You don’t sharpen your sword on the day of the battle.
I have been thinking about these words ever since they were said to me a short time ago, and their combination with an event I attended this week has lead to something of an epiphany. I’ve looked for an attribution to no avail, but the message continues to resonate; the key to being fully ready when your moment finally arrives is to be well prepared. While this might be easier said than done, there’s no arguing with it.
I’ve been writing from as early as I can remember. As a child, I can vividly recall the excitement induced by a blank page, and what poems and stories I might commit to it. English and speech and drama were my favourite classes, and after I got a typewriter aged ten, there was no stopping me as I prolifically hammered out all manner of tales and poems. I remember even writing to a publisher at the time for advice, and receiving a lovely letter back which left me in no doubt that it was a hard but rewarding road.
There has never been a time when I haven’t been writing something. In my teens, I added songs to the mix, and nowadays I mostly write reviews for the Coronation Street Blog, and Film Ireland as well as some prose and poetry.
Simply put, I write because I absolutely must. It is as essential to my existence as breathing, and I can’t imagine life without it.
But there is something you need to come to terms with if you want to be an author, and while I already knew it, the full weight of it struck me this week. In fact, it was in that letter from all those years ago; it is not an easy path.
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is one of the most wonderful books I have read in recent years, and when I heard she would be interviewed by Rick O’Shea in Dubray Books on Grafton Street, Dublin on Tuesday the 5th of July, having published her second novel, The Muse, I had to be there. I tiptoed through the impressive throng and was encouraged to take my place in the front row where there were still seats. I was instantly talking books and writing with a lovely lady next to me, and was in my element before Jessie even appeared.
I love to hear authors speak about what motivates them, how they engage in the writing process, and came to the profession. I’m similarly intrigued to hear the same from actors and admire both because, from any I’ve heard or spoken to, they are risk takers who embrace change and resist stagnation. I can fully identify with these needs and desires, and have certainly felt both their rewards, and the effects of denying them. They also recognise the importance of taking time to immerse themselves in life in order to draw on their experiences of the world for their art, and the resulting works of the best are evidence of just how essential this is to the creative process.
I’m not interested in meeting actors or writers as celebrities, even though they might be, but rather as people who have compelling stories to tell, and Jessie Burton’s was surely that.
I’ll always be grateful for the candid and honest nature of her interview. You might think that a budding author wants to be inspired by hearing how easy and amazing being published and living the life of an author is. Not I, as it turns out. Jessie’s description of having written 17 drafts of The Miniaturist, the rejections she received, the whirlwind that surrounded her when she was published and it sold a million copies, the pressure and the criticism, oddly, was exactly what I needed to hear at this moment in time.
Not only did I admire her even more for triumphing above it all, it made me realise the notion that being a writer was something idyllic was actually succeeding in placing me at a remove from it, and therefore frustrating me. I suddenly realised I could see writing as a state of doing or being rather than as a concrete achievement viewed through the polar lenses of success and failure, and with the potential to be unattainable or inaccessible to me.
I also marvelled on hearing that she wrote pieces of The Miniaturist on her phone, and in snippets of e-mails which she would send to herself and later collate into one document. Bram Stoker too is rumoured to have written Dracula while working and on the move using scraps of hotel paper. I’ve never thought I could succeed using such methods, but who can argue with the fact that it has worked for both of these authors. My favourite time for writing fiction is at dawn, in silence, at my home desk, with no distractions. But the reality struck me that I’m unlikely to get 17 pages, never mind 17 drafts of a full novel, written at a productive pace by restricting myself to that time and place.
As someone who is driven and always striving to achieve something new, I can fall into the trap of becoming frustrated when it’s taking me longer than I feel it should to get somewhere with something. All of this helped me come to an important realisation as to why I felt this way about the writing process.
Studying for eight out of the last eleven years, first for a BA in Film, Literature and Drama, and then for an MA in Film and Television Studies, satisfied the desire in me to write, and to succeed. With degrees, however, you are guaranteed that if you complete and do well at each module, essay, and thesis, there will be a reward at the end. But trying to become an author is not like that. You can love to write, and pen thousands of words, but you are not guaranteed to be published, or successful, or to be able to make a career from it. It is for this reason that sitting down at your desk to do so requires a very special discipline, self-belief, strength and persistence, all of which is entirely down to you, and you alone.
Frustrated desires can see you become engaged in a battle with yourself and the world, and allow stagnation and failure to become your greatest fears. It is for this very reason that I didn’t need to hear that the world of the writer is perfect. I needed to hear that it’s hard, but rewarding and worth the earning, just as the publisher said in their reply to my childhood letter. This knowledge makes the needless battles dissipate and calm descend to allow the redirection of the energy necessary to be the best I can be at what I love. I now know exactly what I need to do.
Now is not the time for battle.
Now is the time for sharpening my pencil.