Years ago, I was on a Society of Authors retreat at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon centre in Devon. It wasn’t a taught course, but an opportunity to explore our writing ambitions as a group and with individual tutors.
The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me, because I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.
I was struck by this hierarchical view of writing. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a prominent commentator in the children’s book world at a conference, which went:
Him: So what are you working on at the moment?
Me: I’m mostly writing for educational publishers
He gives me a disparaging look. I give him an enquiring frown.
Him: Well, it’s second grade, isn’t it? Educational books are never so good.
I was cross and astonished. I’d written for both trade and education, and had always given both my absolute best. I was the same writer, whatever I was writing.
Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that mainstream authors might look down their noses at educational writers; they were just different kinds of writing, and demanded different skills.
I had taken, and still take, a holistic view of writing, rather than a hierarchical one. I write all kinds of things for publication and for my own entertainment, including childrens’s and adults’ fiction and non-fiction, educational books, self-help, poetry, magazine articles and blog posts, and every single line I write feels fruitful and worthwhile, whether it finds a publisher or not, because it is helping to develop the writer that I am.
The holistic approach makes for a joyful writing life. You aren’t trying to hit goals set by the market, or other people’s judgements. You’re open to experiment because the goal is self-discovery, and every new discovery involves an element of adventure.
That’s how I view my writing life – I’m a proper writer simply by virtue of the fact that I write, as are all the people who gather round my table for writing workshops.
How about you? Are you a proper writer, and if not, what would make you feel as if you were?