writing for pleasure

The second edition of the excellent Manchester Review includes an interview by MJ Hyland with Irish novelist Colm Toíbín in which he somewhat controversially claims there is “no pleasure” to be found in the process of writing:
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.

Toíbín’s response, which was picked up by the Guardian on Monday, fascinates me precisely because personally, I couldn’t feel more different. I don’t think there’s any way I would ever write anything if I didn’t love the process of writing. Narcissistic or not, like Will Self - one of nine writers surveyed by the Guardian in response to Toíbín - I find the whole experience of writing enormously enjoyable: “the mechanics of writing, the dull timpani of the typewriter keys, the making of notes - many notes - and most seductive of all: the buying of stationery.” Maybe it’s because I don't do it for a living - or maybe it’s because of the kind of writing I do - but unlike Amit Chaudri, who believes “writing novels is no fun; nor is, generally speaking, reading novels” - for me writing (and reading for that matter, novels more than anything else) has always been a source of uncomplicated pleasure.

In fact, just thinking about this makes me sorry that I seem to do so little writing of fiction these days - I struggle to find either the time or the imaginative space to give to it. But I do miss writing more regularly and consistently, for the sheer experience far more than any actual ‘outcomes’. What I miss is the utterly self-indulgent pleasure of what A.L. Kennedy describes as “making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it, and hours of absence from self.”


Of course, I don’t pretend that writing - and especially writing fiction - isn’t hugely difficult. In fact, it's often a fraught process, with all the pitfalls that Hari Kunzu pinpoints “self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you've nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting.” But it’s exactly that sense of a challenge, of problems to be overcome, of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in your path that makes writing fulfilling - and thus (or perhaps I’m just a masochist!) also ultimately enjoyable.

Consequently, I was surprised how many of the novelists in the Guardian’s survey appeared to agree with Toíbín, some even claiming they were simply in it for the cold, hard cash - though amongst the wealth of negative voices, Self and Julie Myerson (“Writing gives me enormous pleasure...it’s a joyous thing”) provided welcome relief. 

However, I have to say that I am tempted to take all of their responses with a pinch of salt - for as Joyce Carol Oates herself rather perspicaciously reminds us, D.H. Lawrence tells us to trust the tale and not the teller. Ultimately one can’t help suspecting that these writers are simply entering into a process of self-mythologising, consciously or unconsciously believing they should uphold the stereotype of the “tortured artist.” Of course everyone’s different, and my experience isn't necessarily true for everyone, but I do wonder if there’s just a tiny little bit of “protesting too much” going on here.

I'd be intrigued to know what others out there make of the question of "writing for pleasure". For those writers out there, is the process of writing something you enjoy, or is it just too fraught to be truly pleasurable? And if so - for those of us unable to command fees for our work on the Toíbín scale at least - what do you think it is that motivates us to do it at all?

3 comments:

5 March 2009 at 20:35 Jo said...

Good post Katherine, I am by no means a writer but I would like to think that there is pleasure to be had in escaping to a world where you make the rules and perhaps live as an alter ego.
Hmmm. An interesting one to think about.

6 March 2009 at 18:59 Steph Barton said...

Do I enjoy writing? Or do I enjoy thinking about writing? The pleasure is in the ideas, I think, rather than the hard work of putting them to paper. That is the daunting, tedious part. I love hand writing things, and I love the shape of words, but it's not always fun having to ensure they make sense.

Most of all, I love having written. The deep pleasure of leafing through those pages of satisfying biro-scribble endows the memory of writing with a retrospective joy. It makes you want to subject yourself to the whole excruciating process all over again.

Like birth hormones.

(I'm told. I don't actually know anything about birth hormones.)

13 January 2012 at 18:08 Unknown said...

Wow, I really felt a sense of kinship as I read your post. I have never seen my feelings about the actual process of writing so elegantly put into words. I have only recently began to build permanently on this love, not because I didn't want to before, I just didn't let myself believe I was "good enough". It is an escape for me so much more than even reading though it works in much the same way, allowing me to venture where I cannot go in real life. I am starting with children's stories. It is so much the fun of writing, changing, writing again until it seems like there really was an exact "something" I was suppose to have written in this life.