The various algorithms at work in the web have identified me as a writer of fiction. At first I was pleased, because my art, craft or addiction was not known to many of my people-friends (as distinct from Facebook friends and Twitter contacts). And so I enthusiastically clicked my way onto sites, services and pages where I might find advice, interest and companionship. This stimulated the invisible algorithms to go into hyperdrive. Soon, generous people with an abundance of time to spend on the net were sending me a flood of free counsel, advice and fellow-feeling. Some of these pseudo-spontaneous contacts have become for me what used to be called pen-pals, for which I am abundantly grateful. I’d also like to thank the kind-hearted who broadcast artwork festooned with aspirational messages, although in self-defence I have silently blocked them from my various feeds.
Unfortunately, I have also made myself a target for hucksters great and small. I am like a tourist in a crowd of souvenir salespeople, my electronic sleeve jerked one way and the other by people trying to sell me stuff that they imply will make me write more, better, faster and incidentally help me to become rich and famous. Some even offer to write as if they were me — for a price. I’d much prefer that they come over to my house to change the sheets, do the laundry, clean the bathroom, purchase the groceries and walk the dog on rainy days so that I could sit down each day to write those thousand words that I am assured are necessary to call myself a writer.
I’m somewhat mystified about the thousand-words-a-day rule, because there’s no necessary connection between quality and quantity. When I look back at the reams of paper I insulted with ink when I was an academic, I shudder. When I was a hack-writer for government I must have reached that magic thousand word mark more often than not, but I assure you that what I wrote was neither meritorious nor memorable.
No doubt regular daily hours of writing are essential for the professional writer who makes a living out of crafting words into books that sell. I know that the message in the thousand words rule is the same as the joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice. There’s no question that if you start in or before your teens, acquire the habit of daily writing, maintain an unshakeable faith that writing is an absolute necessity to who you are and what you do, and have the good fortune to have your work published and recognized, you will deserve to put “professional writer” on your passport. If you can put out a book every year or so, you may even become a name to be conjured with — a perennial denizen of the best sellers lists. Maybe.
However, it is a true saying and worthy of all hopeful writers to be considered that no matter hard they try, not every pee-wee hockey player makes it to the NHL. It’s not a matter of how much money is spent on skill development, equipment, training and the like, even if they improve your kid’s game. Not all the hopefuls will become professionals, and that’s by negative odds of many thousands to one. Some will become disillusioned and hang up their skates forever. Many more of those those who don’t make it to the majors, nonetheless continue to play the game. For them, there are the beer leagues — those amateur teams with names such as The (insert city name) Ice Holes.
Where hockey is concerned, ankles weaken, stamina decreases, conditioning sags, but the ability to wriggle your fingers across a keyboard remains with us decade by succeeding decade. Hence the truly incredible number of people who write novels that have been heard of only by those ensnared by an algorithm that delivers unasked-for information by the gigabyte. So also, the industrious purveyors of uplifting exhortations to believe in yourself as a writer, without any consideration of your skill, quality, ability or talent. This is fine, provided you are focussed on your self to the exclusion of your audience, and have not yet grasped that in writing as in the theatre, “If there ain’t no audience, there ain’t no show.”
Real writers, professional authors, published writers, like hockey coaches, are inclined to be blunt. Mostly, they talk in technical terms about the craft of writing — rather in the way that hockey players talk about keeping your head up and your stick on the ice. Professional writers asked about how to get published make observations such as “First of all, you must be able to write a complete sentence, every time.” They offer stern instructions such as “Eliminate adverbs.” And they insist on revision, editing, proofing, presentation and all the conventions involved in the business of turning a MS into a book.
Aspirational or amateur writers, on the other hand, who can be found Facebooking, blogging and twittering on the web are often closet writers who snatch precious time between schlepping the kids off to school and getting to a day job. They are frequently people who have become totally immersed in the wonderment of their favourite genre to the exclusion of relevance, authenticity and quality. They are the retired folks (here I am!) who always wanted to write stuff similar to what we like to read.
For most of us, whether we are professional, aspirational or amateur writers of fiction, what we do is something we enjoy, or at least enjoy having done. So let’s not get all creepy about divine sparks or epiphanies or imaginative leaps into some spiritual transformation. Writing is a solitary art. It encourages people to be introspective, frequently selfish and opinionated, usually compulsive, often desperately insecure. To write fiction is to create a meta-world which we can manipulate.
Sometimes that imaginative world is shared. When we receive a fan letter or email, we are assured that that the solitary hours were more than mere self-expression, what we made of words has touched another mind and has been independently judged worthwhile. Most fiction writers are immeasurably chuffed when people write to us indicating that they have entered our imaginative world and been engaged by the characters they met there. This is the writer’s equivalent of applause, and is just as heady. It’s not what made us write in the first place, but it does keep us writing, especially if we are amateurs whose next month’s groceries and mortgage payments are assured by a day job, pension cheque or the immeasurable kindness of a generous spouse.
Sir Philip Sidney, who was an amateur in the days before there were professional writers, was thinking of that mind-to-mind connection when he wrote, “With a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner.” This is the novelist’s true purpose and aim, whether he or she is an amateur, a professional or an aspirant.