Thursday, April 23, 2009

Life before writing

There is an interesting article today on The Guardian Book Blog bemoaning the fact that so few modern authors seem to have a life before they began to write. They cite the case of JG Ballard who died recently after a long battle with cancer.

I am not familiar with Ballard's work but the article states that there was a stark contrast between the suburban world of Shepperton (not that far from us) where he lived for 50 years and the darkness of his writing. Ballard seems to have led an interesting life. He survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, a city I was priviliged to visit in 1986, life as a prisoner of war and in the Canadian armed forces, and worked among other things, as an enclyclopedia salesman and as a porter in Covent Garden.

Contrast this with the life of the average modern writer - go to university, read English, start writing first novel, have a few peices published in various magazines, move to London or some other city, write a few more pieces and eventually get published - and sell if you are lucky, around 300 copies.

Is it really like this though - it certainly hasn't been for me, and when I think about it, I did and continue to have a pretty interesting life long before I became a published author. I may not have lived in war zones or served in the armed forces, but I have survived years of school bullying, the death of both parents (my father at the age of 15), several redundancies and changes of career, and a 12 year relationship with a borderline transsexual. I have also travelled half way round the world on my own. My jobs have included travel agent, supermarket cashier, and complimentary therapist, among others. You cannot do any of those three jobs wthout learning a thing or two about human nature.

I left school aged 17 with three O'Levels to my name (admittedly two of which were in English - in those days an O'Level meant something, and anything less than a Grade C was not considered a pass). There is no university degree for me (although I have done several part time course with Birkbeck), and no home in London, which is the last place I would want to live. Neither is there a first novel, since I write non fiction, but there have been a few pieces in various magazines (mostly unpaid). And just for the record, the one book I have published has sold a lot more than 300 copies, because of my own hard work.

If this is indeed a portrait of the average modern writer, then I am way off the mark. It goes to underline the importance though of having a past and a life and how we can use those experiences both good and bad to help our writing. It is about seeing the value in all things. Those experiences have shaped me into the person that I am, and are reflected in the way that I write, which mirrors my own life, in all its glory. I would not have it any other way.

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