Sex, children, friendship, health – by the experts (Tolstoy, Amis, Dickens, Mantel, Larkin and a few others)

At a reading given by Ian McEwan and Richard Ford, the question-and-answer session with the audience took an unexpected turn. One of the two novelists was asked about marriage and writing. There followed a strangely intense discussion about love and work, commitment and children – about life, in other words..

A hush descended on the auditorium. It was the real thing which was being explored here, and it was rather more absorbing than what had inspired Atonement or The Sportswriter. It seemed that the audience saw the two men not only as successful novelists, but as seers, top-of-the-range agony uncles.

On the face of it, that was an odd idea. The private lives of professional authors hardly suggest a profound level of emotional intelligence. Alain de Botton may have made his name with How Proust Can Change Your Life but there has been no sign of  a vogue for authorial self-help books – The Kingsley Amis Guide to Love and Marriage or Happiness the Virginia Woolf Way.

Yet the great authors have, down the centuries, been free with advice as to how writers should behave. There is much that we can learn from them in those tricky areas of life and work.

On health and writing

Some writers believe that their best work is done while suffering from a low-grade depression – nothing too devastating but a bracing, clear-eyed feeling of general unhappiness. AE Housman went further, revealing that he could only write when feeling “rather out of health”.

These are minority views, however. Hilary Mantel has famously said that her health improved as she started to write Wolf Hall. Georges Simenon took a more pro-active approach. Before starting on a new novel, he would go to the doctor in order  to ensure that he would be in good health for the time it took him to write a novel (11 days). If he fell ill mid-novel, he would throw away the chapters he had written and start all over again.

On sex

There is some disagreement here. Flaubert warned his friend Ernest Feydeau that ‘if you sow your wild oats… you will have none to put in your inkwell. That is the true vagina of men of letters.’ The reliably crushing Cyril Connolly was less graphic. A preoccupation with sex  was a  ‘substitute for artistic creation’, he wrote.

On the other hand, Tolstoy argued that prostitution was necessary for the maintenance of the family, while Baudelaire, in his Advice to Writers, declared that ‘a precocious taste for the world of women… gives birth to the superior geniuses.’

Less controversy attends the solitary version. Anthony Burgess claimed that writers were ‘at it like monkeys’ and,  more surprisingly, John Fowles agreed. ‘One can no more think of making fiction without onanism, or selfishness (ask our wives), than of the sea without waves,’ he once said.

On having children

Not a good idea, according to the great writers. Bruce Chatwin kept a quote by Sir Francis Bacon, ‘The Noblest workes and Foundations have proceeded from childlesse men’ in his notebook.

Modern writers agree. Philip Larkin cheerfully admitted that he disliked the young -  ‘Until I grew up I thought I hated everybody, but when I grew up I realised it was just children I didn’t like’  – and Richard Ford has taken the same view. Even without having had them, he saw children as ‘little hobbles around my ankle’. Another determined non-breeder Geoff Dyer has identified parenthood as a convenient excuse for failure. ‘The hamster not only loves his cage, but would be lost without it,’ he wrote in Out of Sheer Rage.

On being friends with other writers

Keeping literary company is regularly and rather primly discouraged. Ford Madox Ford advised authors to keep themselves at ‘a distance as considerable as possible from all other litterateurs’ while Graham  Greene described spending too much time with other writers as ‘a form of masturbation.’

More recently, Anne Tyler has made a similar point but  more tactfully. She was positively embarrassed when authors gathered to discuss writing, she told an interviewer. ‘It doesn’t seem like something you should talk about, because then you won’t be able to do it,’ she said.

On being a good citizen

Don’t bother. Cynthia Ozick has written an entire book on why the most talented authors are appalling members of society. ‘The good writer is rarely, if ever, a good man,’ wrote Peter Ackroyd expressing  the majority view.

On having a normal social life

Again, the advice is not encouraging. Dickens famously refused to accept dinner invitations. ‘“It is only half-an-hour,” — “It is only an afternoon”  -  “It is only an evening,” people say to me over and over again,’ he wrote. ‘They don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes.’ Flaubert took a similar line, confessing that the necessity of sitting at a dining-room table at a particular time filled his soul with a feeling of wretchedness.

Beryl Bainbridge articulated the problem with rather more humility. While writing a novel, she said,  ‘I don’t go out, don’t change out of my nightgown, don’t wash. About every five days, I’ll have a bath and scrape the dried egg off my nightgown.’

On living the life of a writer

It is almost all bad news. John Wain’s view that ‘being a writer isn’t a profession – it’s a condition’ is the majority verdict. For Simenon, ours was ‘a vocation of unhappiness’, for Conrad,  ‘un metier de chien’.  Anita Brookner has said that she could ‘get into the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s loneliest, most miserable woman.’

Even the better aspects of an author’s life somehow tip the balance in favour of the outside world. ‘Writing saved my life,’ Thomas Kenneally has written. ‘It also allowed me to realise that things like grandchildren and how you lived your life are even more important than writing.’

The blog was published as the Endpaper column in the winter edition of The Author. A mighty archive of authorly advice can be found in my Writer’s Shed here. On most days, I post two of my Writers’ Rules, quotes on writing and life by great and not-so-great professional writers of the past and present,  on Twitter under the hashtag #writersrules.