On Writing

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an author – wait! That’s not right, I’m just quoting a film. But anyway. Since I was a child, I wanted to write a novel. Which is a slightly strange ambition, since I had no clear idea about the book, just that I wanted to be an author.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last twenty years writing novels. Some have been awful, but there are others that I’m quietly proud of. They’ve been fascinating to construct, both in terms of craft and in learning about a subject. I’ve enjoyed producing these strange works, but I’ve never successfully sent them into the world. A few have received very positive responses, but none led to publication. Some people have returned the book with nothing but a standard rejection, sometimes just a quarter-strip of A4 paper. Which, considering the effort I’d put in to researching agents and writing appropriate cover-letters, seemed downright rude. I like sending out novels far less than I like writing them.

I recently finished another project, Tourist Planet, about the experience of travelling in India. And I got to thinking, what now? And I realised that I don’t want to spend any more time writing novels. Obviously, as I’ve argued in the past (notably on the Literature Network site), writing should not be coupled to the idea of publishing. But, really, when you’re spending that much time on an activity, there should be a little more to show for it than a few hundred kilobytes on a hard drive. No, I don’t want to waste my life writing computer files.

And it’s not as if short stories are much better for me. I don’t even bother to send out most of the short stories I write. As much as I love stories like Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, it’s hard to find an appropriate home for them. And since I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary journals these days submitting to any would be pretty arrogant. (At this point, I should call out Alex and Elle who ran Penumbra, which stands out as the best place I’ve been published. If there were ever to be a fifth issue, I’d dust something off for them. Nothing else tempts me).

I’ve had two major life changes this year. Firstly, since April I’ve been working a full time job with Crunch. I’m having a great time but the cost is that I have much less free time than before. I can’t do everything I’d like to, which means I have to make choices. Writing has taken up a lot of my time and I’m not sure it justifies its place against other activities, or even spending more time thinking about programming – which is, after all, what’s likely to be feeding me for the next 30-years-or-so of working life.

What it comes down to is that I want to stop writing fiction. To make a clean break with it. Which is one reason for declaring it on a weblog – to underline that I’m serious, both to myself and to other people. Another is that I have a few commitments to break and it would be useful to have an explanation I can point to.

Writing has been fascinating. I’ve met some amazing people – without the MA at Sussex I’d not have made some wonderful friends. I’ve enjoyed doing spoken word, and have been very grateful for all the opportunities in Brighton. But writing takes up a lot of my time and there are other things I could be doing. I’ve met people in their sixties who say that whose lives will feel like a failure if they never publish a novel. I don’t want to face that fate. I don’t want to have an imaginary career.

No, I want to focus on other aspects of my life. I realised recently that I can’t sew. My cooking, once hilariously woeful is now competent – and I’d like it to be more than that. And I want to spend more time exercising, to lose the chubby belly I’ve had since childhood. I’ve always been convinced there was a slightly thinner person inside me and, if there is, I’m sure he’d appreciate being found and rescued. 

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7 thoughts on “On Writing”

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. Don’t give up writing completely; jot down any ideas as they come to you, and you never know…. All the best for he future.

  2. Wow. That’s a big deal.

    Intrigued to know what the second life change is, but really just wow that you have made the decision. It is always something you can go back to.

    It does eat your life, and for me a small person who is now 5ft 9 kind of took priority for a few years.

    Your point about imaginary careers is typically well put. However I don’t give up on seeing your name on Waterstone’s bookshelf. Never is a long time.


  3. Well I know you fairly well, James, and you’ve read at Ace Stories a number of times. I think I understand how you feel very well. Sometimes we hang onto an ambition because we’ve had it a long time and it’s hard to imagine living without it. However, sometimes it’s better to just drop it and try something else. You can always come back (even if you have made this declaration on your blog)– probably refreshed and with a new perspective. Bukowski famously said he took a ten year break from writing (I think during most of the Sixties) were he just drank, and lived– and when he came back to it he had something to write about. I’m not recommending the drinking to you but there’s a point there. Unfortunately people’s ambition to be a successful writer can end up killing any sense of pleasure or spontaneity about the act of writing- it becomes a job– usually a job no one is paying you to do. Even if you’re lucky enough to get paid we’ve all seen the successful writer who started out with something original and true to say, got in harness with a publishers, and then novel after novel seems to become less interesting and more mechanical– they’re working now for the career, or the attention, rather than because they love it. So, good on you, and anyway, you didn’t sign a contract in blood you’d never write again…I hope! Jay

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