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The Lives of Authors Laid Bare?

The Guardian Saturday Review started a new weekly column in May, ‘My working day’, where authors talk about the day-to-day business of writing.

It may be modelled on the BBC4 television series, ‘What do artists do all day?’, which title, in turn, probably owes much to the subhead ‘People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do’, of Studs Terkel’s book, Working, from 1974.

Terkel interviewed a variety of blue and white-collar workers about their jobs. He found that even people doing tedious, dangerous, or difficult work found it provided them with a framework of meaning and a degree of personal satisfaction, not least because the jobs were reasonably secure. Similar interviews conducted today, for instance by Joanna Biggs in All Day Long (2015), reveal a bleaker picture because after thirty plus years of global free-market political economy the stuffing has been knocked out of secure jobs, even professional ones.

This narrative of falling job satisfaction might not apply to the creative professions, as they have always been insecure, competitive and dependent on the patronage of wealthy individuals or institutions. Literary authors occupy a halfway house here, their incomes coming from commercial sales of books but their careers subject to gate keeping pressures from publishers, editors and, latterly, agents. Do these new writers’ columns in the Guardian provide some insight into the working lives of authors today? Sadly the answer seems to be ‘no’.

Four of the contributors during May were novelists, Ian Rankin, William Boyd, Rose Tremain and Jonathan Coe. They all concentrate on the everyday business of putting words on paper; their composition styles, writing devices and technology, hours of work, what distracts them and so on, all endlessly fascinating to many readers. We learn that no two writers have the same routine, that few working days for any one author are ever alike, and that writing a novel is one hell of a slog. Ian Rankin can knock out a rough first draft in 27 days but even he finds the pre-conception musing and subsequent research and self-editing far more time consuming. For this group of novelists, finished novels emerge at the rate of about one every two years.

Ironically, despite the diversity of authorial practice they are all doing exactly the same thing, sometimes putting longhand words on paper first but ultimately communing with their laptops, exactly what most other professional people do all day as well. And these authors are obsessive; they need to write something every day, although whole days devoted to writing are relatively rare. Perhaps only the very young or mentally agile can manage six hours of concentrated word work for days or weeks on end.

These diary-style columns make interesting reading and we voyeuristic readers probably feel we are learning something intimate about the authors and their work. But I think that is an illusion. What really drives the writing life is not the mechanics of getting the words down, but the combination of the mental process and effort in devising and articulating stories (composition), the professional relationships authors have with their publishers, editors and agents, and their personal relationships with friends and family, which provide the raw materials they need to generate plausible (or even truthful) relationships among their fictional characters. Some of our columnists touch on mental process; ‘the inside of my head’ as Rankin calls it, while ‘mysterious’ is Coe’s single word description of composition. That doesn’t take us very far but is hardly surprising. Artists are often unwilling to analyse what they do, frightened that any rational unpacking might destroy their imaginations. And in any case, personal introspection is an unreliable guide to thought or behaviour. All of us reconstruct our memories, framing them in ways that often surprise our friends (or, for the more grandiose amongst us, historians), observers who have an external and possibly more objective view of what makes us tick.

A surer way to understand the whole cloth of authorship, or that of any other creative, technical, or administrative profession, is through biography or fiction. Both formats allow us inside a writer’s head and can explore how the stories he or she constructs depend on their experiences and relationships, while the tensions and connections with the trades around publishing govern their writing careers. This life of writing is already a relatively common theme for novelists to explore, but there is always room for more. Meanwhile, like the BBC’s video diaries of artists, the Guardian’s ‘My working day’ columns provide tantalizing snapshots, but they represent only the small visible tips of the vast submarine icebergs making up the bulk of working life.

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