I recently attended the Birmingham City University Creative Summer Show, and the launch of the University’s new Anthology, I am therefore I write, in which I’m proud to say one of my own shorts features. The audience was treated to readings from fellow students and lecturers, but I think all would agree that the guest speaker, R.J. Ellory, stole the show. His speech, peppered with a witty, wry humour all writers will relate to, was truly inspirational. It delivered a sobering dollop of truth, but left me, for one, reminded why I put myself through the angst that is writing: simply, it’s because writing is what I do.
I cheekily asked Roger afterwards whether he would mind me stealing some of his speech to share. He gave me the whole speech, which – with his permission – I am reproducing here. It really is worth reading, especially if you’re having a ‘moment’, as writers do. For those who might not be familiar with his work, R.J. Ellory is the award-winning author of over twelve internationally-acclaimed novels, including A Quiet Belief in Angels, A Simple Act of Violence, Saints of New York and Carnival of Shadows. Please find a link to his website below.
For information, I’m sure Roger won’t mind me repeating that he had many a dark year, wondering ‘why’, before he was published. His truly is a story of triumph over despair. Mind you, it helps that he writes beautifully.
Herewith, R.J. Ellory’s Words of Wisdom, taken from his speech at the 2014 Birmingham City University Summer Show:
“A writer’s life is often considered to be a life of ease. Apparently there was a survey last year of the British public, and following on from ‘professional footballer’ as the most favoured profession, writer came second. I think somewhere there must be a viewpoint that a writer rises late (he would have to following the quantity of alcohol consumed at last night’s lavish launch party, surrounded by adoring fellow celebrities, the red carpet rolled out, assistants and attendants on hand to cater to every whim), and while fielding telephone calls from Hollywood producers vying for movie rights, both Alan Yentob and Melvyn Bragg offering ever-increasing quantities of money to feature in a prime-time documentary, our writer would breakfast on lightly-poached quails’ eggs served atop scallops, a side order of refreshing sweetcorn puree, and then retire to the balcony to smoke a packet of Lucky Strikes, down three cups of Blue Mountain hand-ground coffee, and finally – no earlier than eleven o’ clock – he would move to the study. Here, reclining in a deep leather armchair, he would be struck with moments of effortlessly brilliant inspiration, leaning forward only to type a handful of words on his battered Underwood or Remington. An hour’s work, perhaps an hour and a half, God forbid, and he would retire to the club for an afternoon of witty repartee and fine cigars with the likes of Sebastian Faulks and Ian McEwan.
Sorry to have to let you down, but a writer’s life is not quite this way.
Of course, once you attain that lofty position of having been published at all, it then becomes a full-time job to stay there. Writing is a competitive business, to say the least. Apparently only two per cent of books published are bestsellers. Over eighty per cent of books published in the UK sell less than five hundred copies. The average working writer in the UK draws a salary from his writing of less than seven thousand pounds a year. This, my friends, is not the level of independent income that will provide scallops and quails’ eggs for breakfast.
I am one of those rare individuals who believes that a book is not an individual accomplishment. True, the idea and its initial execution may be considered the creation of one person, but in the grand scheme of things your average scribbler is relatively low on the food chain.
- Telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important.
- Telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience.
- Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten.
I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to be a writer. As Russell Baker was so fond of saying, “The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.” As I now know, this is blatantly untrue. Though writing might not be considered in the same league as digging ditches or painting bridges, it is nevertheless a job of work. It is not something that is necessarily gifted to you at conception. Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way,” but that was merely his sense of humour.
Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.
A bad book is as much a labour of love as a good one, Huxley said. Steinbeck added that “The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business”. Dorothy Parker said that the writer’s way was tough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say ferryboat cleaning? And one author, when told that she could be the next Dorothy Parker, replied ‘What? Keep slashing my wrists and drinking shoe polish?’
Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Such testaments to the craft pose the question – Do you really want to be a writer – and if so, why? From the simple truth that Agatha Christie has given more pleasure in bed than any other woman, to the fact that novelists have predetermined entire shifts in social awareness, we cannot escape from the simple truth that literature plays an inescapably vital part in everything that we do, and everything we are.
Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, when read by Theodore Roosevelt, provoked a government-ordered enquiry into the way Americans were being fed. Sinclair used the proceeds of the book to build a socialist meeting house, and went on to write another one hundred books about industrial corruption. Edith Maude Eaton’s ‘Mrs. Spring Fragrance’ highlighted issues about racism against the Chinese in America that caused the Chinese Exclusion Act to be repealed in 1943.Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ was the first acknowledged publication about the truths of terrorism. Mignon McLaughlin said, ‘Everyone can write. But writers can’t do anything else.’
Fiction is powerful, provocative, contentious, impactful, unforgettable, and even when read for pleasure alone, there are few books that do not – even in some small way – change the perspective of the reader.
And once our work is done, once we have committed however many hundreds of hours to our magnum opus, we show it to the world. This book is our child, our offspring, and though we know that people will feel obligated to be polite – I mean, after all, who is proudly presented with a newborn baby, and feels it appropriate to comment on the child’s inordinately large ears, his complete absence of a chin, and features that appear to be arguing as to who should be in the centre? – we nevertheless are wary of what others really think. Constructive criticism from our friends and acquaintances is perhaps the least constructive criticism of all.
And then there are the professional critics. We all contend with critics, of course, regardless of our occupation. Critics of our standard of work, our timekeeping, our levels of responsibility and initiative, our ability to relate to colleagues and members of the public, the service we provide in our particular line of work. Criticism seems to require no qualifications, save the unreserved confidence to tell other people what’s wrong. As Christopher Hampton so famously said, “Ask a working writer what he thinks about critics…you may as well ask a lamppost how it feels about dogs.”
As Wendell Holmes commented, “What a blessed thing it is that nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left!” To which Jean Kerr added, “When confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumour that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence? Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write “I had a fun time”? Was he ever arrested for burglary? It is true that no statue has ever been erected to a critic.
An author is perhaps the very last person who should judge the value or quality of his own work. All we can do is evaluate our own motives for what we do. Some of us, I imagine, write out of anger; some out of pain; some write out of prejudice or loss, some out of passion, the promise of something better, perhaps the belief that – even now – a book can be capable of changing a life.
Some of us write to remember, some to forget; some to change things, some to ensure things stay the same. Some of us – as my editor and agent will all too easily testify – write because we cannot stop.
What an author can do, however, is evaluate the commitment and dedication of those with whom he works, and in this case those with whom I work happens to be readers.
Renard said that “Writing is the only profession where no-one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” Moliere said that first we write for ourselves, then we write for our friends, and lastly we write for money. I am still writing for myself, and believe I always will be. And the thing that drives me forward, the thing that reminds me of why I do this, and how important it is, is the constant validation and acknowledgement that comes my way from those I am involved with who believe as passionately as I do that this is something worth doing.
A great philosopher once said that a culture is only as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by artists. Well, to make a dream accessible, to give it a reality that can be appreciated and enjoyed by others, it is necessary to provide the platform for those creations – the theatre, the bookstore, the gallery, the library. Without such things the dream remains precisely what it is, and nothing more. Intangible, insubstantial, inaccessible. And it is the readers, the gallery and theatre-goers, those that recognize that art and culture and aesthetics are really the only true criteria against which quality of life is evaluated, that make such a job as mine a reality.
The only reason for being a professional writer is that you just can’t help it. And – to quote Terry Pratchett – there is no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.
What there is, is a slim avenue along which we walk, and as we walk we tell our stories, and sometimes those stories are heard, but often they are not. The simple fact that people read those stories enables individuals such as myself to continue telling them, and for this I am indebted.
