“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.”
Reading this sentence in George Orwell’s fantastic book “Why I Write,” made me feel like I wasn’t going mad and taking too many Ibruprofens. At times during the process of writing “Hard Change” I had cramp in my shoulders and hands, and regular headaches from sitting at my computer for so long. I also slept badly at some points, waking up at 3am with exciting ideas that, come the morning, seemed somewhat bizarre and not really that helpful. Now I’m writing book two I’m in a period of painful fluidity, the exhausting struggle is on me and I’m suffering from pangs of doubt. How on earth is this going to come together and will it say what I want it to say?
Yet I’m totally telling the truth when I say that I loved the process of writing my first book. I imagine it’s similar to that old saying about giving birth – you forget how bad the pain is as soon as the baby arrives or else you’d never do it again. Obviously childbirth is much more painful, but writing a novel can take years.
I’ve used Orwell’s ideas to delve a bit deeper into what the demon is that drives me on and, although if you know me and my writing you’ll think the answer is obvious (it says on the front of “Hard Change” that it’s a political thriller), what I’ve found is that it’s more nuanced than that and, like the characters we writers create, it’s never black or white.
So, not including the desire/need to make a living, Orwell gives four main motives for writing which could explain the “why would you put yourself through this” mystery.
1. Firstly, sheer egotism, which includes the desire to seem clever. This is something I recognised, but probably haven’t always admitted to, especially in public. As a kid I always wanted to be a tap dancer on a cruise ship and have subsequently spent much of my adult life driven by a desire not to be seen as fluff. Becoming a writer has been part of that journey, although I’ve not lost my love of sequin dresses and glamorous foreign destinations.
2. Secondly is an aesthetic enthusiasm – the perception of beauty in the world and the love of the arrangements of words. Whilst I love reading, poetry and dance (in fact most creative art forms engage me in one way or another), aesthetics are only part of my motive. I love it when I write a great metaphor or turn of phrase that really illustrates what I mean in a different or deeper way. However, on balance I’m more about telling the story, and I trust that, by developing my creativity and seeing the world from a unique point (as we all do), I make it above Orwell’s level of writing a utilitarian railway guide.
3. The third motive that Orwell headlines is an historical Impulse. It has two aspects: the historical aspect of collecting evidence and truths (which doesn’t generate many sparks for me), and the idea of wanting to see and portray things as you see them, and set that down for posterity (which does.) “Hard Change” definitely has elements of this. I wanted to tell a story of public life as I saw it, especially as I see it changing and being under threat.
4. So to the heart of why I write… politics, in its widest sense. Like Orwell (did I really say that!) I think I’m a pamphleteer; someone who has views, ideas and opinions about how I want the world to be. I think it will be my life’s work to write about the politics of life and power, of decision-making, money and agency (rather than party politics) in an exciting and engaging way.
Writing in the 1940s Orwell says, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics…’ All issues are political issues. The idea that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” I feel the same now.
In my day job I’m a local government consultant, so I work with leaders in the public sector, helping them find ways to meet their public service remit in challenging operating conditions. I am personally committed to the public sector and I knew I wanted to find a way to tell its story. I didn’t want to whitewash its flaws and failures, but I did explicitly set out to give some space to its triumphs. If you like, I tasked myself with casting the public sector itself as the hero of my story, because I felt few people were doing that and because I believed it deserved it.
Orwell says, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” I agree – and that’s why I had to write fiction, not journalism. Fiction is a powerful and compelling way to test out what’s important, what we are, and what we might become.