Thursday, November 24, 2011


Writing is like painting, something which doesn't exist at all until somebody creates it. And then it must be found a kind and appreciative home.

To (very loosely) paraphrase Andy Warhol, writing, like any other art, is something that people don't know they need unless they can be persuaded otherwise. Hardly anybody needs what writers (and picture makers) do. At first glance it is not an essential service, like growing vegetables or baking bread or healing the sick or driving a bus or building a house or rescuing people from the raging surf.

People don't take writers seriously. When asked a normal everyday question like "what do you do?" people who write sometimes try to wriggle out of actually saying "I write". And if they do admit to being a writer, the next question, too often, is a version of "but what do you do for a real job?"

I once read about a couple, famous American writers, going through an airport check-out. The wife went first, and had put on her customs card, in the box marked "occupation", the word "poet". The customs official frowned, crossed out "poet" and scribbled "housewife" instead. (That couldn't happen today, the man would have been lynched on the spot.) The husband, seeing this and having also put "poet" in that box, crossed it out and inserted "housewife". Times have changed, but not that much.

However, if nobody wrote the world would be a poverty-stricken place. There would be no stories, no movies, no essays or articles, no dissemination or exploration of ideas, no ways to find out what other people were saying and thinking. There would be no television, no documentaries, no newspapers. There would be no stories or poetry, no magic world of the imagination.

Writing is practised by all kinds of people, many of whom don’t actually want to do it. Or so they say. Often. Usually when things are going wrong with their work. But still they struggle on. They would rather do anything else, and everything else is more vitally important than writing. I, for example, have just swept out the garage, vacuumed the carpets in the car, and washed its windows instead of writing. This is not something I do for fun, and I don't do it as often as I should. Only when I'm trying to avoid the blinking cursor on the computer screen.

However, I know that, like other writers, I must write. Even if no one wanted what I do. Like Edward Gibbon, who carried on even when an 18th century Duke of Gloucester apparently complained: "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?"

At the end of the day – literally, each day – if I haven't written something, I feel unfulfilled, fretful and disappointed. Especially if I know, deep down, that I haven't written anything because I've put it off, ducked, made excuses for not doing it. Writing makes me what I am, in my own small way.

The painting is "Tsunami", 2010

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