Haydn Middleton edited books for Oxford University Press before becoming a full-time writer. (Haydn’s Goodreads page shows a selection of his titles.) He currently teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Overseas Studies Program in Oxford.
It’s sometimes said that in order to be a successful creative writer, you need to be a bit different from regular people. That word ‘different’ can carry a host of meanings! But is it true? There are certainly lots of punters out there who believe that absolutely anyone can dash off a bestseller…
Publish and be Damned
The mighty Margaret Atwood, as you’re probably aware, began her creative writing life as a poet. She was 26 when her first collection was commercially published. The Circle Game (1964) went on to win the Governor-General’s Prize in her native Canada. But who needs prizes when you can bask in the acclaim of your own family? “Congratulations on publishing your first book of poetry,” her older brother Harold wrote to her. “I used to do that kind of thing myself when I was younger.”
Ouch! As low blows go, that one comes in at ground level. But similar put-downs are something which most published creatives have had to deal with at one time or another.
In the olden days, 30 or 40 years ago, as soon as you became an ‘official’ writer – with your name across the front of a book, or even just a pamphlet – you could bet your life that very soon someone nearby would come of the woodwork to let you know – loud and clear – that they too would have been a writer of distinction if only they hadn’t chosen, upon growing up, to prioritise in a different way.
Anyone, after all, could write. You didn’t need any kind of a qualification to put pen to paper. And we could all string words together across a few hundred pages – right? It was just that, well, there were all these other claims being made on one’s time. That spare bedroom wasn’t going to redecorate itself. Watching certain TV series demanded long-haul commitment (The Forsyte Saga seemed to be more or less endless). And if you were going to cultivate prize-winning geraniums for the local flower show, you could hardly do that while sitting at a desk behind a keyboard.
But the point was this: if there hadn’t been such diversions, all these other people – as sure as eggs were eggs – would have been successful creatives themselves.
Today things aren’t quite so cut and dried.
Countless people can call themselves writers without so much as a printed page to their names. And why shouldn’t they? The internet has opened up whole plethoras of new possibilities. People are able to self-publish too, and plenty do. But that still leaves a fairly high proportion of those who never show any sign of creativity at all, yet who still fancy that – given a strong following wind – they would surely be just as substantial and successful a writer as anyone else.
And the truly annoying thing is that it’s virtually impossible to stop them believing in their own potential. It doesn’t cut both ways, either. An anaesthetist at a drinks party might tell you that he could knock off a bestseller, if only he worked shorter hours. But you can’t say that you would put more people to sleep for a living if only you didn’t have to keep slaving away at all these blasted stories. (Or rather, you can say that, but he’d then make a very cheap joke about your stories and putting people to sleep.)
The Cemetery Shift
So what’s it all about, then? Is there really nothing that sets successful creative writers apart – apart for the lack of a pressing need to improve parts of their homes, or a reluctance to spend man-hour after man-hour coaxing geraniums up out of pots? Is it true that just about anyone could make a mint writing stories?
Let’s go back to Margaret Atwood. Something else she once said is that “everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger”.
Now that’s the kind of high-quality self-defence argument you’d expect to hear from a true creative. In other words: there must be more to it than simply tapping away at a keyboard until it’s done. There must be some kind of technique involved, whether innate or learned. There might even be the little matter of – whisper it – talent involved. (I’ll not address here Ms Atwood’s contention that we can all dig a hole in a cemetery, although I’m far from sure that without the right permits and paperwork any old person is allowed to simply turn up with a spade and get cracking.)
But our anaesthetist back at the drinks party would still probably not be persuaded. He’d maybe smile indulgently at that grave-digger analogy, but his eyes would be saying, ‘You can’t even begin to imagine how much technique and talent I am unable to exhibit to the reading public, purely on account of my commitments elsewhere!’
And there’s really no answer to that. Or maybe there is…
Just Do It
The answer may be to pay no attention to the anaesthetist – and all those people like him the world over who are whiling away their time at drinks parties instead of hammering away at a keyboard – and just get on with writing your own masterpiece.
When it comes down to it, you do have to put in the hours. You have to be there at your desk (or wherever else it suits you to create) on a pretty regular basis, so that the Muse knows where to find you and guide you on to success. If the Muse knows you’re out at another drinks party, or up in the back bedroom covered in wallpaper paste again, then she (or he) just isn’t going to visit.
And you might have to be there at that desk (or wherever) for a very long time indeed before you strike lucky. But so what? It may even help if you don’t hit the jackpot right away. You know what the great Anthony Trollope called success? “A poison that should only be taken late in life, and then in small doses.”
There really is no substitute for putting in the hours, and at the end of it all, you are the one who will actually have produced a successful book, and all those others won’t have. But you still need all those others – because they will be your readers. And on that account, you will be grateful to them – almost inordinately so. The acclaimed modern novelist Madeline Miller says that she still finds her success to be “a totally impossible dream. When I hear that someone has read one of my books, I still have the desire to give them a kidney.”
Which is actually pretty weird.
So maybe, when all is said and done, it is true: successful creative writers are a bit of a different species from regular people…
Maybe the real difference, though, is just that they write – so keep writing, too – and let those other possibilities open up.
Haydn Middleton is a published author and editor at Jericho Writers. Find out more about Haydn.