Writing about writing, and in particular about why I do it, is the hardest topic of them all. It involves the kind of introversion which comes naturally to writers, but multiplied and distilled. It is turning the tool, or the weapon, on yourself. If I think back in time to why I originally wrote stories, I find it easier.
When I wrote my very first short story that was not part of some school assignment, it came from a simple place. I had some time, I had an idea for a story, and do not remember where it came from, but I enjoyed the thrill of developing a plot and some characters and seeing what happened to them. At the time, Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series was all the rage with my classmates. It was a set of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books with a dice and some clever role play ideas. This was the mid 1980s and I was 9 or so. I enjoyed reading, yes, but the experience of making your own story was massively more satisfying. And the internet didn’t exist.
By the time I wrote my first novel during my second year at university, the internet had barely begun to exist. I still got a lot of fun from writing, but there was a new motive. It was a very clear one to a student in a grey northern city. The motive was money. Michael Ridpath had, unusually for a writer, made almost as much money writing books as he did as a trader in the City. Or a stockbroker, or whatever it was he did. He wrote a couple of thrillers about high finance, and they sold unbelievably well. He did the foreword to some Writer’s Digest books with titles like How To Write a Mi££ion.
Time passed. I graduated and got a real job. I moved to London. I moved back away from London. I moved jobs. But eventually I started writing again, and I feel like I have a healthier set of reasons to write, and a lot more experience of both life and the writing craft. I’m writing my first literary novel, which to me means it is not high concept, or plot-driven, or too unbelievable. It’s not about spies or space aliens. It’s about two people, professional musicians, following their dreams. I’m not writing for money any more. I learned the truth behind that pretty quickly. I feel like I’m doing it because I want to. The initial thrill is still there: to write captivating stories involving believable, realistic people. The more you do it, the better you get. And the better you get, you realise there is so much more to this than ever meets the eye to a reader, even an avid reader. Only the writer knows the terror emitted from a blank page.
I do it because it puts me in good company. Even if I’m just doing a diary each day, or a few days a week, I’m in there with Hemingway and Orwell and Greene. If I write a couple of letters (and apologies to the random assortment of strangers who have received one from me) then that’s even better. These things, this writing practice, helps me to understand the world and my place in it. No, really. I do a blog post here, a tweet there. Anything is easier than working on the current book. But the fascination is still there, the love of solitude, the freedom it gives you to think profoundly about almost any topic that draws your eye. The skill of making plain your ideas to a wide range of unseen readers. English, or any other language, is never as precise as your true internal thought.
And now that I’m back in London, or near enough, I have started rubbing shoulders with real writers. Ones with real publishers. And they’re not as different from me as my younger self ever imagined. They work hard, they worry, they see it for what it is, and still they persevere, but they’re only human. Almost nothing else offers you a chance of immortality as writing does. And as you approach middle age, mortality starts to become a topic to write about in a totally new way.
P. C. Dettman publishes speculative fiction as Paul Charles, and is currently writing a novel about a drug dealing pianist and the best tenor sax player in England. You can find his books here, or say hi to him on Twitter.