‘Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake.’
So wrote American novelist, editor and professor E.L. Doctorow. His is just one of many quotations that convey how hard it is to write. Another that springs at once to mind is this, by Ernest Hemingway:
‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
And this, from George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’:
‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
If you write for yourself alone, in notebooks you ‘fill with the breathings of your heart’ and then lock away or burn, to be seen by no one, then there is no bleeding; writing is a beautiful, calm, affirming pastime. But if, as do many writers, you write with the expectation of the words being read… then with every word you write you know that you are hazarding yourself, and that takes courage and steel.
Why then, you may ask – as do all writers at one time or another – does a writer write? Why hazard yourself, why bleed, why be driven by a demon?
Each writer has their own answer to this question. Mine lies in my childhood.
I grew up surrounded by books, brought up by parents who had a great deal of respect for the written word and read with me. My grandmother was a published author of poetry, and my father published a book about the history of our family. I don’t recall wishing to follow in their footsteps; it just seemed natural to me, once I discovered the joy of writing, that the product would be words-on-paper to be shared.
I was in my early teens when I first shared a story. At my very strict convent school the nuns expected total focus; I, conversely, was a dreamer, and while I loved language and literature classes, I was far more interested in zoning out in maths class and escaping into a fantasy world. My governess, Zula, who had been with our family since I was very young, had instilled in me a love for oral storytelling – fairy tales, especially – and consequently, over the years I practised that with her, I had become adept at slipping out of this reality into another of my making. Soon, though, daydreaming was not enough; I wanted to share the story in my mind. It was the most natural progression in the world for me to pick up a pen and write.
I shared that first story – a romantic fairy tale, of course – with my closest friends. They enjoyed it so much that I wrote another, and another. Soon my stories were being circulated around the class. Girls would come to me and tell me what they thought of this hero or that heroine, how they enjoyed this aspect of the plot or being transported to that fantasy place. Their words spurred me on to keep writing, to meet the demand I had inadvertently created.
It was many years later, in the far tougher, more cynical adult world, that I shared my first novel, Burning Embers, through publication. In fact, that novel had existed on paper for quite some years before 2012, when I published it; I wrote it in French initially, and then translated it into English, and then edited it… and then put it away for a good while I met the demands of motherhood and business.
It was my children, eventually, now grown who convinced me to take the step of publishing my work. I had shared my writing with my family, but no one else. When I first considered that idea, considered hazarding myself, I was unsure. But as the idea settled in my mind, I found I kept thinking about the girls at school – how I’d felt when they clamoured for the next story, fought over who got to read the current one next; how they cried at the sad parts and smiled at the happy parts and fell in love right along with my characters; how my writing gave them something – an escape from daily life into a colourful, romantic, beautiful world. Those girls were my very first readers: I hazarded myself with them, and was rewarded for my courage. I think that was meaningful, the foundation for me as a writer – if I so choose.
The rest, as they say, is history. I published Burning Embers, and four more books since then. Do I always find it easy to sit down at the ‘typewriter’ and bleed? Not at all. But when a reader tells me they have been swept away by my writing, that it brought them pleasure and inspired them to dream, then it is worth every drop of blood.
I owe much to my teenage classmates back in time, and I owe so very much to my loyal readers, who make me want to keep writing another book, and another… and another.