As a final word, regardless of your work, your vocation, your families and friends…you must always find time to read. And when you have read one book, read another, and yet another. It keeps people like me off the streets, of course, but – more importantly… Well, perhaps such a viewpoint is best expressed by the four words found above the doorway at the Library of Thebes: Medicine For The Soul.”
I’m currently reading The Devil and The River. I’m sharing the first few paragraphs here. I defy you not to be sucked and want to read more:
Wednesday, July 24, 1974
When the rains came, they found the girl’s face. Just her face. At least that was how it appeared. And then came her hand— small and white and fine like porcelain. It surfaced from the black mud and showed itself. Just her face and her hand, the rest of her still submerged. To look down toward the riverbank and see just her hand and her face was surreal and disturbing. And John Gaines— who had lately, and by providence or default, come to the position of sheriff of Whytesburg, Breed County, Mississippi, and before that had come alive from the nine circles of hell that was the war in Vietnam, who was himself born in Lafayette, a Louisianan from the start— crouched on his haunches and surveyed the scene with a quiet mind and a steady eye.
The discovery had been called in by a passerby, and Gaines’s deputy, Richard Hagen, had driven down there and radioed the Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, Barbara Jacobs, and she had called Gaines and told him all that was known.
A girl’s face has surfaced from the riverbank.
When Gaines arrived, Hagen was still gasping awkwardly, swallowing two or three mouthfuls of air at a time. He bore the distressed and pallid hue of a dying man, though he was not dying, merely in shock. Hagen had not been to war; he was not inured to such things as this, and thus such things were alien and anathema to his sensibilities. The town of Whytesburg—seated awkwardly in the triangle between the Hattiesburg-intent I-59, and the I-18, itself all fired up to reach Mobile— was a modest town with modest ways , the sort of place they rolled up the sidewalk at sunset, where such things as these did not occur too frequently, which was a good thing for all concerned.
But Gaines had been to war. He had seen the nine circles. And sometimes, listening to the small complaints of smaller minds—the vandalized mailbox, the illegally parked car, the spilled trash can—Gaines would imagine himself walking the complainant through a burned-out ville. Here, he would say, is a dead child in the arms of her dead mother, the pair of them fused together for eternity by heat and napalm . And here is a young man with half a face and no eyes at all. Can you imagine the last thing he might have seen? And the complainant would be silent and would then look at Gaines with eyes wide, with lips parted, with sweat-varnished skin, both breathless and without words. Now, Gaines would say to them, now let us speak of these small and inconsequential things.
Ellory, R.J. The Devil and the River. Orion.
As if being an award-winning author of internationally-acclaimed novels isn’t talented enough, working on the “matters of perseverance and persistence being required in all artistic endeavours” philosophy, aside from writing Roger is also a member of a band playing classic British rock, Zero Navigator. Zero Navigator hails from Birmingham, England. Founded in 2013, this three-piece features Simon Chisholm on drums and vocals, Chris Malin on bass and vocals and R J Ellory on guitar and vocals. Wow! If you haven’t heard them and you love rock, you should. Take a look at the single release video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4IxUHxYY_g
For info, Martin Smith (bass player of ELO) was the engineer and producer of the album from whence the Zero Navigator single came, and Roger has just co-written an album with Martin which he will start recording in the first week of September, under the name The Whiskey Poets. This is something Roger has always wanted to do, and now, approaching fifty, he’s adopted that classic Eleanor Roosevelt attitude, ‘It’s never too late to become what you might have been’.
I’m with Roger. Life is short. Let’s live it!
Find out more about R.J. Ellory here: www.rjellory.com
Find out more about Zero Navigator here: Zero Navigator
Aimed at emerging writers, the MA is taught by distinguished authors and practitioners, offering specialist modules in Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Screenwriting, Poetry and Scripting and Staging. Find out more about the Birmingham City University MA in Writing here: Birmingham City University
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