Lesson Two: Why We Write
The honest truth about being a writer...
The truth about being a writer is this: we’re not in it for the money.
I have been a writer my entire career. I left school at 17 to be a writer. When my friends were choosing where they wanted to go to university, I just wanted to be a writer. There were new degrees back then in the early nineties, fancy journalism degrees. But I didn’t want to do that, that was just treading water until I could be a writer.
I got a job working for EMAP, which then owned most of the local newspapers up and down the country, as well as many many magazines. I worked in the advertising production department, just because I wanted to be a writer. I used my annual leave to go and do work experience at my local newspaper, the Peterborough Evening Telegraph. I worked weekends there for free and every Friday afternoon without fail I called the editor and asked if he had any jobs on the trainee scheme. One day, as I was about to replace the telephone receiver, the editor said yes actually, we do have a vacancy. And I was so excited because all I wanted to do was be a writer.
It didn’t matter to me that I was at the bottom of the food chain in that office, that after being on shift all weekend and starting at seven on a Monday morning, when it was finally my time to leave because the evening reporter had arrived, they would ask me to find twenty NIBs (news in brief), because I just felt so lucky to be there — and I was reminded how lucky I was to be there — because all I wanted was to be a writer.
I went off on my 16-week journalism training, I learnt law, local government, 140-words per minute shorthand, and I was the trainee for two years. Graduates arrived at the office earning three, four thousand pounds more than me even though I had two years experience on them, but it didn’t matter, because I just wanted to be a writer.
I was a court reporter, covering magistrates, crown, youth court, coroner’s court, tribunals. I sat in people’s living rooms hours after they’d lost a loved one. I listened to their stories, I was up close and personal, in their most sacred moments. This is what it meant to be a writer.
I kept in touch with many of the people from the stories I wrote over the years — some of them now are my best friends of twenty-odd years or more.
I worked in magazines, sat in living rooms up and down the country filling my shorthand notepad with people’s lives until the point where the details of my own life got squeezed aside. Hemingway warned of this and yet, it didn’t matter, because I was a writer.
In my twenties I went freelance, I would travel all around the world, turning up in holiday resorts, notepad and camera in hand. I’d find the best stories that even the people in the resorts didn’t know about, ‘off diary’ just like I’d loved as a cub reporter, and I’d sell them to magazines and newspapers at home.
In my thirties I moved into national newspapers in a time before the internet broke the story first. It was exciting, exhausting, editors demanded their pound of flesh and you handed it over to willingly, just to be in a newsroom, at the heart of the story. I worked alongside Oxbridge graduates who asked me which school I’d been to when I knew they’d never have heard of my council estate comprehensive. I put on a posh accent for three months and collapsed against the walls of the lift at the end of the day and pressed the button for the ground floor, grateful that at least someone there sounded like me when it announced it was: ‘Going daaan.’
When my daughter was born and I found myself parenting alone, I couldn’t work 12-hour days in the newsroom, so I started freelancing. I shared details of my life, put my head above the parapet, wrote honest opinions to start conversations, took the flack from those who didn’t agree, made the fatal mistake of reading the comments.
I ghosted my first book in 2014, over the next seven years while raising my daughter alone, I wrote six other books and two novels. I got married, divorced again, I wrote my way out of heartbreak and grief, to make sense of my own life, and saw how the memoirs I ghosted changed the lives of others. Not just the authors themselves, but the readers who found them.
Times can be tough as a writer, we don’t know where our next wage will come from, there aren’t many people who could live with this type of insecurity — especially when there’s only one of you keeping a roof over your head and that of your child. There are times when I feel so vulnerable that I wonder what else I could possibly be. I wrack my brains but I’ve never been anything else, or even wanted to be, except a writer.
When you tell people what you do, it sounds glamorous to them, but the truth is it’s lonely work, there’s no security and the prize you have your eye on is only ever the next story — which, incidentally, you’re only as good as. Writing is mostly torturous and yet, in the moments when it is going well, it feels as if you’ve grown wings to fly.
These days there is a closer eye on what you write. New people arrive on the scene and tell others that they’re doing it all wrong, that you can’t say that, or you aren’t entitled to inhabit that voice, that what you thought you knew is not right anymore, that you need to write with the reader’s sensibilities in mind, that’s the way they do it, it’s the only way. If you don’t, you’ll risk getting cancelled. Scrutinising something is now known as spreading misinformation. Today anyone can be a writer and they’ve given their words away for free and knocked down the price of yours as a result, and journalism has suffered because in the race to get the story first we’ve forgotten to ask important questions and in the desperation for free words, we’ve forgotten about good ones. It’s enough to put you off altogether. You might think of being something else instead, you might earn more money, take less flack, get less wrong, you wouldn’t be in the firing line or receive abuse, especially if you’re a woman writer.
Dorothy Parker had the best advice for aspiring writers: “Shoot them while they’re still happy.”
But the truth about being a writer is this: we do it because we simply can’t conceive of doing anything else.
Even now, I write books only in the hope that they will buy me time to write another (and have somewhere to eat and sleep while I do), or read another, to continue to learn and hone my craft. Because almost thirty years on, all I want is to be a writer.
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