As a practising writer, what, really, are the perils and pleasures of writing? And in what way and to what extent, in the exercise of writing, in the practice of it, does the writer’s self come into play?

How does writing transcend the self while drawing on some of the experiences that particular self has had? And how does the self permeate the writing in spite of – or perhaps because of – that transcendence?

It is a tricky business.

This is a subject that has preoccupied generations of writers. When it comes to the writing of fiction, the great American writer, Richard Yates, has a terrific line on it: ‘The impulse of fiction is autobiographical, but the facts never are.’

Saul Bellow, another American great who got his due in his lifetime unlike Yates, spoke about fiction being the higher autobiography. If one reads Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein, one begins to see how complex the matter is and, at the same time, how easy it is to be misled by its apparent simplicity. Ravelstein is a roman à clef; it is written in the form of a memoir; the title character is based on Bellow’s university colleague, the philosopher, Allan Bloom; and yet it is not a memoir, but a novel. The self or personal experience may suffuse the writing, but the finished text goes above and beyond that.

Kingsley Amis, the English writer who is deeply unfashionable now (well, even his son Martin, now in his sixties, has become unfashionable, so what does that say about literary fashion? I speak as an admirer of both), called all fiction edited experience.

Of course, there is a great deal of irony in the statements of Bellow and Amis. Both are reductive in the way that writers who get the in-joke immediately and instinctively understand. Readers who tend to take things literally miss the point. If only things were that simple.

Why does the writing make us seek out the writer, Julian Barnes asks in his magnificent book, Flaubert’s Parrot. But a lot of readers do seek out the writer from the writing. And to the writer’s bewilderment, can never have enough of parallels between author and narrator, character and the writer’s self.

Even when it comes to memoir, it is hardly as straightforward as it might sometimes appear. Philip Roth – to whom we shall return when we speak about fiction – once said that our memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of our imaginings of the facts. This is the cornerstone of memoir writing. It is always coloured by the writer’s memory of events as they occurred, his perception of them, and his storification of that particular narrative. It is his self that he is putting on the line and not facts as they may be remembered by someone else. In any case, no two of us recall the same story in the same way. (Akira Kurasawa’s film, Rashomon, a masterclass in points of view in a narrative, exemplifies this perfectly.)

When it comes to fiction, the relation between the self and writing becomes even more complicated. This is because the writer of fiction is everywhere and nowhere in his own work.

‘Everything you want to know about me is in my novels,’ says V. S. Naipaul, whose most lasting contribution to the twentieth-century canon is likely to be a genre-bending offering of fiction, travel writing and memoir, all in the same book. His statement is as true as it is false. Yes and no; certainly; and not at all.

In a certain kind of realistic literary fiction, the writer takes the autobiographical impulse and runs with it. What emerges on the page is something that is transmuted, transmogrified and transformed by imagination. It transcends the facts. It transcends even the impulse. The self enters the writing; and the writing emerges from the self. Many readers forget the one link between the two that makes this possible: the leap of the imagination.

In The Counterlife, one of his greatest novels, Philip Roth talks about this. In his usual acerbic manner, full of the jokey postmodern, metafictional game-playing that he is so brilliant at, Roth has his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, say: ‘Life and art are distinct. Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and

infuriate everyone.’ (To be fair to his readers though, while Roth is superb at creating a teasing interplay between his life and his fiction, there sometimes is rather more of his life in his fiction than he would care to admit.) Those who seek the writer in his writing would do well to pay attention to this. The writer is everywhere and nowhere in his writing.

There is one thing on which the writer – be it in literary fiction, memoir or narrative non-fiction – undoubtedly relies a great deal. And that is his memory, his recollection of things, the manner in which he remembers details that give shape, meaning and significance to his narrative. The Nobel Prize-winner, Gunter Grass, who wrote in all the genres I have mentioned, wrote in an essay: ‘When it comes to recollection, the writer is a past master. Since narrative is what he writes, he has been trained in the craft. He knows that recollection is like a cat that needs to be stroked – sometimes in the wrong direction – until it starts to tremble, and then to purr. This is how he uses his own recollections … Recollection is his quarry, his compost heap, his archive. He nurtures it as carefully as if it were a second crop.’

I find that quote from Grass to be a terrific exposition of how the self – and the self’s recollection of things – forms one of the pillars of any kind of writing. Of course, remembering is not the same as not forgetting. Like close reading, it is an acquired skill.

All writers remember very well – and if they do not, they are reminded of it every time they sit down at their desks – how hard it is actually to get the writing done. Talking or writing about writing is much, much easier than doing it. I speak from bitter experience.

This is the other way in which the self enters writing: the self that does the actual stuff, the self that is involved – more intimately than anyone else – in the process of creation, the self that nags and worries and, on occasion, exults.

Writing is a lonely endeavour. Unlike, say, filmmaking, or putting out a play, it is not collaborative in any way. There is only the writer, and his aloneness, and the page or the screen. He is involved in the creation of a parallel world, a home of his own, to which he returns every time he returns to his desk. On occasion, that home seems warm and pleasant and ordered, and somewhere he would enjoy living. On other occasions, it seems inadequate and vulnerable, a hut of straw in the middle of a blizzard.

No wonder writing is so full of self-doubt. Is what I am writing good? Is it any good at all? (And here is another paradox: if the writer did not ask that question often enough, if he believed that whatever he wrote was always top drawer, it is more than likely that what he wrote would not be much good.) So he asks it, and he goes back and looks at his own work, and when it seems not much good he is filled with self-loathing for what he has produced. Why cannot my stuff be any better? Often, he hates himself for it. He also hates himself for having got into this business for the long haul. (Most writers write because they cannot help themselves. It is a cliché, but believe it.)

And he continues. It is a bit like going on and on trying to build a brick wall without knowing if it will stand in the end. It is not just me. The American writer, William Styron, said: ‘Writing is hell.’ And the Scottish writer, A. L. Kennedy, who blogs about writing on the Guardian’s website, wrote: ‘It’s literature, baby, no one ever said that it would be easy.’

And yet, contrary to the self-doubt and the self-loathing runs another current: that of self-belief. Writers need that self-belief to persevere, to keep at it, to overcome the doubt and stay the course. Without it, nothing would be possible.

Writing is, in a way, all about the ego. I have something to say that others would want to read. I have something to say that no one has said before, or at least not quite in this way. Writers believe that.

At the same time, it is all to do with being able to withstand the battering that ego takes when the writer looks at his own work and doubts its quality. That tug of war, that clashing of contrary impulses is something that makes writing such a fraught endeavour.

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