So Philip Roth has decided to retire from writing. Well he is about 80, so I suppose retirement is on the cards, but I wonder whether he means he is going to stop writing altogether, or to stop writing novels for money.
Which brings me to the fact that I have had an epiphany. All my life I have written, but not considered myself a writer. Oh, yes, I put writer on that blurb on the ‘Whom am I’ page, you’ll find it on my Twitter bio, you’ll hear me rant on about my writing day and notice me passing on advice that I have found valuable or interesting. I’ve had short stories published and some people who read some of my stuff say nice things. But to me, a writer has always meant ‘published author’. Books on the shelf.
I loved books from when I was a little girl. I cannot remember a time when I was unable to read. By the time I went to school, I was fairly proficient and when I had to change schools at age six, very much supported by the fact that my mother managed to tell the school I was only five(!), they thought they had an infant prodigy on their hands! I insisted I was six and was most indignant with my mother when I came home.
Things were rectified quickly enough, but not before I was put into a class a year older than my peers. The prodigy bit was soon dispelled as I was pretty much rubbish at everything else, but I stayed in that class as I went through school and thus read books which were far less boring and much more challenging than might have been introduced to the year below. And having discovered how wonderful a book could be, I wanted to write one. More than one. Hundreds. It was my goal in life.
But books don’t mean the same any more. Celebrity authors and E-readers (I’m not really knocking them, I’ve got one as well) have taken something away from ‘the book’. The ability for every Tom, Dick and Big Boob-ed Star to find some way into print mean that prize of publication is just a little less rose-tinted.
I have toyed with self-publishing and I know that for me it won’t feel the same. I don’t have anything against it, and the publishing world being what it is these days, maybe I am wrong, but it isn’t what I have sought since I was a child.
However, I do wonder at Philip Roth’s statement. He is on record as saying that writing is just too hard to continue. He has lost touch with real life and wants to dump writing in favour of finding that again. I know he’s 80, and for all I know it’s a struggle for him to actually remain upright at the computer long enough to bash out a sentence, but I can’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t write something. Anything. Full length novel, short story, article, poem, blog or letters to the Times, just that the compulsion to write is so strong I couldn’t envisage not having it.
I’m still not what I would call a writer, that amazing career option that horrified everyone in school. My mother mocked my first attempts at a novel (I was about eight) and threw up her hands in disgust when I suggested I might be a writer when I grew up. (She was even more horrified by the idea of actress, with which I briefly flirted at about the age of sixteen!) And now I’m an artist, which is just as precarious! In England, it’s probably true to say that most parents would be mortified with the idea of anyone pursuing any sort of creative career. You’d get away with it in France, where they have more sang froid and more respect for the creatives of the world.
Would I have been any more sympathetic if a child of mine had decided to announce their intention to be a writer? Hmm, I’d like to think so, but the need for them to make enough money to eat might have made me blanch.
Yet those of us who scribble away without the backing and security of a publisher, an agent, a few royalties and someone out there hanging on for news of the next book, know that they will still write.
It isn’t a choice, this writing life.