Non-writers may be forgiven for thinking that to sit at one’s desk in one’s pyjamas tapping out novels for a living sounds like a breeze. Of course, they know full well there’s more to the writer’s life than that; good range of vocabulary for a start, a bottomless imagination, and an enjoyment or at least tolerance of solitude and coffee. Writers themselves may recognise some or all of these factors and reflect, yes indeed, it is a dream job because of these things and more, much more. But surprisingly, little is mentioned amongst writers of their vocation’s considerable emotional expenditure.
A construction worker may return home after a twelve-hour shift, only to nod off the moment his head hits the sofa or dinner plate – physically and mentally exhausted from the strains of the day. Likewise, the writer also arrives home – okay, emerges from the writing cave – with the same dishevelled look and mashed-up brain, and this sometimes after only a fraction of the construction worker’s shift. Though the writer holds scant argument in the physicality stakes (apart from bleary eyes, numb buttocks and a crick in the back), their potential for mental fatigue is, at the very least, on a par with those with more ‘normal’ full-time careers.
Writing fiction has always put me in mind of acting. These two professions share an extraordinarily similar purpose in that they both require the individual to mentally become someone else, and – done well – this can be emotionally draining. Add to this the fact that the writer must become not just one but several characters all at the same time, and you begin to get a sense of how all-consuming writing can be (aside from the finding-the-right-words-and-putting-them-in-the-right-order thing).
Watching me write (type) is not a pretty sight. To assist visualisation, I will often ‘act out’ the emotions, mannerisms or gestures my characters are portraying. This could be something as simple as the motion involved in peering through a hole in a fence, or stroking the mouth in a nervous gesture. Physically performing these elements helps me to be accurate about what my character feels and what I need to convey to the reader. Other times, I may sit immobile, gazing redundantly out the window for indefinite periods, while in my head... well, anything could be happening. Either way, the objective is to immerse myself entirely in the world I’m creating.
Part of writing fiction is organising and presenting the events, settings and characters in a way that’s ‘real’ enough to hold the reader within that world until they finish the story. During construction of this other world, the writer runs the gamut of emotions of every character in every situation – feeling them keenly if they are to be passed on to the reader (‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’ Robert Frost). Such a feat takes a tremendous amount of time, patience, research, skill and, above all, thought. It takes bursts of wild creativity and periods of controlled problem-solving. It takes persistence and it takes passion. And it’s mentally exhausting…
...But fun! Because a writer writes for the same reason a reader reads – to escape their own world for a while and explore another’s; to experience life in all its forms (good and bad) and learn of its potential. Hence, the occupational hazard of the mental wringer is perhaps little alluded to simply because it is far outweighed by the emotional rewards – the ‘experiences’, knowledge, understanding and, subsequently, job satisfaction – that this simple and tortuous profession provides.