Monday, 4 January 2010

When is a door not a door - Joan Lennon

You will all have discovered the joys of IPlayer eons ago, but I'm just catching on - and one of the things I stumbled across recently was a series of talks by Alan Bennett, including one on Writing. My heart sank as I heard him say, in that inimitable voice, the following:

"A writer only feels he or she is a writer at the point of performance, the moment of writing. Do anything else, even related activities like research or background reading and the claim seems fradulent. A writer is only a writer when writing. The rest is marking time. And your published books and plays don't count. They only prove you were a writer yesterday ..."

Rats. Busted.

We all believe this, in spite of what we say to ourselves (and what others, in increasingly weary tones, tell us too) when we are not, in fact, writing. The need for fallow times, curing our ideas in the smoke of experience, letting our words lie in the dark, in oak casks, simmering gently, maturing like cheese - all the analogies we apply to our fear that we aren't really writers at all. Not anymore. Not this time. He says, "Put down the pen or abandon the keys and a writer is always on the brink of fraud." Talk about cold comfort.

It's the voice, I guess. Alan Bennett is just so believable when he speaks. I'd as soon quibble with David Attenborough. But since no one can write constantly, and all those fallow times will happen whether we need them or not, and feeling like a fake is not a good basis for a life, this is not a helpful definition of what we do. A little too bleak. A little too like a northern winter afternoon, about 3:30, in the rain.

Maybe I should forget about IPlayer, and just get on with my writing ...

Joan Lennon's website


Nick Green said...

Ah, but note that he says 'feels' and 'seems'. Not 'is'. On that basis, I agree with him entirely. In actual fact, the 'not writing' time is essential, of course it is. But we only feel confident to say 'I am a writer' when actually writing. That's just the nature of the beast.

Love Alan Bennett.

steeleweed said...

In my opinion, he can't see the forest for the trees. That's rather like saying Einstein wasn't really a scientist except when he was actually writing down E=MC**2 and all the observing and thinking that brought him to that point didn't count.

Ages ago, when I was a poet, it might take me days to create a poem, but only minutes to put it on paper. I am no longer a poet because while I still have the minutes, I lack the days.

Mr Bennett is correct only if he is echoing Sinclair Lewis' drunken advice to novice writers: "You dumb sonsabitches wanna write? Well, g'wan the hell home and write!"

Book Maven said...

W H Auden said he was a poet only in the act of writing a poem.

I disagree. I'm a writer through and through whatever I'm doing. I even make soup and stroke cats in a writerly way. It's all in the mind!

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree with the Book Maven. Being a writer determines the way I talk, the way I look at a landscape, the way I behave when I'm on a bus (listening to people's conversations). The time actually spent at one's desk is the cusp, maybe, but work IS done in the fallow periods. I find a day's grandmothering is marvellous for the writing, lots of things come clear in the act of pushing the buggy to the park, while singing nursery rhymes over adn over again!

Penny said...

Oooh! Aghhhh! And furthermore OUCH, OUCH OUCH, Joan. Maybe a little too much truth for so early in the year? Darn these modern inventions! Hope you have recovered some composure by now.

Yes, I know there's all those other things, Mary & Leslie & all, but personally finding time to face the words on the page is the hardest thing to do. Must go and check on the Christmas tree needles . . . Happy New Year, everyone.

Brian Keaney said...

Well I'll quibble with anyone (bring them on!) including David Attenborough. (What's his carbon footprint like, for God's sake?) And Alan Bennett too. I'm a writer even when I'm asleep.

Nick Green said...

Again - he said 'feels'! He said 'seems'! Not is!

It's about the guilt of not writing. At the end of the day, you can be a writer to your very bones, but if you don't at some point sit down and write, you'll never actually be a writer. I'm convinced that's what he means.

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, a writer all the time - even when faffing about on iTunes. Are you only breathing when you breathe out? No. All the rest that we do is the oxygen needed for the writing. OK, that analogy breaks down pretty quickly. I'll go skulk again.