To Be an Author
If, when I am older, I shall wear purple, then when I am published I shall wear fine tweeds, a silk cravat and carry a cane-stemmed umbrella. I will spend all day relaxing in a padded leather chair, smoking expensive tobacco and dictating my thoughts to an army of personal assistants. I will lecture at university and have my pens warmed in the heaving bosoms of nubile students. Critics will love me. My life will be a blur of book tours, celebrity interviews and cocktail parties. Yeah, right.
The reality of being an author, I would imagine, is far from the stereotypical image of someone in tortoiseshell glasses who writes a bestseller every year. It is still a job. Deadlines have to be met and books sold. Pressure to perform would, perhaps, be greater than many day jobs. There’d be no excuse for writer’s block. Publishers would demand a sense of urgency and self-discipline that would crush someone with a nine-to-five mentality. Personal sacrifice would go with the job. You’d write, get paid, and then write some more. Life would be an endless barrage of words, editor’s remarks and critics’ flailing’s. Then, if you’re lucky, you might connect with a reader or two and savour a glimmer of success. It’s hard life. But we crave it anyway. For the recognition, the lifestyle, the legacy and the money.
As I see it, there’s a difference between being a writer and being an author. A writer has to write. The creative spark keeps igniting ideas that wake him or her in the night and which results in notebooks left in every room of the house. To be an author is to have that writing published, which triggers all the usual production, sales and marketing activities of a business product.
So, being an author is to have a toe in the creative pool and a foot in the vat of commerce.
Being able to make a living from writing, at least from book sales, is not easy. Many of my author friends exist on less than the minimum wage. But what they sacrifice in hard cash, they gain in lifestyle. Being able to work when and wherever they choose – be it a study, garden shed or park bench – gives them the flexibility to exist in a way that matches the mood of the day. How nice it must be to lie in bed each morning and think, "Hmmm, I wonder where I shall write today?” Sunny days might be spent outdoors, lying on a picnic blanket, chewing on a grass stalk and scribbling away; wet or cold days might be spent beside an open fire in in the quiet corner of a pub, eating steak and ale pie and writing on the back of a beer mat. Where the writing takes place doesn’t matter to a publisher, but it matters a great deal to the author.
Last year was the closest I’ve come to existing like an author. I lived by a lake and wrote each evening. I savoured the riches of freedom and met all my writing obligations. My employer was none the wiser. But now I’m back in the routine of work and my only ‘author’s days’ are the occasional ‘Saturfriday’ working from home, when the phone never rings and my study looks remarkably similar to the local river.
An artist friend of mine spends every summer in the French Riviera, selling his paintings to tourists. He earns enough to return to his native Wales each winter, where he lives a simple life in a slate cottage by the coast. He’s worked and lived like this for the past thirty years. His life is the perfect balance of productivity, commercial success and time for himself. Often I have seen him in his front garden in Wales, sitting in the sun with his feet up, smoking a cigar or drinking a Martini. It’s all part of his daily routine that helps him keep things real. His mantra, which he imparts on passers-by, is, "I like to start slowly, and then ease up as the day progresses”. It’s had a lasting impression on me, proving that one can be productive and successful by pacing oneself and making time for the niceties of life.
Life doesn’t have to be a relentless, blindfolded sprint into a brick wall.
If you’re smart, and remain focused on what’s important, then you can enjoy the best that life has to offer. All that’s needed is a little routine. Something that being an author, or someone in control of his or her daily affairs, can achieve.
I have a ‘homeshirking’ day tomorrow. I’ve decided that atmospheric conditions will be such that there will be no mobile phone signal. Ravenous starlings will have pecked through the telephone lines and an apprentice road worker will have dug through anything else that might enable the outside world to contact me.
I am planning an author’s day, one defined by routine, output, and balance.
My plan for tomorrow is thus: the day will begin just before dawn with my usual walk along the lane, where I will pause by my favourite stile in the hedgerow and watch the sun melt the horizon. I’ll sit on the stile and make notes for the writing I’ll do later in the day, and then I’ll return home to enjoy a pot of tea and a simple breakfast. Bubble and squeak with two fried eggs is on the menu. I’ll then ‘retire’ to my study, where I’ll sketch out the storyboards for a few chapters, probe ideas and work up angles for my observations. ‘Elevenses’ will see me back in the kitchen making a brew, and then walking around the garden with a mug of tea in my hand. Then it will be back into the study to write the first draft of the chapter. Lunch will be a cheese ploughman’s and a pint of ale at my local pub. While eating, I will be reading and editing what I’ve written that morning. I’ll then take a leisurely walk back to my cottage where I’ll make another pot of tea before finalising the chapter. Afternoon tea will be taken in the garden, and shall consist of elderflower cordial and some Welsh cakes while reading a few chapters of a favourite book. If the weather’s nice then I’ll stay in the garden, drafting out more ideas before Mrs H returns from work. After dinner, she and I will go for a walk along the river to watch the mayflies dancing. Then we’ll come home to resume reading our books, before Mrs H heads to bed and I return to my study, to continue writing until I can stay awake no longer.
My plan is as idealised as it gets, and it will probably go out of the window once I start writing (never interrupt an author when he or she is ‘in the zone’, else you’ll understand the real meaning of "writer’s nib”). But the thought of tomorrow is enough to make my shoulders relax; my breathing slow down and a contented smile appear upon my face. How nice it will be to exist like that. To write at my own pace, to see and experience that which matters while still meeting production schedules and the needs of a paying audience. And it can be done, as my artist friend has proved, if we stick to the routine, and remember what’s important.
Perhaps I should purchase that padded leather chair and order a supply of small and very hard to find pens? Maybe I should get some calling cards printed with the words ‘literary genius’ embossed upon them and then phone my bank manager to prepare him for a deluge of royalty cheques? It all sounds good.
The only problem is that I like to start slowly, and then ease up as the day progresses.
This is a sample chapter from A Writer’s Year, Fennel’s Journal No. 3
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