I’m becoming obsessed by this theme right now. I wake in the early dawn and try to figure it out: what is the best way to live if you have an all-consuming talent? I am not content with the traditional models of ‘selfish genius’ which dictate that in order to follow your inner voice you have to ignore everything – and more crucially everyone – else. This is what male writers have traditionally done; and recently women are going there too: there’s a whole plethora of articles exhorting women writers to be selfish, to put themselves first, to ignore the children and carve out writing time.
Now, this needs a little deconstruction in the context of households where women have traditionally put themselves last. We were conditioned to ignore our own needs, or at best put them on the back burner. When everyone else’s needs have been satisfied, then it’s your turn. Trouble is, that turn never arrives; you catch your breath for a moment before realising, like poor old Barbara in The Royle Family, that having cooked, served and eaten Christmas dinner you are now faced with a kitchen full of washing-up. I have to admit when I watched this episode I had an overwhelming urge to kick Jim out of his chair and into some good quality rubber gloves (sorry a bit of Withnail got in there by mistake) (oh no, another bit!)
Deep breath. So, in that context yes, it is entirely in order that Barbara should boot Jim into the kitchen to do his bit while she goes upstairs to write something sensational. However it’s not only in the carving out of time that the selfish genius rears its head. Write what you know is the advice – and it’s good advice – the trouble is that you also end up writing who you know. Literary history is littered with friends of the writer who have recognised themselves in print and decided that since the passages can’t be deleted, they’ll delete the friendship instead. This is not to mention the wives, ex-wives, lovers and partners of authors who can find themselves writ large in two hundred sizzling pages. Not unnaturally, these people feel betrayed.
And of course the third thing that writers always do is steal.
So here’s the thing: how does one become a great writer without being a total sh*t?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I actually want to know.
PS: what do you think of the title? It came to me in the night and I thought it was pure ge…
Yes, as I told you before (if you’ve been paying attention) Hanif Kureishi can properly be called the father of this blog, since it was his idea. We met in Leicester Library; I asked him for one piece of advice, and quick as a flash he said, ‘Start a blog.’ I didn’t hang around; and Lizardyoga’s weblog was born the very next day.
I have to say I liked him better in the flesh than I did on TV. The BBC’s profile did not show him in the best light; he appeared bad-tempered and defensive, particularly when asked about the direct way in which he had put his family members into his work. He had left his wife and children; just walked out of the house – at least that was the way he told it – and then written in a very direct way about that experience. And here’s the rub: this is a dilemma for all writers – at least those who are not Science Fiction authors or writers of preposterous romances – what do you do about the people in your life? Do you just go ahead and put them in your novels, warts and all or, given that most disguises are easy to penetrate, do you disguise them? Some writers don’t let it bother them: D H Lawrence didn’t, and lost friends as a result, but he seemed to regard it as an inevitable part of the process. Kureishi, however, reacted to Alan Yentob’s questions as if he had no right to ask them; and I think this is a mistake. Of course a work of art is what it is; stands alone and ought to be judged as such, blah blah blah, but to ignore the connection between it and a writer’s life is to leave out a vital part of the equation. Anyway, judge for yourselves as it’s still on iplayer:
It is tempting to wonder how Jane Austen’s family reacted to the characters in her novels: who was the original for Mrs Elton? Or Lady Catherine de Burgh? This problem is something I wrestle with – one of the reasons I was unable to write as a child (I started a novel at the age of eight and couldn’t continue it) was that on some level I knew my parent’s marriage was in trouble and couldn’t bring myself to write about it.
I’m still struggling with this problem because, unlike Kureishi I don’t think it’s OK just to put people in your novels willy-nilly and disregard their feelings on the matter. But neither is censoring your own life a very satisfactory answer. So what do you do?
Answers on a postcard please…