It’s the school holidays in my part of France. Every holiday, I think, ‘Yippee! No work: plenty of time to write.’ And every holiday unexpected clouds shroud the blue sky of my writing time. I’m left with a couple of hours of serenity in the morning before my kids stir up the air currents with their waking calls of ‘Maman!’
Am I complaining?
Of course not. My children bring meaning to my life. I count myself lucky.
In Joël Dicker‘s novel, ‘The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair’, one character says that life has no meaning, and that writing brought meaning to his life. This resonated with me when I read it (there are lots of other thought-provoking ideas for writers in this book, by the way).
Writing brings meaning to my life, too. Every morning I get up, go to my story setting and have a cup of tea with my characters. They confide in me. I listen and try to help them achieve their aims, though I know they can’t all get what they want because they’re in conflict with each other.
Having a story to tell and decisions to make about the plot – i.e. playing God in my fictive world – brings meaning to my life. It gives me a reason to be needed (even if it is only in my fictive world!). And being needed means I have a role to play, which is a great reason to live. As long as I don’t just live in my fictive world.
What’s difficult is finding a balance between writing and living real life. Most writers aren’t paid for their work – not at first. We have to decide what we’re prepared to sacrifice in order to make time to write.
When I was in my early twenties I took part in a Raleigh International expedition. To raise funds for the trip, I sold a written account of each day of the expedition, to be delivered on my return. This meant that I had to find time each day (lying under a makeshift bivouac in a wet sleeping bag, wearing wet socks, in flickering torchlight) to write notes. When the expedition finished, I continued travelling with a friend. I wrote up the daily accounts from my notes while he met people and had fun. He told me that I was missing out on life while I wrote. Little did I know that his observation would stay with me for so long.
Writing is a lonely task. When you sacrifice time that could be spent with family or out discovering life (or earning a decent salary), you’re not only missing out on experiences: it can feel as if you’re being selfish. You ask yourself whether the sacrifices are worthwhile. You ask yourself what the point is, when nobody reads what you write. You’re not sharing or contributing anything to real life.
People often think that getting published is about ego, about being able to say, ‘I’m a published writer’. It’s true that recognition is important in any profession, and having your work chosen for publication is a form of recognition. But it’s also a way of being able to give something to other people. Publication transforms a selfish action into a contribution to society. It allows you to reach people and communicate with them.
Of course, writing doesn’t always mean neglecting real life. A few years ago I was commissioned to write features for a magazine. I interviewed people I’d never otherwise have met, and took guided tours of places I’d never have bothered visiting. I realised that the goal of producing a written piece of work made me take notice of my surroundings. It demanded investment in real life. It was great fun as well, especially when I took the kids along.
I’m not writing magazine features at the moment, but I do sometimes pretend that I am. It makes me pay attention and want to explore. It brings meaning to life. Suddenly, the science museum becomes a source of ideas. Out comes my notebook. In it, I write: ‘L’univers se compose d’une soupe de quarks, gluons etc.’ I’m sure there’s a story to write about quark soup.