Ceasing to Write

13 Sep

Ceasing to write. Not just putting down your pen to make another pot of coffee, prepare tea or go to bed, but ceasing to write altogether. Kicking the habit. No more stories, no more books, nothing. Starting your life afresh with a blank page. Now there’s a thought, isn’t it?

I don’t hold much store by literary prizes, though I’ll concede that the Nobel committee generally gets it right. I’ve heard it said that all writers are dismissive of prizes until they’ve won one. Since my fiction hasn’t even been published yet, I think that gives me all the more reason to be sceptical. For all that, I’m always interested to see who’s on the Man Booker Prize short list. This year, for the second time, Jim Crace is among the chosen six. In the article that I read about the contenders, I was intrigued to learn that Crace has said that Harvest, the novel for which he’s been nominated, might well be his last. The last time that I encountered anything of the sort was the very sad case of Iain Banks, who was terminally ill with cancer. At this point, I have to confess that I’ve never read anything by Crace. But still I wanted to know why an author might stop writing. And besides, he was born in Hertfordshire, the same small English county as Graham Greene (and the author of this blog, come to that). I was obliged to investigate.

So I looked into it. He made the statement in an interview with The Independent newspaper back in 2010 (link here). He’d written twelve novels and thought that was quite enough. He felt that writers often start to become bitter if they carry on writing into old age (Crace is now 67) and weaken their canons. I wonder how true this is. Certainly, the late work of many writers pales in comparison to their earlier compositions. I can think of plenty of novels that refute the theory, though. William Golding was 78 when his great trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth was published. I’ve just finished reading Super-Cannes by J G Ballard. The author was 70 when that was published and it stands up pretty well, I’d say. Michael Frayn continues to write at the age of 79, his intellectual and creative powers apparently undiminished.

There was a second point that caught my interest in the interview. To paraphrase, Crace stated that only one in a hundred writers ever gets his or her work published, and of those perhaps one in a hundred makes a living from it. Since I’ve had my non-fiction published, I suppose that I just about fall into the latter category. I suspect that he is being a little optimistic about the odds in both cases, though. One in a thousand is probably closer to it. I’ve written about this in a previous post. It’s hardly an encouraging statistic.

BookCoverPreview 1

How another 50,000 words from PSR’s keyboard might look encompassed in a book jacket

Do these odds mean that the unpublished writer ought to jack it all in, then? I’ve occasionally played with the idea of what it might feel like if I no longer wrote. I even went as far as remarking to a few people that perhaps after I’d finished my war novel I might stop writing. Suffice it to say, it didn’t happen. Instead I launched straight into writing 15,000 words of one project and then 55,000 words of another. Whether or not I’d like to stop, it would seem that I’m unable. I keep writing because that’s what I’ve always done. Until I’ve written something that I feel I can’t better, I’ll keep going. And the ideas just seem to keep on flowing…

If you’re a writer, have you ever considered giving it up? After all, just think of all that time you’d free up for other pursuits. What is it that turns certain human beings into compulsive writers? Would it be good to be free like Jim Crace? Does his bold pronouncement merit his winning the prize in its own right? What do you think?

All words and image © PSR 2013

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10 Responses to “Ceasing to Write”

  1. www.laurensapala.com September 13, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    I had so much trouble starting to write again (in my 20s) that when I finally had writing back in my life, it felt like something unbelievably precious that had almost been lost. I still feel that way. I think I was dry for so many years (not writing) that the sheer gratitude I felt when I started again will probably last me a few decades.

    A side note on Crace: I’ve only read his novel Being Dead, but I absolutely loved it. It was quite dark, in a very quiet hopeless way. Wonderful novel.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves September 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Hi Lauren and thanks for commenting. I’m pleased to hear that your muse returned and is going to keep you going into your sixties! I felt creatively dead during the long years of writing my abandoned big novel, but I’ve very much learned from the experience and can’t see that happening again (for a start, I’d cut my losses much earlier these days). What are you writing at present?

  3. Pete D September 13, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Similar perhaps to giving up playing music? When it is never good enough and no longer satisfies.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves September 13, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

      Hallo Pete – good to hear from you! It’s a fair comparison. I gave that up years ago, really. I don’t suppose I’ve written a song in a decade. Ho hum… Are you on the verge of musical retirement, then?

  4. jhuwevans September 13, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    You know it’s impossible to give up. It’s a disease. Even when I’m not productive I’m still a writer in my head. Of course I’m lot’s of things in my head. If I had more control of it it would be a better place to be.
    Never read any of Crace’s books but I used to like his brother’s “digested reads” in the Guardianne.

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves September 14, 2013 at 5:48 am #

    Hi Huw and thanks for commenting. It’s an incurable condition, then? I suspect you’re right. Maybe Crace won’t be able to stop after all. Lauren certainly makes Being Dead sound interesting – it’s a great title.

  6. Mari Biella September 14, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Interesting post, Paul, and some very interesting questions. I’ve never read any of Crace’s work, but I’m intrigued now, and may well investigate…

    Like other commenters here, I’m not sure if it’s possible to give up writing – not once you’ve reached the stage where it’s become a compulsion, anyway. For me personally, writing things down is just part of the way I respond to and deal with the world. It’s an addiction, and quite possibly a rather unhealthy one. Might I feel differently if I’d written something that I thought I could never better? Possibly, but I’m not yet in a position to know.

    Giving up the business of publishing, or attempting to be published, on the other hand – yes, I can see the appeal of that. I often think how liberating it would be to just write, without having to worry about meeting publishers’ or readers’ expectations. I often write things that I have absolutely no intention of developing for publication, and these little private projects are invariably much more fun. Perhaps Crace will give up publishing, but continue to write?

  7. Paul Sutton Reeves September 14, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for commenting.

    It would seem the consensus is that it can’t be given up, then, but Jim Crace’s work might be interesting! I hope he’s going to mention me on his blog now…

    Obviously, it’d be nice to be published, but I can honestly say that I don’t write my books for that purpose. I attempt to write books that I would like to read myself. In truth, I’ve made a very half-hearted effort to have my work published in recent times because the odds seem so heavily stacked against it. Perhaps making no effort at all to do so would be an even happier state of affairs.

    You’re right, I suspect, that writing’s an addictive habit that would be very hard to kick, even if one wanted to.

  8. PK Read September 25, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    I won’t comment on giving up writing because I know I won’t, whether or not publishing success chooses to find me.
    But Jim Crace is a favorite of mine. Devil’s Larder. Quarantine.
    Good stuff.
    I don’t for a moment believe he would/could stop writing completely, unless maybe for the consumption of a larger public.

  9. Paul Sutton Reeves September 25, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    Hi Paula and thanks for dropping by.

    I’m pleased to hear that nothing discourages you! How’s the book going?

    For myself, it wouldn’t be the publishing issue that would stop me writing. Being published would be nice but that’s really not why I write. If you spend much of your free time on a pursuit, it’s of interest occasionally to contemplate how it might be if you spent your time differently. I probably couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to.

    I shall definitely have to check out Crace’s work, then.

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