The Writing Life

It took me a long time to dare call myself a writer. Even with two travel books published back in the 1970s, I still had a day job and then babies. I couldn’t claim writing as my occupation even though I continued to indulge in it whenever I could. All those novels – written over decades – that never quite made it to publication somehow didn’t count. After all, even my agent had given up on me.

It was only when, forty years after the publication of Kathmandu by Truck, I finally succeeded in bringing out a novel that I began, tentatively at first, to describe myself as a writer. By then I’d been writing regular features for a magazine for several years (one of a number of parallel jobs). Writing, I could truthfully say, took up a lot of my time. I could honestly call it my occupation. With my second novel published and, like the first, gaining good reviews, my confidence increased. I was a writer and no longer shy to lay claim to it.

But calling yourself a writer, I’ve realised, is not about whether you’re published or not. It’s about compulsion. About wanting to write more than anything else and giving in to that urge. About drifting lost and directionless when you don’t have a work in progress.

Being a writer means burning the food you’re cooking because you’ve rushed into your writing room to jot down a sudden inspiration – an idea or a phrase or the solution to a dilemma – and forgotten time and hunger. It’s happened to me over and over again; I don’t learn. 

It means turning down invitations because you’d rather be ‘boring’ and just stay home and write, thus risking being considered unsociable. It means hoping visitors will go off and do their own thing for part of their stay because writing time is precious and has to be protected from encroachments

It means panicking when you’re out and can’t find a pen or a piece of paper to scribble down an idea.

It means being obsessed by dread of losing what you’ve written (there should be a word for this) and constantly backing up.

Ian McEwan, talking about writing his latest novel in lockdown, said all he wanted to do was stay at home and write throughout 2020. “All novelists are locked down. Lockdown is what we do.” I can identify with that statement. On the other hand, as writers we need to live too. We need the stimulation of company and conversation, of observing the world and other people. I’ve just returned from a research trip to the locations where my current work in progress is set. I’m already sixty thousand words into my first draft: my fictional characters are more or less fully formed. But spending time in their locale made them seem real. It brought them to life in a new way. I returned excited and raring to incorporate my discoveries into the novel.

I’m aware I haven’t posted a blog for over three months and yes, I’ve been feeling guilty for neglecting it. However, I’m not going to make excuses. The reason, I can honestly say, is that I couldn’t tear myself away from work on the novel. I’m not yet ready to reveal too much about its theme (I gave some hints in my last blog post). The photos here will reveal its two main locations.

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