Slave to the pen, and the (non) Grinding out of Words

Many moons ago, when I was in full time paid pensionable decent law abiding comfortable employment, the type that enables one to live a fairly bourgeois existence, I used write a lot of poetry, mostly in the evenings, and the occasional short story. Sometimes I used get paid for the work I did, money I used spend on books or the odd pizza. I was published a lot, perhaps twice a week, and what amazed me was how such poor quality writing, writing that was produced at speed, and usually late at night, and usually after several glasses of wine, could ever find the light of day and be published, and sometimes re published.

I truly cringe at the work I was churning out.  A lot of it was ego driven and hackneyed. Most of the magazines are gone now (thankfully) and a few are online here and there. I was serious about writing, and I loved the act of writing, but I didn’t know who I was as a writer. I hadn’t developed a style, or a direction. I was a novice and I had no Master to learn from. I was a voracious reader, but reading the kinds of books that came into my hands back then intimidated me unbelievably. I understand Virginia Woolf’s reaction to reading Proust when she said that reading it almost made her give up writing altogether – it was as if everything she wanted to say had been said.

I mean – it is a good argument. Why bother writing if you have People like Proust and Shakespeare and Dante and the Upanishads and the Tao Te Ching and Gibbon? Hasn’t it all been said?  Well, no. I felt intimidated because I was immature and egotistical and uncertain of myself, but there an infinite number of stories to be told. And for each person that exists there are an infinite number of ways those stories can be told. What Miss Woolf was suffering from was something that any good writer suffers from: a realization that to be a good writer one needs to realize this is a deeply serious business and one has to develop ones powers to the best of one’s ability.

The other thing that matters is money. a writers relationship to money is a serious thing. When you write for money, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography, you become something of a slave to the pen. Mill goes on to comment how writing for money affects the quality of your work, the subject matter you choose and in many ways, and the degree of intellectual involvement you are able to give each project you are engaged in. Mill recommends having the kind of job he had in the civil service. It gave him a welcome break from his many writing and intellectual projects.

This theory is of course disproven by many many world class writers who wrote for money and produced timeless masterpieces: Dostoyevsky immediately leaps to mind. Graham Greene another. So what’s the difference between the talented writer who becomes a hack and the talented writer who produces the work for money that moves and inspires one generation after the next? Identity, I should think. A mature writer writes for themselves and doesn’t care whether or not she is getting paid.  Sometimes a book makes a fortune. Sometimes a book doesn’t. But she will always be a good writer. She will retain her style and retain her individuality and a writer who knows who she is will never be a slave to the pen.

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