Newspaper and magazine questionnaires are always popular (as distinct from surveys, which aren’t). If there’s one thing we like to know about, it’s ourselves.
Writers, whether they are aspiring or published, tend to define themselves by their output. It’s useful from the writer’s perspective because it reinforces the way we see ourselves – a little like a brand – and it cuts to the chase. But at best it’s a limitation and at worst a lie.
For example, many writers don’t know or accept that they are novelists until they’ve completed their first novel. For some strange reason, we associate definition with achievement.
On a recent Arvon Foundation comedy writing course, 16 of us were thrown together and given singleton and collaborative exercises. Playwrights, poets, songwriters, novelists and stand-up writers all pitched in, drawing on their existing experience to create something new. If we’d stayed resolutely within our existing borders, we would have all missed out. As the saying goes: ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.’
Even the title of novelist raises as many questions as it answers. Which genre of novel? What age group and market? And the dreaded ‘So, do you have an agent / publisher then?’ Any writers reading this will already have inserted an appropriately sneery / competitive / eager / dismissive tone to that particular line of inquiry.
I can remember showing my fantasy novel Covenant to a friend of mine, in one of its many incarnations. He later told me that he thought the idea of me writing a novel was a little like a clown trying to write Shakespeare, and that I’d be better sticking to what I was best at. Leaving aside the fact that he never actually read the novel – he merely discussed it with someone else who had – what was his logic? To quote myself (hey, it’s my blog): ‘If you always play to your strengths, they’re the only ones you’ll ever have.’
My writing CV states that I write articles, comedy and fiction. Although arguably, anyone who’s ever written a CV has written some fiction.
In practice that means: articles for one newspaper, some magazines and the web; slogans and captions; topical and situational gags, sketches, monologues and parody songs; a clutch of humorous Little Books; As Above So Below magazine; a fantasy novel; a thriller and a half (that’s not boasting – I’m halfway through the sequel); a couple of children’s books; and around a dozen short stories, of various lengths. I should add that not all of that work is published or performed but quite a bit of it is, and the rest I’m working on.
My point is that fish swim, trees photosynthesise and writers write. When we limit ourselves by definition or genre, we are closing ourselves off from new possibilities. However… it’s important for us to know what kind of writers we are. That is, I think, quite distinct from the types of writing that we do. In my case, I am not a literary writer. I have friends who are poetic and lyrical in their prose; I am not one of them and I’m comfortable with that. And I know because I’ve tried it and it reads false on the page.
Unless we know – and can come to terms with – the kind of writers we are, we don’t have a foundation to work from. But once we fully inhabit our own skins, warts and all, we can create our own personal blend of imagination, insight and magic.