Monday 23 October 2017

The agony and ecstasy of being a writer

Asked by a Guardian interviewer last week if he suffered for his art, Irish novelist Colm Tóibín replied: "Suffering is too strong a word, but writing is serious work. I pull the stuff up from me – it's not as if it's a pleasure".

This was a more temperate response than that of some other writers, who make a point of telling you how arduous the act of creative writing can be – Scottish novelist AL Kennedy's new book, On Writing (Cape), has much to say about the agonies of her self-chosen calling.

But saying that it's not a pleasure still serves to perpetuate the notion that there's something more heroically demanding – and, by extension, more important – about the artistic life than about the lives of the rest of struggling humanity.

So it's cheering to recall the late novelist Brian Moore who, when asked about artistic suffering, insisted instead not just on the sheer fun to be had from creating fiction but on the financial rewards and comfortable life it had brought him, too.

Still, if the creative act is not a pleasure for Colm Tóibín, he has the rare gift of making it so for the reader, as he shows yet again in this week's New Yorker, which contains an engrossing new story by him, Summer of '38, about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War.


Like AL Kennedy, English novelist Ian McEwan is another agoniser, disclosing in a Guardian essay that he has moments when his "faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse".

Such heretical doubting, he says, "creeps into the wide gap that separates the finishing of one novel and the start of the next. It's not a block, it's not really a long night so much as a matter of profound indifference" – until finally, of course, "you return yet again to the one true faith".

Gosh, some people take themselves very seriously. Just get on with it, Ian.

Irish Independent

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