Letters From Santorini: The Mission

I came here to write.

I came here for many other reasons as well. To escape London for a time, to become involved with Atlantis Books, to have the chance to do some serious reading, to meet attractive women and interesting men. But writing was the mission (as I’ve mentioned before). I hadn’t really written anything for about five months before I came out here, though I’d been working my current idea around in my head for most of that time.

I came here to write, and I have been writing. I passed the 30,000 word mark a few days ago on a long project, something that might eventually turn into a novel. I’m in no man’s land now – I’ve never been this far into a project, the idea (or my will to write it) invariably disintegrating at the 15,000 to 20,000 word point. The work has taken on a life of its own, which makes it easier to continue with and finish. It has weight. It is already half alive. I know how to finish it, and I know that I will finish it. All it will take is time – a few more months. Certainly before Christmas, barring some kind of disaster.

I don’t know if it is any good. Actually, at the moment I know that it is no good – the first draft of everything is shit, as Hemingway said. That is the maddening thing about writing – whether you are writing well or badly, the first draft of anything is always the same. Clumsy, flawed and repetitive, with the rare good idea or sparkling sentence simply serving to highlight the dross that surrounds it. It is only when you are redrafting or editing that you discover if what you have been writing turns from lead to gold…or remains as lead.

I now know that writing is full time. Not in terms of the hours actually spent writing; there is a limit to how much you can write in a day. But it needs to be committed to psychologically. Even here, since I am running the bookshop, my other commitments are a little too strong. You can have a job and write (indeed, in almost every case you need to have a job and write!) but you can’t have a serious career or a job, one that requires sustained mental energy, and write on the side. Or at least, I can’t.

Back in London, working full time and writing in my spare time, I felt like a fraud. When I was writing, I felt that I wasn’t committing to it fully. “You aren’t a writer,” I told myself, “This is just a hobby for you.” When I was at work, I felt like a fraud. “You aren’t committed enough to your job,” I told myself, “Your mind is on your writing.” I can’t commit to a serious job and write at the same time – there is an overexpenditure of energy that is in short supply, almost an ethical or moral contradiction.

Above all, what I’ve discovered here is that writing is a way of life rather than a profession or a hobby. I’ve met two writers out here, Cas and John. Before coming here, I probably wouldn’t have called them writers. Will they ever see their names up in lights, their books published and laden with awards? Perhaps. Probably not. Not because they aren’t good enough, but because commercial success in the artistic field is rare and depends on a vast degree of different factors, of which actual talent is a fairly minimal influence. Contacts, marketability, how well your writing chimes with the spirit of the time and the prevailing literary tradition, and dozens of other factors are all crucial. You could write a book twenty years too early or too late. In a different time it would have been a huge success. In this time it may be ignored.

But it doesn’t matter whether Cas and John achieve fortune and glory. They’ve had the courage to choose to live as writers, to try and experience the world as fully as possible and make a creative intervention in that world. Whether they share that intervention with themselves and a handful of readers or with thousands across the world is irrelevant and, by and large, out of their hands. They have earned the right to be called writers. You become a writer by choosing to live as a writer, not by winning the Booker Prize or getting reviewed in The Guardian. None of my friends back home, creative and brilliant as they are, have had that courage to fully commit to an artist path. Neither have I.

At least, not yet. My plans post Atlantis Books have changed – it would be premptive to say what they have changed to, as nothing is certain yet. But suffice it to say, the next year will be when I discover if I have to courage to commit to this course, to stick with and see it through, no matter whether it brings me success or no. Writing is a life. It is a life I want to lead, and now, more than ever before, I can begin to see how it might be done.



Filed under Letters from Santorini, Writing

9 responses to “Letters From Santorini: The Mission

  1. Pingback: Poem of the Week #20: The Art of Poetry (Borges) « Crafty Odysseus

  2. VJ

    Well dont keep us in suspense, what are you going to do????!!

  3. Thom

    Wot, none of us?

  4. zentimo

    @VJ: All in good time, my boy, all in good time. Nothing dramatic…

    @Thom: Not that I’ve seen. All the Warwick grads seem to be in a half way house, playing at creativity and playing at careers without choosing one way or another. No one (as yet) has the confidence/arrogance to define themselves by the creativity. Or do you disagree?

    @Tavs: Hell yeah. Wait until you get a load of my beard, it’s even more awesome than Jeremy Irons’.

  5. Katy

    @Tim: Maybe it’s possible do both successfully without having to choose (write and have a career) – as unpretty as this sounds, it’s a question of good time-management. And to do both well requires real creativity – in a broader sense than that you intend. You say that ‘None of my friends back home, creative and brilliant as they are, have had that courage to fully commit to an artist path.’ Courage here is an odd word – Have you considered that maybe there’s also a sort of courage to be found in living in the real world, opposed to abdicating from it to some platonic realm of creativity in the abstract sense?

  6. Thom

    I don’t know – I work as a writer, and will happily own up to this, but I don’t feel any pressure to define myself “by creativity”. I don’t feel as if I have to make a choice, or really define myself at all, to be honest. But my Indian Visa application says ‘writer’ on it. That’s my job. And it’s creative. I do some other stuff too.

  7. zentimo

    @Katy: For me, it isn’t a matter of time management. I used to get up before work and write for a few hours every morning. Time isn’t the problem. But I found committing to a serious career and writing psychologically impossible.

    If you can do both without feeling a contradiction, good on you. Would you continue to work in publishing if you got a book published and could earn a living from writing and its related activities (reviewing, teaching, etc)?

    I’m not sure what you mean by the real world. What are the requirements for living in the real world? How does one leave the real world?

    @Thom: Again, perhaps you do not feel a contradiction, a sense of being pulled in many different directions. If so, more power to you.

    To both, I’m sorry if the sentence in question (“None of my friends back home, creative and brilliant as they are, have had that courage to fully commit to an artist path. Neither have I.”) has caused offence or has come across as arrogant. It wasn’t intended for either purpose.

    But my observation (though perhaps I am simply projecting my own struggles on to others) has been that many, if not all, of the creative people I know do seem torn, unable to choose one way or the other, and that this is a cause of unhappiness for them.

    The way out for some, like me, is to make a choice and try and stay with it. Perhaps for you two, the way out is to realise that there doesn’t need to be a choice at all.

  8. Thom

    No offence at all! Whatever works for you, and no discouragement intended. This all sounds exciting. It’s just –

    “You become a writer by choosing to live as a writer.”

    – seems to point towards a specific idea of living that’s (paradoxically) not 100% to do with thinking and typing and dictionary-picking. You’re a writer if you write, I guess. And there is, yes, choice in that. But for me this has little to do with self-definition.

    P.S. I feel that contradiction, and several others, besides.

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