On Tuesday, March 4th, I was asked to give a provocation at Writers’ Centre Norwich (monthly salon) re what writers want. I thought it might be of use to publish the points I made here. Please feel free to comment.
Writers want to write (usually). However, writers may also want a holiday in the Maldives, a Thai massage, to lose weight, to meet George Clooney and to win the Lottery. So, for the purposes of this provocation, it is probably best to concentrate on what writers need. There are three needs to which all writers must attend: to find time, to obtain honest criticism and to cope with rejection.
Individual writing needs are subjective, obviously. Stephen King likes to write with a wall of heavy metal music blaring in the background. Zadie Smith opts for a silent, darkened room, while J.K. Rowling famously favours bustling cafes and the motion of trains. Nonetheless, one need all these writers have in common is that they all need time to write. Virginia Woolf once said that a great obstacle for writers (particularly female writers) is a pram in the hall. Children are doubtless demanding of the writer’s time. However, Virginia was a wealthy woman and perhaps unaware that in the hallway lurks another time-killer for writers, one which probably didn’t bother Virginia that much – bills on the doormat. Yes, the need to pay rent, bills, feed and clothe yourself means that unless independently wealthy or supported by a generous, affluent partner, most writers will have to work to survive. This will result in limited writing time. Therefore, one of the first matters to address when you begin your career as a writer is how you are going to find and fund time to write.
Get a day job seems the obvious answer. Some writers opt for a writing-related gig such as teaching creative writing or journalism. However, both are rather stressful jobs and you have to be careful that you leave time for your own writing. When I worked as a journalist, a keyboard was the last thing I wanted to see when I got home. Therefore, there is much to be said for working in a monotonous job that requires no writing and little mental effort (on a factory line, for example). And such a setting keeps you connected to the real world and can provide good material for our work. The writer Nell Dunn chose factory work for this reason and her experiences translated into her landmark 1960s T.V. series ‘Up the Junction’. That said, taking a factory line means the loss of social status, which can be an issue for some, especially if they have spent many years studying for an MA etc… Alternatively, yo ucna investigate obtaining funding from the Arts Council which allows writers to buy time. As a 2013 Escalatee, I received an Arts Council grant which gave me the freedom to go part-time at work for the greater part of a year – the fruit of which was a completed novel and screenplay. Be aware that the Writers’ Centre Norwich will read over your Arts Council application before you submit.
Writers need objective criticism and your mum usually doesn’t provide the same. Rather, you need honest feedback from fellow scribes. It is an idea to approach writers in your community whose work you admire and offer to swap work for feedback purposes. It is not easy to take criticism onboard but to improve, you must. It is fine to defend your work or disagree with comments made but remember your critics are giving a reader’s perspective and if they’re confused/unimpressed, it is likely your readers will be also and you will not be able to phone all your readers and defend your choices. Learn to listen and consider the criticism you receive. You can contact fellow writers via writers’ groups, writing classes and the Internet. Also, there are commercial manuscript-critiquing services. The Writers’ Centre Norwich has some recommendations in this regard. Moreover, rejected work is sometimes returned with helpful criticism. Read it, consider it, re-work your piece and send out a better version. Your writing skills will improve with each new draft of your work.
Learning to cope with rejection is one of the most difficult, yet most important of the writer’s needs. You are a writer and you will fail and your work will be rejected. And you will be rejected again, and again. Not only do you need to keep going, you need to learn how to deal with these constant dismissals of your work. Having a brass neck would help, however writers tend to be a sensitive bunch. I’ve seen a number of very talented writers give up because they couldn’t hack the (seemingly endless) rejection. Equally, I’ve seen lesser talents succeed because they mustered the strength to suck it up and keep going. Some use drink as a crutch (probably not to be encouraged, but it can be fun in the short term). My own coping method is to send out so many ships, be they short stories, screenplay pitches, radio dramas, funding applications, that if one ‘sinks’ I hardly notice and simply concentrate on launching more. As someone said to me once, if you knock on a door three times you might not get a reply, if you knock on a door three-hundred times, someone will hear you.