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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Writing Process: The scary act of creation

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I have always been a little afraid of my own writing. Every day I sit down to it, I fear I won’t be capable. Weird isn’t it? Without being too melodramatic about it, I believe writing is my life’s work, so why should it make me fearful?

One of our Allaboutwriting students sent me a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, who achieved, as she puts it “freakish success” with her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. In her talk, she asks how logical it is that people should be be afraid of the work “they feel they were put on this Earth to do”.

Like my dad,” she continues, “was a chemical engineerand I don’t recall once in his 40 years of chemical engineering anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know? That chemical-engineering block, John, how’s it going?

I wonder if that’s true, though. My dad was a dentist – but a dentist in a small city in which dental specialisations didn’t exist. I also believe he was something of an artist. In another life – if he hadn’t returned from the war wanting something settled and stable – perhaps he might have been one. Instead he was creative about dentistry, working out inventive ways to correct problems of the jaw and bite that, in a different time and place, would have been sent to an orthodontist.

My dad loved his patients. He had a great connection to the families he saw through three generations, and from whom he often happily accepted a bottle of lemon curd or a leg of lamb in lieu of payment.

But nonetheless, I know he did find the work stressful. And I believe the stress came from his creativity – a creativity which he took upon himself. He could just as easily have said: “No way, that’s not what dentists do. Go to a big city or live with your overbite.”

Yet, it was that same creativity which made him feel inspired and fulfilled, and which gave him a sense of pride in his work. Just as, I suppose, my writing fills my life with a sense of inspired purpose. Doesn’t make it less scary, though.

So what is it about creative work that scares us? It’s so ephemeral. You can never be certain where it comes from or why. Basically, I suppose it’s the fact that it’s not something you can learn, and then reproduce. Oh, you can learn skills and techniques, and those help, but they don’t guarantee you can then write something of inspired genius.

And then, as I’ve said before, you are always battling your own imperfections as an artist, to produce the work you visualise. In her talk, Gilbert refers to Norman Mailer, who said before he died:  “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” An extraordinary statement to make about your life’s work.

The other day someone came up to my partner and me in the street and congratulated me on The Imagined Child. I was just feeling all warm and fuzzy when she continued: “SO much better than your last books. Really. Just so much better.”

I was left with an overwhelming urge to giggle hysterically. Especially when my partner turned to me and said with a reproving shake of he head: “Yeah, all your other books were such crap.”

In some ways, it’s a good thing. For years I existed under the shadow of my first book. Gilbert says that, after Eat, Pray, Love, people treated her as though she were doomed. Aren’t you afraid, they asked, that you’ll never achieve that success again; that this will be the best work of your life? Naturally, mine didn’t vaguely approach the kind of international success Gilbert’s achieved, but it was a best-seller in my own country and it did okay overseas. That creates it’s own kind of fear.

Perhaps you’re a one-hit wonder. Perhaps you’ll never better the success of that.

On the flip side, its very success also made some critics argue vociferously over whether I was the slightest bit literary or simply a populist upstart.

No matter how much you might try to write for yourself,  it’s the nature of creativity that you put pressure on yourself to better your last effort. And all the while,the praise and the sneers you’ve attracted sit on your shoulders like trolls, sniggering and sniping at whatever you write.

Sometimes I wish I could write something just for the sheer fun of it – that I wouldn’t judge myself on. That I could enjoy unreservedly through the process and not fear my own ability to make my vision come true. I wonder if I’d be capable. I would like to try, though. Perhaps I will.


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