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The Janus face of writing

The Janus face of writing

I'm supposed to be doing laundry, but I can't tear myself from my computer. I should be making the baby’s breakfast, but I'm writing. I ought to be heading out to vote – but I'm writing.

For writers, writing is a necessity, like breathing or (in my case) eating double-caramel Magnums. And by writers I don’t mean published writers, Writers with a capital W. I mean anybody with the compulsion to write, poorly or otherwise. For them – for us – writing is not just a hobby. It’s an urge that lives under your skin, making your fingertips itch, but it’s deeper too, embedded in your very being. Compelling you to spend the hours of four to six AM mulling over a single sentence, or to tap away on your phone while cycling in the hopes of getting a few lines down.

Writing, especially a novel – or trying to, anyway – requires a certain measure of arrogance. You need conceit to decide that, although this collection of scribbled pages may never amount to anything, they are important enough to dedicate hour upon hour to, at the cost of other work and your family.

Yet it is also supremely humbling. Because a first novel is always at least in part autobiographical, making it nothing short of cringe-worthy. And because after the downhill roll from mid-way through to close to the end, when you finally feel it’s all coming together, you pop out the other side and find that you’re utterly cross-eyed and hate every part of it, including the dots on the i’s and the crosses on the t’s.

In this, writing is similar to academia. You get into it because you were the smartest kid in class. But everyone else was too, and now they’re your superiors and grant-application assessors and journal reviewers. As a postdoc friend recently told me, her first journal article was accepted with only minor revisions. ‘Through dumb luck,’ she now says, but at the time she thought, I am nailing this. Now she is trying to get three other papers accepted, a process that takes your ego, chews it up and spits it out in a puddle. To survive which, you need to be able to call on that well of arrogance again.

Or perhaps just a novel-writer’s imagination, in the faint hope that it will all end happily ever after.

Alison Edwards

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