Motivation, Passion and Ability.
We had an elderly relative come to stay with us some time ago. She loves playing the piano, so we brought out my electronic keyboard for her to use. Leaving her alone to enjoy her tinkling, my wife and I soon looked quizzically at each other. Not only did the electronic drumbeat seem to be accompanying a different tune to the one our visitor was playing, but it was impossible to work out what that tune was. It ebbed and flowed, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, the notes coming together in untidy clumps or standing isolated like a kid no one wants to play with, the entire thing not unlike some bizarre kind of freeform jazz.
‘Can you tell what that’s supposed to be?’ I asked my wife.
She shook her head and grinned. ‘But she loves it,’ she said, and we left her to it.
The tune was Greensleeves, by the way.
The thing was, she was playing all the right notes in the right order, of that I’m sure, but with no real sense of timing, no sense of rhythm. And the offbeat drums just made it sound doubly worse.
Which proves you can learn the mechanics, but there has to be something extra for it to work. I sometimes think of words in the same way as musical notation. And they are, after all, words we can all learn and use. Mostly, they’re words we use every day and think so little of. So why, in the right hands, do those same words, subtly arranged, make beautiful music, and in others discordant rubbish? Is it already within you, a natural talent, or can we learn it?
In the end, I think it’s all down to motivation, passion and ability, and whether there’s some additional kind of biological determinism going on, a gene that makes the entire process easier (a natural sense of rhythm in our visitor would have gone a long way), or it’s something that’s encouraged and learnt, or a combination of all these things, it’s an indisputable fact that some people make better writers than others. What you need to be is one of the better ones, obviously.
There is the old adage that there is a book inside everyone just waiting to get out. So why is it most of us don’t write it?
My wife often comes up with a good idea and jokingly says that it would make a good book. I say to her: yes, you’re right, it would, so go ahead and do it, write it, make it real, tell your story. She usually looks at me as if I’d asked her to make a parachute jump, naked, and either shrugs and says ‘I can’t write,’ or she laughs at me and shakes her head like I just don’t get it. Mind you, she does that a lot lately, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into that last one. But here is a genuinely intelligent woman, well read, whom I know without doubt has the ability to knit together the words, simply never taking it beyond a vague ‘I could if I wanted to, but I don’t know…’
I’ve heard it so many times from so many different people: every now and again, perhaps sparked by an anecdote, a remembrance, that little idea for a book rises up mayfly-like from deep inside the pond of our dreams, takes on a lamentably short life of its own, full of possibilities and potential, and then, instead if taking flight, it sinks down and is, if not entirely drowned, then lost for a long, long while. Why is that? What makes some of us move beyond the idle dream and finally take up the pen (or hit the computer keyboard)? What makes a writer a writer? How do you know you’re a writer? Does simply performing the act of writing make you a writer? Why are range eggs always free?
Okay, enough of the questions. I guess it starts with motivation. People’s motivations for wanting to become a writer are many and varied: I want to be famous; I want to be rich and famous; I want to quit my boring job and do something I love doing instead; I want an easy job; I want my name to liveth forevermore in the annals of great literature; the last book I read was crap, and the author got paid for it, and I know I can write far better crap than that. And so on. But just to prepare you for the journey ahead (and I’m sorry if this will disappoint you) most writers will never be rich and famous. Anyhow, readers rather like the idea of a writer struggling along, scribbling away in some grotty garret, bloodless, starving, striving, pouring out their soul, fretting over the placement of a colon, wasting away and finally getting the recognition they deserve after they’re dead, and if you can die young and tragically all the better.
But here’s assuming you’d like to be alive and enjoy the fruits of your labours, there is one crucial factor which marks you out for success in whatever you do in life and that is motivation. My wife doesn’t have that motivation to write, and that’s why she’ll never write that book inside her: she simply doesn’t want to do it bad enough. You have to want to make it happen. She’s fine with other things in her life, where she has a genuine interest, a regular dynamo in fact, but writing’s a chore for her really. As it is for most people, if we’re honest. Or if not a chore, a fear, like I used to fear the maths lessons with the deputy head at secondary school, where he’d make us all stand up one by one and recite our times-tables in front of the entire class, and I never got beyond the two-times table because of nerves. I prayed to God I’d get to the threes, even promising to become a monk, whatever it took, but He obviously didn’t want another monk and I never reached the fabled three-times table. Now that’s the kind of fear writing evokes in some people.
