The question you will be asked most in your life is not Who are you? It’s not What are you doing here? It’s What do you do? At every awkward dinner party, in every taxi ride, in every doctor’s surgery, this is the ice-breaker par excellence. And what do I say?
Back at university, when I wore exclusively second hand clothes, listened exclusively to Elliott Smith and read exclusively Surrealists, I would say I’m a writer. This was my identity. This was who I was.
These days, ask me and I’ll say I’m a bookseller. Perversely, today’s Chris is far closer to being what I you would consider a writer than university Chris ever was. So what has changed?
Partially, it’s the inability to answer follow-up questions like What do you write? Where can I find your books? or, my personal favourite, So, are you more Dan Brown or Harry Potter? Asking What do you write? is the single most annoying thing you can do to a writer, because it strikes at the very heart of any writer’s greatest fear: that what they do is actually impossible. Well, I use my imagination to capture reality in order to conjure it back up as a representation of the reality I just took it away from. Or, to paraphrase Adorno and Beckett: art is a desecration of silence, wishing it were possible to restore that silence.
Ever since I escaped four years of university Creative Writing classes, I have tried to approach the idea of a writing career as realistically as I can. I will not be published straight away. I will not win the Miles Franklin. I will not be invited to Peter, Paul and Siri’s for dinner. And when I say this, of course in my head I think YES I WILL YES I WILL YES I WILL.
There is a curious paradox in believing yourself to be a writer. I have spent too long on Creative Industries campuses and been to too many youth arts festivals to believe any more that simply behaving like a writer will give you literary success. Sure, you wear vintage, carry a battered Kerouac and have a kooky taste in eyewear, but do you know how to put a sentence together? It’s one thing to dress for success, but if you can’t write, you can’t write.
One thing I tell people when I’m (for some reason) asked to talk about writing is “Be the hardest working writer you know,” which is something I truly believe in. Writing is fun, yes, and it can be rock and roll and über-cool, but for the most part it is freaking hard work.
Think about it.
Here is you.
Here is a blank page.
Go to it.
Quite clearly, you need a strong belief in your skill in writing, and the application of that skill, and that does require a high level of self-confidence, but if you think you’ve already made it, then you probably haven’t. Maybe the motto should be: Think you’re the best writer in the world, but know that you’re not.
Now if you really love writing, the last thing on your mind should be making money from it but the idea of reaching a stage in your life where you can make a living just by making things up is amazing. And, more importantly, the thought of one day being able to define yourself by the thing you love doing most is not only thrilling but about as satisfying a goal as you can get.
So what am I saying, really?
My name is Chris, and I’m a writer.