“A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.”
Ernest Hemingway knew a thing or two about the life of a hawk. His life is renowned for being a constant-corrida, the kind of life so out-there you don’t even know what to make of it. He boxed, fished, fought in wars, hunted big-game, loved, wrote – all impossibly difficult things to do. But he did them, throughout his life, unfailingly, with the devotion a Christian might feel towards Fatima.
But Hemingway was a one off. Few people think of writers that way. When you tell people you’re a writer they imagine a bloody owl. You come across as intellectual, dedicated maybe, and possibly talented, but always and always: reclusive and introverted. Harry Potter didn’t help. Harry Potter seldom helps: JK Rowling is the most recognisable writer of our generation. And she writes about bloody owls. You know?
She’s a philanthropist, a Labour-party supporter, lives in the UK… and that’s about as much as I know about her. Granted, I’m hardly an authority. I unashamedly admit to never having read or seen anything Harry Potter – and this isn’t snobbery, it’s just not my taste, simple as. Along the same lines I rarely drink wine. Not out of snobbery. I just prefer beer. And I certainly cannot doubt Rowling’s dedication to her craft; you do not write that much by being a part-time, half-arsed writer. You just don’t. So fair play to her. Not a bad going making yourself richer than the queen, after all.
Another crucial writer of our times, Ian McEwan, in an interview also derided the idea of too many writers being sequestered on campuses, and encouraged young writers to follow the models of Saul Bellow and John Updike, to leave behind academia, and immerse yourself in Chicago, the suburbs, the rest of the world, wherever your fragment of it may be. Ian McEwan is an author I have read, and he is definitely onto something here.
When I was young my first addiction to writing came to me from writers like the French poet Arthur Rimbaud or the Andalucian Federico Garcia Lorca. These were men who lived life well, and combined a sanctimonious dedication to writing as well as a passion for, in the case of Rimbaud, absinthe, debauchery, Paris, and for Lorca, Spain, flamenco, gypsy and theatre. I was as interested in the way they lived their lives as I was in their writing. These, I would argue, are good models for writers to follow; the hawks and buzzards.
Our generation of writers, however, doesn’t seem to follow that model much. There is much inspiring literature around, but very few inspiring writers. Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest writers of our time, to take one example, and his life, much to his ill-luck, was hardly boring, and yet, as immortal and time-warping as his writing is, he is too much of a tweedy-academic writer to really inspire me, and, to change the way writers are viewed.
Now of course I don’t want to go the other extreme. Some of you by now might be envisioning Beat poets, Ginsbergs and Kerouacs, or heroin-hooped steampunk sort of thing. Being other just for the sake of being other is to be a Lady Gaga. So scratch that, please.
The most exciting people I know, have always known, and am beginning to know, are chefs, cooks, other people in catering, travellers and sportsmen. These are people whose lives are a convent dedicated exclusively to their passions. Chefs especially; I’ve spent many a night drinking with them, discussing the best wines they’ve drank, the best meals, the places they want to work in, the Michelin-stars, their mother’s food, the alcohol, the feasts… those are nights I’ll never forget. And look at the celebrity chefs of today, the Pierre-Whites, Bourdains and Ramsays… you can hardly call them bloody owls, can you? Compare them to our celebrity writers.
Even science is kinkier than writing these days! With the likes of Brian Cox and Jim al-Khalili on our screens today they have made science into, not an art, but a lifestyle. They make it chic, hardcore, travel the ends of the earth to get their scientific kicks, and, though I don’t know any scientists per se, I’m sure I’d prefer a night out with them, talking about, I don’t know, fossil-hunting in the Sahara or the joys of mathematics than a fellow-writer.
Why? Hell, I would never say writers are boring. The best of us are drill-sergeants with our art. But sometimes, lets reflect a little, and I don’t exempt myself from this criticism: we tend to be a bit too inward-looking. Too damn moody, reflective, and too damn Zen.
I think writers are hardcore. The best of us – and I say that to exclude diary-writers and emo-scribblers – are as freakishly dedicated to our art as chefs and footballers (and football fans). We collect books, we research, we go out, yes, experience life, report on it, make relationships difficult, are anal, particular, we are queer generals and exuberant loners. And as Hemingway also says, yes, writing is a lonely job.
But let’s face it, being a writer is only 10% about actual writing. Most of it is hunting, exploration, thinking, gunning-down the Muse, and just plain-old living, like everyone else. And it’s that other 90% that we need to glorify. There are many writers on social media who write about their lives, their habits, their travels and passions – but that’s not what I’m talking about.
Hemingway never had twitter, yet the whole world knew what cocktails he drank at what book stores what corrida he attended with what fellow-writer and what country he was in. Let me take another parallel from the culinary world; Anthony Bourdain. He was lucky enough to make television programmes about his travels around the world, eating the stuff that turned him on, drinking and learning from other cooks, enjoying himself, after all, above all. And in seeking out those perfect meals he looked for them in bars, in feasts, in farms, fields, everywhere; his approach to his art is holistic.
Ours is as well… isn’t it? Do we look for inspiration only in our politics, in our literature, our philosophy and meditation? Or do we seek it out in real people living real lives chasing out their dreams even when life oppresses them? How can we know any of these people, any of the stories the real world has to offer if we’re just sat around trolling Twitter? Would JK Rowling have written such fantasy, I wonder, if she went out there a little bit more? Real life is more exciting than literature’s greatest masterpieces. This shouldn’t dishearten us, it should fill us with unending wonder. The only problem we have is to choose the right story, the one that fits us, filtering it from the myriad available. The imagination is overrated and the world underrated at our peril.
Writing itself is hard. Damn hard. Harder than anything else. But inspiration, the part that takes up the other 90% of a writer’s life, is fun. Good fun. At least, it ought to be. To live a life conducive to good writing, all you have to do is dive in. Indulge, be hedonistic and Epicurean. Know how to enjoy the simple pleasures, but enjoy them hard. And yes, that includes reading, contemplation and philosophy too; but do those things on a beach somewhere, or on a boat in Vietnam, or in the heart of some mythical bookshop. Better than the vagaries of routine, no?
In the words of the Portuguese Nobel-prize winner Jose Saramago:
“In the end, I am quite normal. I don’t have odd habits. I don’t dramatize. Above all, I do not romanticize the act of writing. I don’t talk about the anguish I suffer in creating. I do not have a fear of the blank page, writer’s block, all those things that we hear about writers. I don’t have any of those problems, but I do have problems just like any other person doing any other type of work. Sometimes things do not come out as I want them to, or they don’t come out at all. When things do not come out as well as I would have liked, I have to resign myself to accepting them as they are.”
He has the right idea in de-bunking the myth of the spiritual writer. We are not millennial priests or gurus. We are workers who work hard, as hard as any chef or craftsman around. And just like any other worker, we need to take pride in our craft. For ours, unlike say stone masonry or mechanics, is a craft that can influence minds, generations, and ideologies. We don’t mean to, but we just might. So do take writing seriously, but for god’s sake, don’t be a bloody owl about it.