Monday, December 14, 2009

The rise and fall of a literary genius, or how we can effortlessly fool ourselves at any age.

For a guy who had wanted ‘to be a writer’ since the age of 16, I still feel I am appallingly badly read and, more to the point, I have, to date, written very little. Still, that is what I wanted from quite an early age on, and it has only been in recent years that I have come to my senses and realised one or two basic truths about ‘writing’, ‘being a writer’ and, most crucially, self-delusion. On that last I can tell you at no extra cost: it is an affliction we are all highly susceptible to (oh, all right: to which we are all highly susceptible).
My ambition ‘to be a writer’ had a very mundane genesis and was based on a very silly misunderstanding and an innocent teenage conceit.
It is not unusual for young people to try to write poetry (and not all that unusual for older folk to do the same) and I was no exception. I can’t remember writing many poems, although I do know that I tried to and when I was about eight, I translated a piece of German children’s verse into English, illustrated my translation, stitched the pages together to turn them into a booklet and gave it to my parents for Christmas.
When I was 16, I wrote one poem which, as I remember, and in the manner of adolescents, addressed several then ‘contemporary’ issues. Doing so, we believe, gives the poems we write a certain gravitas and importance. That’s complete bollocks, of course, but try telling that to a 16-year-old. Not only will they not understand you, they won’t even want to understand you.
I can’t remember what issues I touched upon in that particular poem except that I made reference to ‘Red China’ and what a danger that evil nation posed to the rest of the world. Being the son at the height of the Cold War of a reactionary journalist who also, I later discovered, had a vague working relationship with MI6 for most of his life, and being securely locked away in a Roman Catholic boarding school for most of my teenage years meant that my world view was not necessarily sophisticated. A song in the charts at the time was Barry McGuire’s version of Eve Of Destruction which made reference to the danger of Red China and which was pretty hairy stuff for this reasonably immature lad, and perhaps that also influenced me. This was still the era, remember, when all things Western were ‘good’ and all things not Western were ‘bad’, particularly communism and socialism, and the end of the world is necessarily far more imminent when we are young than when we become older. When we are older, in fact, we have a horrible suspicion that it ain’t never going to end.
I was very proud of that poem, not least because I had actually finished it — all my life I have had the attention span of an impatient butterfly, and when I was younger started many poems and finished very few. I was so proud, in fact, that I showed it to Mr Hinds, one of the school’s English teachers. I showed it to him rather than Mr Walsh, my own English teacher, because Mr Hinds was young, and, I imagined, more broadminded that Mr Walsh, who was far older and quite ill for most of my school career. Mr Hinds, I felt, would be more open to my ideas.
I really don’t know what Mr Hinds actually thought of my poem, and I can’t remember him saying anything about its literary worth. But I do remember that, crucially, he advised me to ‘carry on writing poetry’ or something like that.
I now realise that he was simply doing what any half-decent pedagogue would do, what, arguably, any half-decent pedagogue should do: he was merely encouraging me to ‘carry on writing poetry’. Ah, but that was not how I interpreted his response. No, sir, I read it as his way of telling me that my poem was quite simply excellent and that, by implication, I was some kind of literary genius. And from that moment on that is how I saw myself — I was a writer, though not just any writer, mark you, but a writer of quite exceptional genius.
I can’t remember writing very many more poems, and although I did occasionally attempt a few pieces of fiction, my output was not large. (If I put my mind to it and utilise the technique useful to recall of trying to remember specifically where I was when, I could, perhaps, bring to mind a few of the - very - short stories I composed. I remember one in particular, written when I was spending the summer holiday after my second year at university working in Peppard Hospital as a porter. It told of a crane in a shipyard which was getting too old for useful work and was to be replaced by another, newer crane. One day, just after the new crane had been constructed, and while everyone was inside eating their midday meal, there is a colossal crash and the new crane is found toppled over and smashed to smithereens. The only way this could have happened would be if - well, it’s impossible, of course - but if the new crane had somehow become entangled with the old crane and the old crane had moved away and - needless to say, it’s all highly improbable - somehow pulled over the new crane. Now that would be an explanation, although being so very unlikely, it could not be the explanation, and the destruction of the new crane would have to remain a mystery.)
But, as I say, my output remained embarrassingly small and, more seriously, especially small for a would-be literary genius. I have since, I very relieved to assure the reader, written a little more and feel far more confident about writing. I can also assure the reader that I am no longer persuaded that I am a literary genius (a realisation which, oddly, came as something of a relief. It took a weight off my shoulders.) You see, I was all too conscious that I was not writing very much, that, in fact, my ‘literary output’ was not just minimal but virtually non-existent. Added my embarrassment was that every so often I would read of some writer or hear some writer on the radio describe how he or she ‘wrote every day’, that he or she ‘had to write’, that writing was ‘a part of [their] being’, sometimes even that ‘if they didn’t write [they] would go mad’. It was also a little embarrassing, not to say quite irritating, to come across friends and acquaintances who did actually write. Even worse than that was that they also read a great deal more than I did.
What made this all the more confusing was that when I did get to read what other, unpublished, would-be novelists and short story writers had written, I was all-to-often not very impressed. Yet what was better: rather bad stories, novels and plays which had, at least, been written, or works of sheer ineffably breathtaking literary brilliance which didn’t actually as yet exist?
Even I knew the answer to that one.
I could not be writing this if I hadn’t in more recent years finally put my back into trying to be a literary genius, or, at least, attempting to be one, and I can assure you all that I have finally got around to doing some of the necessary work. It is quite sobering to know that, if pushed, I could probably list everything, have written, but these days I prefer to be sober about my ambitions than to live with my head in the clouds.

In doing the necessary work, I have learnt several valuable lessons: that writing is hard, although enjoyable; that the best way to do it — I suspect the only way to do it — is to treat is as ‘work’ and to be extremely and horribly strict with yourself about sitting down regularly to do that work; never wait for inspiration — it will never come; that what you write need not be perfect from the off and that you can - and should - revise as much and as often as you like (although there is also the danger of the whole enterprise going horribly stale by being pfaffed about with too often); that in an odd sort of way, there is no such thing as ‘good’ work or ‘bad’ work, that it is, for example, more useful to speak of ‘interesting’ or ‘engaging’ work; that the essence of successful writing is thought, and lots of it, and that the more thought you put into the work you are doing, the less chance there will be that, at the end of the day, it's a load of cack; that we all love the smell of our own farts and are well-advised to remember that others, invariably, don’t; that there are an awful lot of bullshitters out there, rather more, in fact, than, at your most cynical, you might suspect; never — never! — talk about what you are doing, because the more you talk about it, the less you will do it; that most talk of ‘art’, if not all of it, is 24-carat, top-grade bunkum, especially when the word ‘art’ is used in the same sentence as the word ‘should’ (this ‘writer’ believes that ‘art’ is not an ‘entity’ but a ‘process’, but more of that, perhaps, in another entry); and that any writer, poet and playwright (or for that matter any composer, musician, painter or sculptor) can do what the bloody hell they like: there are no rules. However, whether you will find anyone who is the slightest bit interested in or engaged with what you have produced and who might, moreover, be willing to part with hard bucks for it, is another matter entirely. Here’s a principle I firmly believe in: payment is the sincerest form of flattery.

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