Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I was having a conversation only the other day, with someone who must have been intelligent and smart, because he asked me one of the best questions anyone could actually ask me – “Jonathan Dodd? Not THE Jonathan Dodd?” I had never (really) asked myself how I would react to this question, but it turned out that my first thought was this – “Oh dear! They’ve finally caught up with me!” But before I could follow this rather alarming train of thought, I realised that he recognised my name from this very column, and confirmed that he did indeed regularly read it.
Not exactly fame, but a gratifying feeling of blissful recognition that any writer the world over will understand. I always bang on about writers only ever writing for themselves, as opposed to journalists and reporters, who report to an editor, and those who write professionally for other people, such as ghost-writers. These are mainly unknown writers employed to do the actual word thing for celebrities who can’t quite get round to creating that all-important and highly-valuable autobiography, or the writers of books that are not sold for their literary ability, such as ‘Best-Selling Novel-Writing for Idiots’. I must read that one.
Other opinions, beliefs and guiding principles are available
Even better is when someone actually names a column that they enjoyed, and has something interesting to say about it. To all of you who actually read any of this guff, Thank You, and it really is my pleasure. How on earth would I ever know what I think about anything unless I write it down and read it, or had the opportunity to converse on that subject with someone. If I ever understood how we become who we are, or how we arrive at the opinions and beliefs and guiding principles that permeate our lives, be assured that I would explain it all here. And I fully understand that other opinions, beliefs and guiding principles are available, even though they’re wrong.
As I said, writers principally write for themselves, for whatever reason or urge. Why precisely they’re impelled to do so is quite beyond me. I just know that I feel I have failed if I don’t manage to get this column submitted by Sunday morning, and I always feel that I’ve failed every month when I report a continuing lack of progress on my so-called novel to everyone at my writers’ group. For me it’s a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous – “I’m Jonathan, and I’m a writer” – except it’s the failure to produce words rather than the need for alcohol that I’m announcing to all those present.
Some sort of thing that my self-image demands of me
I don’t think it’s an addiction. It certainly isn’t a habit, because, heaven knows, getting myself to sit down in front of the keyboard and producing these words is never anything less than a struggle. It seems to be some sort of thing that my self-image demands of me. I know I write, and I believe I write well. In the absence of any particular skill or flair in any other area, it may be that I feel I should not waste it, so it feels important that I don’t just write well, but that I write something worthwhile.
I also read a lot. I haven’t read an article about any writer, ever, in which their advice isn’t as follows – “Write something every day, and read everything you can”. My trouble is that I read so many wonderful books, and I have so much admiration for those literary heroes of mine, that I can’t see how I could ever aspire to join their ranks, even though that is, if I’m to be brutally honest, what I would like best in the whole world. Some days I just wish I could play the guitar well (I’m a bit of a three-chord man who has a lot of trouble with finger-picking), or that I could draw something that looked like an adult drew it without the help of hallucinatory drugs. But writing it is, and it’s stuck with me as much as I’m stuck with it.
“Just get on and write it!”
If I asked myself what I want from my writing, the answer is easy. I want to be able to meet Philip Pullman without falling to the ground and abasing myself. I’d like to shake hands with Neil Gaiman and look him in the eye. I’d like to compare techniques with Margaret Atwood. I’d like to go to the Booker Prize dinner, not even as a candidate. I’d like to hear my latest novel being debated on Radio 4 by earnest presenters. I’d like to be invited on the strength of my writing to nominate eight pieces of music on Desert Island Discs. Nothing much, really. I suppose that the things that come with such notoriety, as in lots of money, interviews, events and literary festivals, would be quite pleasant too.
I know that this is all pie in the sky, most likely, but this dream persists. People ask me why I don’t “just get on and write it!”, and I have no answer, except that it’s not so simple. But I’m kidding myself. Everyone who ever achieved anything knows that it’s a long and rocky road, whether you’re trying to climb mountains, or go into Space, or learn to be a Neurosurgeon, or just master the Moonlight Sonata on the piano. You have to have some natural ability, a lot of desire, bucket loads of bloody-mindedness, the ability to keep going whatever hurdles appear in front of you, and rather a lot of luck. And, in my case, the ability to plot.
Things that are not-quite-too-outrageous
I can write characters, I can describe stuff, I can interest a reader, but I don’t seem to be able to place all of that into a story that’s at once epic and thrilling, that contains events and activity that flows and comes to a satisfying climax, leaving the reader wanting more. I’m constantly amazed by the kind of thing Life itself throws my way, and I want to find the celestial entity that thinks up these outrageous concepts from nowhere for me to deal with. Real life often makes me shake my head in disbelief. I was once told by a teacher that writers have to tone down reality because readers would simply not believe the sort of outrageous things that really happen if you include them in a book of fiction.
I have a lot of trouble making up the sort of things that are not-quite-too-outrageous but also interesting and challenging enough to keep the plot going. Or so I say to myself. I know there are three things that hold me back. The first is a simple lack of self-belief. Do I believe that I have as much talent as my writing heroes? I think maybe I don’t. But I also think they probably feel exactly the same about their own heroes.
The daily negotiation with time
The second is that I know how much time and trouble a novel takes, to write, and to rewrite and edit endlessly, and then to submit it endlessly to agents and publishers, and then to get to the place where it’s published, without the thought of it fizzling out and disappearing without a trace. I balk even at the thought of putting myself through that, with the likelihood of failure enormously greater than the possibility of success. The third thing is the daily negotiation with time, and my inability to justify all that time, when there are so many other calls on my time, with far more pressing needs. I’m not sure I’m either committed enough, or that I have enough belief in myself to struggle with all of that. And yet. And yet.
I realise that this is the conversation that happens inside the head of every person who ever lived and wanted something. Good or bad, lofty or debased, ambition and drive has always been a struggle between the desire to succeed and practically everything and everyone else. There are only three scenarios possible. The first is to withdraw, lower your expectations, and avoid any situation where such an idea might occur. You need to persuade yourself that this is not for you, you have other, more pressing things to do, you need to avoid disappointment, be happy with less, it’s only dreams.
To do at least something
The second scenario is to do at least something. Like me writing these columns, and those short stories. I keep the dream alive, and I satisfy some of my creative desires, and I make excuses about the rest. It’s a matter of dipping your toes in the water and staring at the other shore rather than trying to swim across the lake. The third is to throw everything into the effort and ignore other people or responsibilities, put on the blinkers, and keep working towards that goal, way ahead, and shimmering, like a finishing line, or a mirage.
I know this is something everyone probably experiences, and everyone struggles with the same difficulty at some point in their lives, and we all come to our own particular uneasy compromise with it. I’m not sure that those who are successful ever get peace and relief from success, but I’m sure it would be at least some consolation. Otherwise, why would we do it? Perhaps the struggle is the real thing, like a journey being more important than the destination. Perhaps there is no ultimate destination, because every destination has to be reached before realising that the journey has to continue. I’ve enjoyed my writing journey so far, and I have no idea where it’s actually going to take me.
But I have to keep going, and I probably have to travel harder.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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