But for me writing was never a chore or a fear. I just loved writing, even from a young age. I suppose my initial motivation was that my stories were just another set of fantasy worlds I could enter, create, populate, escape the hum-drum, and it was limited by my imagination, which as a youngster was on overdrive. That motivation soon morphed into a passion for writing and the written word. But to say I had a natural talent or ability would be taking it too far, or if it was natural, it took a long while to show itself. I’ve seen my school reports from when I started school at five years old, and there was little indication writing was going to play a big part in my life.
At the age of nine, in school we were ranked according to intelligence in a very physical way – the desks were in rows, the first row occupied by the most able, these being the angels with their glowing robes and shining faces, with the intelligence of the boys (it was a boys-only class back then) gradually diminishing down the rows until we reached the supposed Neanderthals at the very back of the class, sitting in the dark, grunting and picking fleas off each other. I was placed about halfway up this almost arbitrary evolutionary pecking order, aware that I didn’t have the wings to be an angel, and afraid I might end up fighting over bones with some of the roughest kids to ever prowl the streets if I didn’t apply myself.
Academically, I was deemed OK, nothing special – the men from MENSA weren’t about to come knocking on my mother’s door, that’s for sure. According to my last teacher in junior school, I ‘wrote interesting stories’, and that was it, no sign I would actually make a career out of writing. But what drove me was that passion for the written word I talked about, I wanted to learn about punctuation and paragraph construction, the lovely little semi-colon, the darling dash, the allure of alliteration – nerdy traits that could really get me beaten up by the Neanderthals if they ever found out.
Unfortunately, motivation and passion alone won’t get you far without ability. Let me illustrate: you may have seen those reality music TV shows – The X- Factor, or American Idol, or similar – the usual gaggle of wannabes taking their chance to make it big (and rich and famous with it, of course). How excruciating it is to watch some of them screeching away, completely out of tune, declaring this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and yet clearly not going to make it; that is, clear to everyone except themselves and their friends and eager parents who must be as tone-deaf as their offspring. Tragically, some of them are not going to make anything except great, if exploitative, telly. That’s passion without ability.
What I’m saying is you need to have more than a desire. The reader doesn’t care about your dreams – they just want a good story well told. The only way you can do that is to make the words sing like a siren, drawing the reader into your world so that they don’t see words at all: they feel real emotion and see visions. Short of slipping something illegal in their drink, you cannot achieve this without understanding how words work, and this is where wide reading and constant practice come in. I studied other writers. Picked apart what they’ve written. I didn’t limit myself to what would become my chosen genre, either. Even after all these years, I can be struck dumb, my jaw hanging open, by a great piece of writing, wishing I’d written that, trying to work out how it was done. And then thinking, ‘oh my God, I’m totally out of my depth here!’ My confidence, caught in the spotlights of real genius, can soon be shot down in flames.
But take heart from the fact that chances are you’re never going to be another Shakespeare (unless of course that really is your surname, in which case you already are, so to speak). Genius is rare. So don’t get hung up on trying to be the next Bard or beat yourself up over it. You can only strive to be as good as you can be. And that can be amazing enough. After all, you don’t want to be a clone of someone else anyway; you want to be recognised for being your unique self. So you may have author heroes – I have mine, and all have influenced my work, from Thomas Hardy to John Steinbeck, Graham Swift to James Herbert and H. G. Wells – but you need to find your own distinctive voice and have confidence in it. If you have a story to tell, have the ability to tell it, you must have faith in yourself. First steps are always faltering. It’s the nature of first steps. But without them we can’t learn to walk, and then to run.
The act of writing does not make you a writer, just as the act of running does not make you an athlete, or singing on the X-Factor auditions make you a professional singer. It also takes more than simply having a good idea for a book to turn you into a writer. But if you write because you are driven to write, and are willing to seriously learn your craft, to dedicate yourself to it, to learn from others, to strive to produce the best you can, to recognise your own faults and try to put them right, then you are on the road to becoming a successful writer.