Why on earth would you want to write a book?

I was watching the lottery show last night, willing my numbers to please come out this time, and I caught some of the game show they wrap around it. The couple on it seemed nice enough, and they won £25,000 which is a good return for them I guess. The bloke mentioned it now allowed him to take a few months off work and write a book, and I was literally shouting at the TV “DON’T DO IT. DON’T DO IT”. He’d be better off spending the money on smarties.

It’s a nice romantic idea isn’t it? Get some money together, take some time out, write that great novel that’s trapped inside yourself. I’ve entertained the notion myself in the past. But finding out what the reality is would make me think twice about taking a risk on my actual job to write instead.

I’m not saying I no longer want to write, I do. In fact, I’m now more determined to keep writing than ever before. But I’ve long given up the notion that I might be able to make a living out of it. Maybe this guy on the lottery show is fully aware of the pain he has ahead and he wants to do it anyway, but I suspect not. He struck me as the kind of person (as most are, as perhaps I was) who thinks as long as he can get the words out, the rest will take care of itself. Luckily, I had no such delusion when I went into this. I read an interview with Joseph Heller once who said that he still had to work for several years in his real job after Catch 22 came out, and if the author of one of THE great twentieth century novels, a book that eventually went on to sell over 2 million copies no less, had to do that, then what chance did I have? I know Stephen King can now sell a few thousand books on the first day of release – in fact he could probably sell a few thousand copies of his telephone message book if it included a Tower in it – but it wasn’t always that way for him either. He still taught English long after the first few books were out.

So why on earth would anyone want to be a writer? There’s probably not going to be any money in it; there’s certainly no fame in it (despite their little dust jacket photos, most successful authors can probably walk down any street without being recognised); and you put all those hours and hours into writing/rework/editing so someone can potentially spend an hour or two grappling with the first few chapters and a further ten minutes writing a bad review that sinks you forever. I’d suggest you would have to be deranged to think this is a good use of your time. 98% of books published sell less than 500 copies. I saw another figure yesterday which suggested most self-published books sell less than 75. What do you do with figures like that? Well, what I do is ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.

My primary reason for writing is that it’s something I can do, and something I’d like to think I’m not too bad at. I’ve got some good feedback on my first book, so hopefully I can build upon the sales and exposure of this and push on with the next. I’m planning to just keep going until I run out of steam. I doubt I’ll ever be a household name, I doubt I’ll ever break into the ‘modest’ sales bracket even. But what I do know is that on the days when my job is driving me to drink (or hard drugs), I at least have something I enjoy doing to stop me from drinking bleach. For some people it’s golf, for some it’s sticking little ships in bottles. For me it’s throwing words onto a page and rearranging them into a semblence of order. Does that make it a hobby then? Probably. If you don’t make your living through something, then technically, isn’t that a hobby? You may be an aspiring musician, you may play gigs five nights a week in the local pub and make fifty quid a time, but if you have to work in an office or a pub to pay your rent, then you’re not really a musician (yet) are you?

As a cautionary tale to the bloke on the lottery show – I once saw an episode of Grand Designs where someone even went so far as to build himself a house in which to write his book. An entire goddamn house. (Why he couldn’t write in his flat I’m not entirely sure – a computer and an imagination doesn’t tend to take up that much space in my experience). Four years on he had a nice house and a book that sold about a copy a month. Don’t give up your job mate, please don’t. By all means get that story out onto paper and join the virtual asylum with the rest of us, but you may well start to miss those plastic potted plants and pleading with the office manager for an extra pack of post-it notes when you’re banging your head on the doors of endless agents and publishers or compulsively checking the sales reports on the Amazon platform hoping beyond hope that someone, somewhere, might have parted with 70p on your behalf…

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3 thoughts on “Why on earth would you want to write a book?

  1. James Everington April 11, 2011 / 12:02 pm

    Yeah I saw that. I’ve never understood it when people say “I want to write” – if they genuinely can’t afford a Biro and a notepad I’ll buy them some, otherwise they have no excuses not to *be writing*. It’s not like film making or even being in a band – if you want to write, you can just do it. As you say, people seem to be wanting ‘to be a successful writer’ instead, which isn’t the same thing at all.

  2. Neil Schiller April 11, 2011 / 4:36 pm

    To reference Bukowski (yet again) he said something in Notes of a Dirty Old Man about that. I think someone had shown him their writing space, a specially set aside part of their house, and his response was just “if you want to write, nothing will stop you. You’ll do it on the kitchen table amongst dirty dishes if you have to” (or something like that, I am paraphrasing a bit)… It also reminds me of a Garfield cartoon I read when I was a teenager where the first panel shows him talking about how serious he is about becoming a writer and the second panel shows him posturing in the mirror with the caption “this is how I want my jacket photo to look”.

    I think the guy on Grand Designs admitted he had visions of writing in the morning and “pottering around in the afternoon like Graham Greene”. God help us all…

  3. James Everington April 11, 2011 / 6:41 pm

    I’d definitely write surrounding by dirty dishes; it would mean I wouldn’t be doing the bloody washing up for one thing.

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