Succeed as a writer: stop wanting to be one

Bowling with my son at his friend’s birthday party at the weekend I met a published novelist who also teaches English and creative writing. I won’t name her because I’m not entirely comfortable with reproducing private conversations in public without permission, but I thought that you might find something she said interesting.

She has held positions at both universities in Cambridge and has ambivalent feelings about teaching creative writing (although from her tone and the look on her face on Sunday I would say that the negative feelings are winning out). I asked her if that was because you can’t really teach talent.

‘No’, she said, ‘because you can teach technique. The reason I hate teaching creative writing is the high levels of delusion among the students. They want to be writers.’

They picture satisfied authors whose works of fiction are published and admired, who have made it, to the point of being able to devote themselves to penning whatever they want for the rest of their lives.

And that’s not how it works for most people.

So she tries to instill some realism. About most people who create fiction having to do it in their spare time. About the fill-in jobs and the bits and pieces that you have to do if you do want to make writing pay. About the hard work to produce a book that you are actually proud of, and then the small likelihood that anyone will want to publish it.

None of this will be new to you, if you’re writing yourself, or if you’ve heard me whining on about how hard it can be, but the next thing she said was more surprising:

‘The ones who are just doing the course for fun are the best, or the ones who are using the course to get something finished; because they don’t have unrealistic expectations, and because they actually get on and write.’

If you want to be a writer you’ve got the wrong focus. You’ve got to want to write, and then actually do it. Almost as though there is a paradox that to become a writer you’ve got to stop wanting it, and just start writing instead.

You’ve got to write because you want to, not because of something you want to become.

I talk about both on this blog: writing and being a writer. I do want to be an author but am realistic (I think) about the path I’m on. It takes time. There are no guarantees. My first novel may not get published. Nor my second. I already know how many I’ll produce without publication before giving up on that particular form. Then I’ll try something else.

So a good reminder, as my son came last in the bowling and I encouraged him that I was pretty sure he had scored more than the last time he played. Don’t worry about being a bowler, son, just keep on bowling.