There is something enchanting about the innocence of youth. Have you ever noticed how the old take comfort from the young? As if an encounter with youth is a tonic for their own regrets, cleansing, a guard against mortality even. The promise of youth is a wonderful thing. Yet however exhilarating this passionate freefall, disappointments inevitably beckon.
Life experience teaches us to be wary and wise. Loss and failure take their toll on blind faith. We no longer approach our passions with the same zealousness as our younger selves. Often idealists are tinged by realism, hopeless romantics end up in hopeless situations (I’m thinking Die Leiden des jungen Werthers here) and those on the political left drift over further to the right.
For a time I mourned the dying parts of my personality. I recognised the setbacks and disenchantments that had changed me, and sought to understand how I had ended up there in the first place. We can’t control everything, my older self knows that. Back then doubt grew in the place of fearlessness.
Still, to romantise youth and spurn old age is folly. We can learn from the young to go after our dreams bravely, to dance in the rain, to view things simply. Age too brings wisdom and clarity. Too often we dismiss that we need both sides of the equation. That’s why our journey is so necessary and clever.
Eventually I recognised that growth doesn’t quash the integral elements of our personality, it simply adds complexity. I have found that my idealist streak ebbs and flows dependent on my encounters. Being with the kids reminds me to see things through their eyes. Exposure to politics allows threads of cynicism to take root. Writing feeds my romanticism. Moving countries unravelled some assumptions and reinforced others.
It is this diversity of experience that feeds our life and our writing. Conforming to one world view is always dangerous. The characters we write may be initially chosen to embody one angle, but like us they need to be exposed to the unexpected and the irrational and become multi-dimensional if they are to be anything other than cardboard cut-outs. I want to see the whole spectrum in the books I read: blue skies and thunder, imagined futures and burning reality, wizards and psychopaths. A psychopathic wizard even. Oh wait, Sauramon and Voldemort have that covered.
In real life, we don’t do ourselves any favours if we remain rigid. Some professions encourage realism. Others nurture idealism. I realised recently that I had fallen into the trap of romanticising writing. But tempting though it may be, this may be the very thing that is holding you back. To build up this profession so that is almost feels holy puts too much pressure on us. We do not magically download our words. If you wait for the muse you may not ever get your novel on paper. My kids believe in the tooth fairy but I am sure as hell going to get rid of the teeth underneath their pillow when she doesn’t show.
Photo by Nick Kenrick
It is not a magical being who writes your book. You do. You develop the concept, research, sit at your desk day after day, chipping away at the story until you finds its core, rebuild it from there. Once the last chapter has been written you and your team edit and polish the manuscript and begin the work of formatting, cover design, marketing and sales.
It is work not a divine intervention. Choose when to be a realist and when to be an idealist. The heavens have gifted you your talent not the finished product. Indeed this cultural block, the underestimation of the labour that goes into a book, may be a contributing factor as to why writers are poorly compensated unless they reach the upper echelons of fame. Yes, writing is often much more than a job. But don’t knock having a job. Recognise that your emotional attachment to writing is both a source of power and an impediment.
Let’s demystify the writing process for our own sanity. Certainly for me, the huge industry around writerly doubt and fears is starting to grate. We don’t have to subscribe to the image of the tortured artist. Passions, fear, loss and disappointment are part of the human condition. At the end of the day, as in any field, success comes down to any number of factors but determination is one of the most important ones. If you really want something, just sit down and do the work.