Why Write? A Question Answered

My, but Colm Tóibín is a grumpy old soul. Today’s Guardian reports this interview he gave to The Manchester Review, focussing on its choicer moments.

Interviewer: Could you describe the experience of writing in your early years, compared to how it feels to write now? Is there a difference? Did you get a powerful rush of good feeling from writing good passages then, or a rush of pleasure from getting praise then? Do you get less of a rush now from success or praise? Or perhaps it’s the other way round?

Tóibín: Oh there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me. I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it. I don’t read reviews now.

Interviewer: Which of your books did you most enjoy writing?

Tóibín: No enjoyment. No, none.

Interviewer: What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?

Tóibín: The money. I never knew there would be money. It is such a surprise. And I like not having to leave the house in the morning. Yes, the money.

Interviewer: Is there nothing else you enjoy about your life as a writer?

Tóibín: It is not for enjoyment. It has nothing to do with enjoyment. I like selling foreign rights, but that feeling would last no longer than 20 minutes.

I particularly like the notion that if he did happen to start enjoying himself then he ‘would disapprove’ of the enjoyment. I wonder if he’s also available for children’s parties?

The Guardian followed up the story by asking nine writers whether they enjoyed writing. You can read their answers here (including John Banville’s splendid exaggeration of the importance of his own profession over the discovery of fire, Agriculture, the Wheel, Medicine etc: ‘Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.’)

Me I love the writing part of writing, I enjoy the revising part considerably less (howsoever necessary it is), and I dislike the actual publication bit, the reading reviews and so on, even more. Plus I’m here to tell you all: the money aint so good. If money is your sole aim, you may want to think of a different career. [AR]



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7 responses to “Why Write? A Question Answered

  1. “Tóibín: The money. I never knew there would be money. It is such a surprise. And I like not having to leave the house in the morning. Yes, the money.”

    Die. Die. Die. Die. Die.

  2. He has a lovely second home in Spain, too; for when he gets bored of Dublin.

  3. Doug Cowie

    Indeed. As I’ve been writing this week, I’ve also been thinking about this question (not all the time, but it’s popped into my head at those moments when I’m getting distracted). I don’t think I really enjoy writing most of the time. But once a day I have a few minutes during which I’m actually enjoying myself. What I think this means is that I enjoy writing well; it’s just that it’s very hard to write well, and sometimes the struggle/effort to do so overwhelms or at least overshadows the enjoyment. But those fleeting moments make it worthwhile (see the interview with TC Boyle in last Saturday’s Guardian for another account: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/feb/28/tc-boyle-interview) Unlike Adam, I do actually enjoy the rewriting/redrafting part quite a bit. I like being able to see the whole shape of the thing, like a Tralfamadorian looking at time [I expect applause from all corners for this sci-fi allusion], and trying to figure out how to make certain things work better within that shape. I also take perverse glee in noticing the bad writing that I’ve managed to produce along the way. This probably stems from the amusement I took in reading, in the margin of the manuscript of the first draft of my first novel, a note written by Denise Riley, who has never been known to pull a punch in such situations: “Doug, this is unsubtle stuff.” The thing is, I knew that when I wrote whatever passage that comment was next to (I have a somewhat indistinct memory of it, happily). But I thought to myself at the time, “maybe I’ll get away with it.” I didn’t. “Doug, this is unsubtle stuff” is the alarm that my bullshit detector rings when I write, when I rewrite, and when I rewrite again. I find it surprisingly fun to hear it go off. The entire publication process I find frustrating and difficult, and as for reading reviews: it’s a blood-pressure-raising sin for which we’ll all go to writer hell (I doubt that writer heaven is a particularly crowded place). As for the money: the best advice I’ve ever heard from a writer about the practicalities of writing is: get a job that allows you to pay the bills and allows you enough time to write. At the time it was said to me, I thought, “naw, I’ll just write a book that makes me a lot of money.” By accident I actually did that; I trust the advice even more as a result of that particular experience. Thinking about the money invariably leads to bad, frustrated, unfun writing, or at least a bad, frustrated, unfun writing experience. And if you’re not getting anything out of it–whether it’s fun, or knowledge, or insight, or [fill in the blank]–then there’s not much point. And if you’re only in it for the money, then fine, but to paraphrase the late American author Frederick Busch, I don’t feel that your soul is one that my soul needs to commune with.

    See, we can all get “splendidly exaggerated.” (incidentally, I’m still convinced that Umberto Eco was right, nine years ago, when he wrote that the cultivation of the bean was the greatest advancement of the last millenium; take that, Banville!)

    And now, finally, it also occurs to me: what would the reaction be if Christiano Ronaldo (for example) were to say: “I hate everything about football, except the money”?

  4. Doug Cowie

    PS It seems my comment is longer than the post. Oops.

  5. Longer, and more interesting too.

    Tralfamadorian looking at time [I expect applause from all corners for this sci-fi allusion]…

    No dice. Vonnegut isn’t really SF, now, is he: he’s Literature. You’ll need a proper pulpy sf allusion from the depths of the Golden Age to win the applause.

  6. Doug Cowie

    See, now you go claiming David Foster Wallace for sci-fi, but you won’t give me Vonnegut?? As Robert A. Heinlein would say, “Kill the bugs.” Or whatever. Deeper into the depth of pulpy sci-fi: “The world was small now. You could probably walk around it in two months.”

    Clap your hands, say yeah.

  7. rhulcreativewriters

    You make a good point, sir.

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