In my twenties, I acquired the habit of rising early each morning to write for an hour before heading into work. Back then, I was unpublished, an aspiring novelist, more focused on writing than on becoming a writer. I already had a full-time job as a newspaper journalist, so my fiction writing had to be fitted into my spare time. I’m a morning person, hence the pre-breakfast regime.
To begin with, I produced fragments: responses to prompts in creative writing books, character sketches, stand-alone scenes, abortive stories and novels. Often, I simply free-associated, scribbling the first thought that entered my head and seeing where it led, resulting in pages of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry. Unreadable, for the most part. Some mornings, I would just gaze out of my window and describe whatever was going on — which wasn’t usually very much, at 6 a.m., in an East Oxford side-street. The milkman often featured in my embryonic work, recast as an MI5 agent (peeping tom, undercover cop, serial adulterer), his delivery round a front for his nefarious activities… or his existentialist musings, during my homage-to-Sartre phase.
Nothing I wrote in that period has ever made it into print. Rightly so. For the most part, it was amateurish, ill-formed, and immature; or, more generously, ‘developmental’. Publication wasn’t the point, though. These were experiments in creative process: flexing my imagination, putting words down any old how, settling into the rhythms of my mind and the motion of pen across page. The writing gurus I was in thrall to at the time assured me such methods were not an indulgence but indispensable to the true expression of my creative self. Brenda Ueland, in her classic If You Want to Write, urged me to ‘Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.’ I should not be anxious, timid, restrained or afraid in my writing, she advised, because these were the enemies of creativity. The tutor of the adult-education evening class I attended advised: ‘Don’t be scared to try things and rip them up if they don’t work.’
From the perspective of thirty years’ hindsight – twenty-two of them as a published novelist – those days of free-writing spontaneity might belong to some other writer’s past. Somewhere along the way, I have lost what Hanif Kureishi refers to as carelessness: ‘[…] if [writing] is not sufficiently careless, the imagination doesn’t run.’ (Dreaming and Scheming: collected prose: reflections on writing and politics.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I no longer write imaginatively but it’s apparent to me that my ‘running’ of the imagination has become more managed, if that isn’t oxymoronic.
Deadlines exert the twin pressures of time and responsibility. Time: the delivery date for the second novel in that two-book deal or that short-story commission for a magazine or anthology. Responsibility: the implicit expectation – yours, your agent’s, your editor’s – that the work will be as good, or better, than what you’ve written before; that it will be publishable. As a professional writer, you also have the responsibility to produce enough work, of sufficient quality, to earn a living — to justify quitting that job at the Oxford Times, to validate the hours you spend at your desk each day. You are still writing but, now, you are also being a writer. The two facets have to be accommodated.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I love and appreciate my life as a writer and – having been published and built a career from it – I certainly wouldn’t wish to be unpublished. Nor do I resent deadlines; after all, as a journalist I used to thrive on them. Having a reason to write, and a timescale within which to do so, provides the necessary frisson to keep my work sharp. To keep me at my keyboard, frankly. I am aware, though, that the transition from amateur to professional has made me a more self-conscious writer.
Dorothea Brande, another of my gurus, back in the day, reflects in Becoming a Writer on the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind. Influenced by Freudian terminology (her book was first published in 1934), Brande posits that creativity springs from the free rein given to the id, or the unconscious, and that the ego, or critical part of the brain, should be suppressed until redrafting and editing. The last book I wrote in this way was my first to be accepted for publication, in 1996, in a deal that allowed me to leave newspapers and make fiction-writing my job. The novels and stories which followed have all been written – even at first-draft stage – with the ego peering over the id’s shoulder, butting in, preventing my imagination from straying off course.
I now write with knowingness instead of carelessness. My writing is ‘better’ (I think, I hope), in the sense that it is developed rather than developmental, but the creative process is more painstaking, less free. The American novelist Valerie Martin alludes to this problem in her 2014 essay ‘Look Back in Angst’ (in Writing a First Novel: reflections on the journey): ‘Writing novels didn’t get any easier after I finished the first one; in fact, because I have a much clearer idea of what I’m doing now than I did then, the process has become more complex and therefore more difficult.’ For me, that difficulty arises from the struggle to let my imagination gaze out of the window while my inner critic stares at text on the screen. Controlled spontaneity, you might call it.
It’s all a far cry from those early morning, stream-of-consciousness scribblings in my East Oxford bedsit. Happy as I am with my lot these days, I catch a whiff of nostalgia when I recall that time — a yearning, almost. Curious to know whether other writers share this wistfulness for the days when they wore literary L-plates – and whether my theory of compromised imagination rings true – I emailed some novelists of my acquaintance. I discovered that I am not alone.
‘I feel incredibly privileged to have fulfilled my dream of being a published author, but I definitely feel more pressured to “produce”,’ says Susan Elliot Wright, author of three novels, most recently What She Lost: ‘I used to be able to lose myself in my fictional world relatively easily, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult because I now worry so much about how my agent and editor will react to my work.’
She adds, ‘I’m currently juggling three different novel ideas, but instead of putting my trust in the creative process, I’m probably trying too hard to think each story through in detail. Consequently, I find myself unable to properly commit to any of the ideas, paralysed by the fear that I won’t be creating the right (i.e. saleable) “product”. I’m sure I’ll push through — but it’s definitely harder.’
For Linda Green, whose ninth novel is due out later this year, it’s not so much how she writes which has changed, but the freedom to write what she’d like to. ‘I’m happy to have a deadline, I think my writing is more focused because of it, and I’ve learnt to be more disciplined in my approach to writing a novel. The thing I struggle with is the rather narrow confines of what I’m now expected to write.
‘When my first novel was a success, my agent warned me that my publishers would basically want me to write the same thing again and again. I have managed to make the change from commercial women’s fiction to psychological thrillers but I really resent the idea that, once you are successful in a particular genre, you have to keep mining it. It doesn’t feel as if writers are given the same freedom to experiment, grow and develop in the way musical artists are.’
What to do, then? Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t wish to be that free-writing twenty-something version of myself. I can no more return to being the writer I once was than I could quit adulthood and go back to playing in a sandpit or making a den behind the garden shed. David Hockney has said (in Christopher Simon Sykes’ 2011 biography, Hockney: a rake’s progress) that he fell in love with paint, and became fascinated by brushwork, as a boy, watching his father repainting bicycles at his repair shop in Bradford. But I can’t imagine he wishes that he could recapture his own first forays into painting which resulted. Life cannot be un-lived or re-lived. Artists and writers evolve and move on, finding new means to express their creativity, or risk stagnation. However, it doesn’t harm to remember where you’ve come from — and to make sure you haven’t lost something along the way.