There are times when we all think that we will be discovered. That the game will be up. Surely anyone can write? Yes, the old adage that everyone has a novel in them dilutes a vocation that takes years to perfect and a lifetime to develop. No one ever says, ‘You know, everyone has a heart bypass in them’ neither do they bark, ‘Everyone has a good old killing in them, stabby-stab-stab’. They don’t even say, ‘Everyone has a painting in them’ but as an art, or profession, everyone can do our job; certainly most taxi drivers think they can judging by what they tell you and tell you loudly so you will write it. I have always been amused that everyone thinks they have a novel in them, they probably do but a good 99% of those novels will be shit. Sorry but a lifetime ago I spent workshop after workshop supporting people whose stories often revolved around an amusing event in their lives, something a friend told them or something they’d read they thought they could do better. A lot fell into that last one. I remember working with a writer who was appalled that Harry Potter had been published and she was working on a better idea that took away evil practices in the novels, such as, witchcraft, and I suspect, being a child. She produced story after story of Mallory Towers on bromide. Harry Potter would never had ended up with Ginny Weasley in her stories, they would have been burnt at the stake as soon as they turned eleven. That would have made a more interesting story. Then there are the stories about amusing things in amusing people’s lives which involves them finding out they have moved the supermarket around, that’s just an analogy, normally the amusing things are not even that exciting. I had one person bring in a story about how her friend had been mugged by ‘someone of colour’, she read it aloud and I politely stopped her after a page because frankly it was racist and stereotypical. I told her this but the rest of the group disagreed and launched into a tirade of racist tales from the big old book of bigotry. I got asked to leave that job because I told told them what I thought of them, it had many four lettered words and stories about how none of them would have had an Empire (which they were big on) without all those ‘foreigners’. It was The Daily Mail of writers groups and I was The Guardian columnist. I was proud to be sacked for calling them a bunch of small minded c**ts. I’d put it on my CV if I could. Frankly, f**k them.
It is this belief that we all have a story in us that dilutes our belief in ourselves. A good story should transport you, place you under the skin of the characters, it should make you laugh out loud on public transport, rush to the toilets at work because all you want to do is sob in silence and not be embarrassed by someone, often a none reader, saying, ‘It’s only a f**king book’. There is no such thing as only a book. There are things as great books. Mediocre books. Books that should never have been published.
A lifetime ago I had fabulous students who I pushed out of their comfort zones to create startling images, glorious characters, insanity in suburbia, murder in parks, alienation in society. Writing students who asked big questions of themselves and did so by looking at structure, character and plot. In making us believe in their worlds whether they were known to us or new. Those stories soared but still many believed that everyone can have a crack at writing. That anyone could write, even while you sat there banging your head on a table and telling them, NO, THEY BLOODY WELL CAN’T. Writing is hard. Doing it well is even harder. To boil it down to its simplest: WE HAVE TO PRODUCE A LIE THAT YOU WILL BUY INTO. A lie that stays with you for the rest of your days. A lie that you tell your friends to read. That after laughing on the bus tell strangers to read. We have to produce the most perfect lie and there are very few people who can do that. Everyone does have a story in them but most of those stories will not interest anyone. Writers fall into that trap sometimes, we write things we know in our hearts to be our best work and they never see the light of day because the editor asks us, ‘What’s the story really about, Andrew?’ I blather. I squirm on the office floor. I realise there is no perfect lie to answer with. We write things we once loved and grow to hate as they become a millstone around our necks. We have a love-hate relationship with the word. We are not frauds. We are perfect liars. The frauds are those still clinging to belief that they have a novel in them when all they have is an anecdote. Embrace the lies.