Why do writers write? Because they read, of course – not only books, but the world around them – and they cannot quite leave it at that.
All writers enquire into the origins of their way of life, at some point in their career – and most often the trail leads back to some encounter with words in youth or childhood, and an imaginative experience of transformative intensity. Something is read, in the word or the world, and the impulse to answer in a language of your own is woken. An impulse to describe, to make known, to perform, and to realise.
Every writer carries their own creation story around with them – and each one will be as different as one person is from the next. No matter how they get there, however, the essentials will have taken root: reading for pleasure, and the practice of writing.
It’s a truism that writers must read, and writers must write. Imagine a musician who didn’t listen to music, or practise their instrument. Becoming a writer – as opposed to someone who writes purely at leisure – means integrating these essential processes into your life, and (at some level, at least) dedicating yourself to them.
I’m thinking here of those who would wish to be known as writers – who wish, in other words, for others to know their work. Writing for publication is twofold in nature: it still has an experiential significance for you, as the writer – but (if you’re doing your job) it also travels beyond yourself, carrying the potential to have some operative effect upon your readers, too. That focus – on the potential in the writing, for others to experience – is a distinguishing mark of the dedicated writer.
Writers are also perpetual students. Finding the time, space, and sound advice to develop your practice can be particularly crucial at the early stages, when you might still be learning how to learn. As well as reading and writing on your own, this is where creative writing classes and courses of the kind now offered by universities across the country, and organisations such as Arvon and the Poetry School, can be most useful. Indeed, if they’re any good, these courses will have an inherent value, whether or not you carry on writing afterwards.
Publication remains the key to earning a living as a writer – not necessarily because it will bring six-figure advances, but because it is through publication that the writer finds an audience, makes connexions, and participates in the culture on something like their own terms.
The process of connexion is vital to any writer. Get to know your local and national literature development agencies, for starters: we are particularly well served in the heart of England by Writing West Midlands. One thing really does lead to another in the writing life: most writers supplement publication income through commissions, public speaking, teaching, and other projects. These things come about through meeting people, and through your credentials as a writer. Once the doors open, the task is to get on with it – and to keep in touch with all of the processes you know, by now, that you’re writing depends on.
If I had to conceive an idea of the writer for the twenty-first century – whatever form they work in – it would be as a roving, independent cultural agent in the world: a maker of substance in words. The way is yours to find. As Goethe’s Mephistopheles says: there is no path. It is untrodden.