Saturday 12 September 2009

The Brain Surgeon and the Possibility of Writing too Much

From My Window (2) OK, I write a lot. I’ve written since I was eight and have written almost constantly since since I was eighteen or nineteen. I write, research, think about or plan my writing most days including so-called holidays.

Essays, reports, theses, poems, stories, articles. novels, now this weblog - you name it, I have written it.

I love to see the word on the page.

I enjoy seeing the pages in my notebooks full of my own writing. I like the smooth sheets of typescript as they shoot off the printer in their hundreds. I like the scribbled, densely edited sheets waiting to be transcribed yet again. I like the crisp new pages in the published books, miraculously reflecting the paragraphs that started out as speculation in my notebooks.

In my work I meet a lot of aspiring writers and am very impressed by their ambition to write a good story, a fine poem, a great novel. I have been privileged to see these great things happen.

But I am bewildered that - for some - the delicious, enticing activity of writing itself is seen as a chore. I hear how hard it is to get down to the writing. Such aspiring writers will cite meetings, obligations, domestic work, child care, parent care, challenging hobbies, gardening, cooking, the washing, cleaning the car, doing the shopping, a bad leg, a bad cold – all these things are cited as reasons why individuals find it hard to find time for their writing.

I tend to reflect, then, about priorities. For me, to sustain it at the centre of my life, writing needs to be very near the top of my list of priorities. For me, it has come second only to the safety of my children and the serenity of my home. For me, this lifelong writing apprenticeship has developed the imaginative skills, the focus, and the intellectual organisation to write the stories that bloom and blossom in my mind. Each novel is a new adventure.

I can see that my sense of priority is in contrast to a more dilettante approach to writing where writing is a pleasant and rewarding hobby, as much for personal satisfaction and literary identification as for any desire to be a professional writer. This is absolutely fine. Such people are great fun to work with and can produce excellent writing.

Closed Brown Book

It’s interesting, though, that occasionally I sense that because I write a good deal and - amongst other things - write a full length novel each year, it is seen as not quite right. That somehow the quality of the writing must be less. In some mouths the word prolific becomes loaded. Yeah, I am too polite to say, as prolific as Charles Dickens, as prolific as Honore de Balzac, as prolific as Anthony Trollope.

I stifle my feeling of unease but I long to say read the books! Read the books…

Only once have I responded outright and that was when some rude person used the term churning out. ‘Yeah,’ I said, flinching. ‘You’re right. I churn out books like brain surgeons churn out operations.’

Ah, well…



  1. Surely in most cases practising a skill makes one more proficient?
    I know my writing gets better the more I write. It almost doesn't matter what the form the writing takes, press releases or reports for work, or my second love writing novels.
    Yes, there are those who churn out mass market pulp, but as you said you are in good company as well.
    Stick it to them Wendy!

  2. Just the most brilliant post, Wendy, and one which had me almost punching the air and shouting; 'yes' at the end of each sentence. Like you, writing has been at the core of my life since I was young and a day without writing feels incomplete; it's that unique combination of imagination, creativity, compulsion and the physical process of pen on paper or fingers on keyboard.

    And l agree with Al, the more you write, the better it gets. I long ago lost count of the many press releases, articles, speeches, annual reports, prospectuses and goodness knows what else I have written during my career but they have stood me in good stead; as well as putting food on the table they kept me in the habit of writing. And when I go back and reread through my own writing notebooks, I can chart my inner journey of transforming ideas, thoughts, flashes of inspiration into words and can see how far I have come.

    As Elie Wiesel says: "Write only if you cannot live without writing. Write only what you alone can write."

  3. Dear Al
    You are so right, the sheer ability to write well - like any pure craft - evolves through practice and time and can be put to a wide range of uses in our lives. It can contribute to making a living in all kinds of ways, as it has done for you and me.
    But the purest joy at the centre of this craft is the imaginative invention, the making of story. This is where we are at our most powerful, where can make our own worlds - but only if we have done our proper apprenticeship and can write well. Wx

  4. Dear 60-16

    Thank you so much for this. It makes me feel I am not spitting in the wind in this wild world. It seems we have been living parallel lives in some wierd way. I love your idea of your notebooks charting the distance of your writing journey.

    And thank you for the E.W. quotation. I've printed it out very large and it is now on my board.

    Happy writing...

  5. You are right, the best part of writing is the flight of imagination before pen goes to paper (or in my case finger to keyboard). Followed by the intense pleasure of turning imagination into words, then the satisfaction of seeing them transferred to the page.



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