Writers are good at guilt – especially, perhaps, female writers, although that may be an unfair generalisation. There’s guilt about writing instead of paying attention to our children or walking the dog; guilt about writing rather than going for a run or doing the ironing; guilt about finding ourselves staring out of the window during the precious hours we’ve ring-fenced for writing. And long hours huddled over a screen can trigger guilt of a more existential kind, about writing rather than living: an authorial Catch-22, because we all need to live a little – or even a lot – in order to have something to write about.
But guilt isn’t good for creativity, and it’s certainly not good for our souls. So how DO we writers square the hours we spend locked away with a laptop or a notebook? Even if it’s our own time we’re sacrificing – or indeed our own sleep, money, fun or fitness, or having a clean house or something nicer for supper than a tin of sardines – there’s a little voice in most of our heads, most of the time, telling us this is a frivolous way to spend our lives. Telling us that the world has quite enough novels to be going on with, and if we really have time to spare, we’d be better off spending it volunteering for charity. And of course if other people are sacrificing things too for our writing – our children, our partners, our friends – it becomes even harder. All too often, my fictional characters have to yield to the more clamorous real-life demands of my children: requests for help with homework, finding a lost pair of trainers, or even, these days, applying for a mortgage.
In order to tame the guilt, and resist at least some of the other demands on our time, writers need first to give themselves permission to write: to make a pact with themselves to take it seriously. Although having time to write is a privilege, freedom of expression is arguably as fundamental a human right as freedom of movement or religion. Anyone who’s driven to write will know that they really can’t live without it – and our families know it too.
Prioritising writing over parental and domestic duties has always been a particular problem for women. Sibilla Aleramo’s novel A Woman, published just over a century ago, is all about the importance of self-expression for women as an antidote, or at least an accompaniment, to the self-sacrifice of motherhood. Although it celebrates the joys of having children, the novel also makes clear the risks – both to the mother and her offspring – of women giving themselves up completely to the ideal of maternity, and losing sight of their own consciousness. A mother must also be a woman and an individual, Aleramo insists, and for the central character of her novel, salvation comes through writing. The explosion of interest in creative writing courses, short story competitions, poetry competitions, writing blogs and community writing projects suggests that many of us agree with her.
But self-expression – what Hélène Cixous elegantly calls ‘coming into language’ – isn’t only essential to the well-being of individual women (and men, of course). Fiction is important to society too, as a way of making voices heard and as a form of collective catharsis. Fiction is a way for people to experience the lives of others, occupying other consciousnesses and exploring alternative points of view. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a tremendous source of pleasure – especially when it’s also a way for people to come together, to discuss, to share, in book clubs and online forums.
And as for the guilt about staring out of the window: any writer will tell you writing isn’t just a matter of clocking up so many words in a day. Sure, there are times when you need to get the words down, but there are also times when you need to think – when the novel is gestating, or you’re getting your head round a major edit, or simply weighing up the next chapter or searching for the mot juste. Sometimes the best days are the ones when you have one breakthrough idea about a character or a plot twist, or get one troublesome paragraph right at last.
If you write, you write because you love to and have to. That doesn’t mean it’s always a walk in the park. There are times when it’s hard, and when you need real self-discipline to keep going, but allowing it to become a chore with the same constraints and pressures as any other job is a real shame. Of course you need to be professional about it if you want to produce work you’re proud of, but finding your own voice, your own head-space – creating the right mindset and conditions to write, and remembering why you do it – is what really matters: what makes it worthwhile for you, and makes it possible for you to produce something worthwhile to share with the world at large.
So away with the guilt about retreating to your laptop while the children are in the bath or watching the telly – or perhaps even, if you leave them to it for long enough, writing their own novels. Away with the temptations of the gym, the kitchen sink, the supermarket or the Facebook update. Write, write, for the good of your soul, and for the best kind of reward there is.
(c) Rachel Crowther
About Every Secret Thing:
Can you ever bury the past?
She’d recognised in him something of herself: that sense of not belonging, of secrets fiercely kept . . .
Five friends, newly graduated, travel together to the Lake District. Young and ambitious, they little imagine the events that will overtake them that fateful summer, tearing their fragile group apart.
Twenty years later, they return to the same spot, summoned by a mysterious bequest. It’s not long before old friendships – and old romances – are re-kindled. But soon, too, rivalries begin to emerge and wounds are painfully reopened . . .
How long does it take for past sins to be forgiven? And can the things they destroy ever really be recovered?
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