On some useful attributes for a writer

There comes a moment when the excitements of buzzing literary gossip become wearisome, and the yearning for golden critical opinions, mind-boggling sales, perhaps the odd little prize, begins to fade. You are a writer. Your basic needs are simple. You want to be left alone to write stories, and then be paid for them by a polite, grateful publisher. Surely that cannot be too much to ask.

But it is. A chill wind is blowing down Freelance Avenue, rattling the shutters of all but those who live at the smart of the street. Alternative options have to be considered.

So when a tentative enquiry comes in as to whether you would be prepared to write an instructional manual on how to write a novel, you suppress your immediate reaction – a loud, derisive “Hah!” like the Arabella Weir character in The Fast Show – and begin to think about it.

Would it be that difficult? Take away the froth and flim-flam surrounding publication, and the remaining list of requirements for living the literary life are easy to summarise. In fact, the problem would be to trick out the ten basic requirements for being a writer into a full-length book.

1. A moderately unhappy childhood.
To establish what Cyril Connolly describes in The Enemies of Promise as “the necessary unhappiness without which writers perish”, it is useful, but not essential, to have had a rather miserable early life. Full-out tragedy can have a long-term de-stabilising effect – no one wants to end up sobbing on the sofa on a daytime TV show – but some light bullying, mildly dysfunctional parents, and sustained periods of bewildered loneliness will serve you in good stead once the muse kicks in.

2. A lovely English teacher
If you are lucky, some gentle, generous soul will nurture the tender garden of your talent while you are at school. Or so one has heard; one’s own English teacher inculcated nothing but a over-fondness for the semi-colon and a hysterical aversion to the first person singular.

3. A traumatic incident in your teens.
You don’t want to talk about it. Even now, the memory of those feelings of helplessness, fear and, inexplicably, shame never quite leaves you. In a very real sense, virtually everything you write is an attempt to come to terms with that awful incident, whatever it may have been.

4. A rich spouse.
Only a few authors are lucky enough to be able to live off private means. The rest have to rely on the writerly skills of telling a story, creating an atmosphere and developing a credible fictional character to help them find someone who will relieve them of that awful burden of having to earn a living. The right marital combination of mammon with art, of the creative with the practical, of imaginative wealth with wealth of the more conventional kind can work to the satisfaction of at least one half of the team.

5. A shed
Hilary Mantel can work all night, Jacqueline Wilson can write on a train, but getting up at three in the morning or taking out a season ticket to Virgin Rail will not automatically bring you success. You need routine, and a quiet spot where you can lie down, close your eyes and work on that all-important dream-time without being interrupted by the trivia of the outside world. A simple building with a sound system, computer, TV and well-sprung sofa-bed will answer the needs of most authors.

6. An ecstatic but doomed affair.
The connection between adultery and good writing has yet to be statistically proven but you would be wise to play safe. If Connolly had written a sequel to his great work called The Friends of Promise, the glass of wine on the bedside table might have become as emblematic as the pram in the hall. Eventually, of course, a renewed sense of moral purpose will oblige you to part with your lover in order to avoid the heart-rending loss of income involved in a divorce and but even now, mid-chapter in your shed, you find yourself dreaming of what might have been.

7. A cap.
It is a mystery of the writing life why wearing a hat invariably helps an author write better prose. Nothing too zany should be attempted – the wrong hat can actually leech colour out of the brain – and the headwear should always look well-worn. A frayed and faded hat can speak more eloquently of literary endeavour than a shelf-full of author copies.

8. Difficult children who finally come through
“Decent”, “straightforward”, “generous”, “selfless”: no self-respecting author will want to be on the receiving end of those kind of slurs, which, in the writing world, can be summarised in the single word, “ordinary”. Like your books, which are frankly as lot more revealing than you imagine, the way you have brought up your children is a good indicator of your personality. They should ideally be complicated yet emotionally sound, brilliant and yet attractively diffident about the talent which they have inherited from you.

9. A stylishly unstylish car.
Authors who drive something serviceable, dull, tidy but tinny will find that their prose shares the same qualities. You should avoid the unnecessarily flash and the embarrassingly economical and have a car with a certain indefinable character. No serious novelists gives any item of machinery a name.

10. Moods.
You may have a rich spouse and be surrounded by difficult but brilliant children but you are still an author and loneliness of the soul is a badge of professional honour. Now and then, civilians need to be reminded that you have several layers of skin less than non-writers and, to make this point, you should frequently reach for one of your many, off-the-shelf moods. To avoid the unlikely risk of being a thought a crashing bore, you should limit the duration of a creative crisis – or “sulk” as it is known in the outside world – to a maximum of three months.

Winter 2005