Jim Crace on writing and its humanity
In novelist Jim Crace’s keynote address for the 2010 Writers’ Toolkit in Birmingham with Writing West Midlands he shares with us his origins as a writer and inspires us to see how connected all writers are through their shared, solitary practice:
It all began with Christmas, when Crace was age 11 and his father announced, for the first time ever, that he was going to buy his son a present. The big day came and Crace unwrapped the rather disappointing parcel, revealing a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. His father had decided that his son could become a writer and that this was a writer’s essential tool.
Crace didn’t know why his father decided that he could be a writer, other than he was “quite a little liar” as a boy. “Ours was a household of 25 – 30 books, all of them socialist classics: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shaw, Orwell. That was an immensely bookish amount of books on an estate, but now it is a tiny sum comparatively.” Crace described how illness had kept his father from school and from learning how to read. As an adult, his father was finally discovering books and literature and narrative; through his son, he could live the writer’s life vicariously while, through his father, Crace fell in love with the idea of being a writer, a romantic notion peopled with Jack London and his huskies, Orwell in the trenches.
The true life of a writer, the solitary life, is, says Crace, a “terrifying way of earning a living.” Being freelance, writers are in charge of their own work, the structures of their days. “The truth of the matter is, there is no need for you to write. There is no shortage of books or plays on the radio. The urgency is not being applied at your back. It can only be applied from within. But you can’t complain about this because you are a volunteer. If it makes you unhappy, stop. No one will mind. But will the unhappiness go away?” Crace knows it will not, and the only outcome to writing unhappily is bitterness: the rejection of a novel that takes you 4 years to write, the novel that comes out but nobody reads it, the first novel that is a success and the second a failure, the aging writer who no one will read anymore but is writing better than ever. “A pretty grim picture of the profession that we are all engaged in. A career in which there are few rewards. And still the page is blank.”
To write, says Crace,”you have to face every day the tyranny of the blank page.” Unlike the romantic notion of a writer, good writing does not come at the first attempt. “If you think you can get it right first time, you are kidding yourself. You will never write a word. The writing is in the rewriting. You have to splash on, not caring about mistakes. Put the undercoat on so the gloss will hold. You have to have something to edit. You have to be prepared to write bad paragraphs before you can write good ones. It’s hard work and it’s depressing and there’s nobody you can tell. You are on your own.”
Except, says Crace, we are not alone when we write. We are part of a shared human consciousness as creatures of narrative. “Narrative gives humans advantage: the ability to encounter death, see grief, plan the battle, rehearse the argument, reinvent the past.” When we write well, Crace says enter a state of ecstasy, and narrative comes to our aid, narrative itself suggests the way you should write, the narrative that has lived in us since the days of cave stories. “You have to abandon yourself to the spirit of narrative, but you have to stay in control of the skills that you take to your desk.” He has found a way to make the struggle suddenly epic and ancient – we are warriors with pens fighting millennia-old battles.
If writing, when it’s hard, feels like rolling a boulder uphill, writing well makes it “turn instead to a balloon that you must chase to follow. Then you are writing for the sake of the thing itself, not for yourself.” And so we charge from our seats, ready to face a day of writers, for writers, feeling connected and part of something older and greater than our own small successes and failures at the page.