somewhere in the region of eight grand. And whilst I sit in these chi-chi restaurants with my financially stable but artistically-starved friends who have chosen to abandon their dreams to pursue more lucrative careers, I don't want to hear how lucky I am. I don't want to be told that I'm rich in life when I can't afford the kobe steak for an entree, or even the six-dollar diet coke. Because this lifestyle wasn't something I chose. It wasn't a decision I made aged 25. I didn't train for this in some fancy MFA program, or look at Philip Roth, or Derek Walcott, or Diablo Cody, and decide I wanted what they had.
It just happened because I couldn't do anything else.
Being a writer is not something you can learn despite what expensive MFA courses and 'How To' books tell you. It's not something you choose to be -- you don't wake up one morning and decide to make a career move from accountancy to writing and instantly make even minimum wage from this. It's not something you should keep on the backburner while you pursue your law career, leaping like a rabid dog upon professional authors should they cross your path, gnawing at their starving limbs until they finally agree to read your manuscript. It's something that you just are.
Writing is an affliction, a disease of the soul, a rewiring in the head, like Asperger's or some other form of autism. Like masturbation, it's an uncontrollable and compulsive urge. It's an obsession, a need, a drive. It's not fun, and rewarding, and entertaining. It's like having a bad movie play in loop in your head, so that your thoughts are either obsessing on words, or obsessing that your words are crap. It's tortuous and exhausting, and if you could expel it from your possessed soul like an unwanted demon and be happy and content on a salaried wage, most writers would probably, in their darkest moments, do that instead. But they write because they have to, because they feel, like Gloria Steinem, that "writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel like I should be doing anything else".
But I suppose what most people see is an opportunity to slouch around at home wearing stretch fabrics avoiding the demands of an employer, creating masterpieces that will eventually get made into billion dollar movies starring small British children. This will not happen. There are hidden geniuses out there who do not launch a literary career until they are 71. Doubtless you would like to think you are one. Let me reassure you, you are not.
I know this because I have seen your work. You have sent it to me over email, thrust a screenplay into my hand, sneaked a chapter into conversation, recited poetry to me on the subway, bombarded me with links to your blog detailing, in exquisite prose, what you ate for breakfast, how sad the Haitian disaster is, and what you thought about Avatar. I did not respond. I did not, initially, even tell you I was a writer, but you were alerted, perhaps, by the fact my debit card had been declined for a two-dollar cup of coffee, and then you were onto me. You were initially suspicious as no one is really a writer except JK Rowling. But having ascertained, by stealth, that I did indeed have literary representation and that I had published a book that no one had read except a few disappointed pedophiles who later complained to the publisher about advertising standards, you decided that I was going to share with you the secrets of my trade -- I was going to read your shit goddammit! -- and confirm what you always knew. That you are an unappreciated genius, and you will be one of the lucky few who will earn their living -- as an Author.
I am aware that I sound spookily like Josh Olson in his September '09 contribution to the literary canon, succinctly titled 'I will not read your fucking script', but I think Josh's vein of argument needs continuing. I think the world would be a happier place if people's literary dreams were crushed, their ambition snapped in the sapling stages, trampled on brutally. Channeling my inner-Hitler, I think the majority of those with literary ambitions should be herded off to ghettos where they can inflict themselves upon other talentless individuals and read bad poetry together and regale their compatriots with carefully-rehearsed bullshit about how much they love writing, it's in their soul, it's their life, it's their dream, it is -- their right.
Am I talking about you? Possibly. If you have never published a word in your life but continue to ask me to read your masterpiece, give you the contact details for my commissioning editor, put in a good word for you with my agent, and harass me over whether I think you can earn a living from this dubious profession, I am talking about you. I have spent nine years, one published memoir, two unpublished novels, three spec screenplays, thirty or so articles and hundreds of rejected pitches to get to 2010 -- a year which is completely booked up with writing work. Am I really going to give you in five minutes what it took me nearly a decade to acquire? Particularly when I think you lack any discernible aptitude for the written word? I think not. As Josh Olson phrases it:
... not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I've done you a favor, because now you'll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them.
You might well be a writer. You might make it to the New York Times bestseller list. You might be the kind of person who finds "Cut out the metaphors and similes" instantly elevates you to publishable status, and from then on, you never look back, frolicking like a lamb through the meadows of publishing, leaving the rest of us limping, bitterly, behind. But if you ask my opinion, if you want my advice, if you harass me continually on how I manage to fund my writing habit at the expense of actually having a life - in short, if you want to know how you, too, can be successful -- my number 1 tip is going to be NEVER WRITE AGAIN.