What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?


8 thoughts on “What is a writer?

  1. Flourish away, as poetically as you please. Loving your buffet metaphor and as always, your thoughtful reviews of your reading.

    As I age, (increasingly less gracefully judging by the passport photo I had taken yesterday), ancestry becomes more important to me. I think it informs my writing and probably most of my thoughts and speech. Everything is derivative, you might say, but that’s ok because we add layers of newness or a new perspective which is unique to the individual writing at the time.

    As to your title question, indeed, what is a writer? You are undoubtedly one, my friend; you write. Earlier today, as I scraped four years’ worth of moss and related detritus from the roof and gutters, I was reminded of one of the first books which had a profound impact on me. In ‘The L-shaped room’ by Lynne Reid-Banks, Toby the struggling writer talks of a man he knew who told his publisher he would meet his deadline as soon as he’d whitened his tennis shoes. ‘If I had any tennis shoes,’ he admits dolefully, ‘ I would definitely be whitening them now.’

    So anyway, back to that buffet…

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a definite element of irony to reading this, as I am about to head out and throw hay bales about, instead of developing the story idea that I started last evening and promised myself an hour on today.
      Thank you for your encouragement. You take my thoughts and move them on past the daily block of displacement activities, and expand them. The tedious household chores (gutters are impressive, I hope you’ve got a safe set of hands at the bottom of that ladder) will always get in the way, unless, like Iris Murdoch, we simply up sticks and move to a new premises whenever we’re overwhelmed by the clutter and disintegration around us.
      Great quote. I’d forgotten that, and the book had a strong effect on me too.


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