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The mythic life of the writer

March 28, 2010

As my quill pen scratched away at the vellum, I was disturbed by a knock at the garret door. I placed the nib back in the ink pot and rose from my stool, my back in agony from hunching over my work in the candlelight. The visitor was my landlady, for once not seeking the exorbitant rent for this cramped room, but instead bearing a letter.

I tore open the envelope eagerly, scarcely noticing the cut delivered to the flesh exposed by my fingerless gloves. An offer from a publisher! Willing to pay up to five shillings for every 24 pages!

Alas – I had burned my manuscripts the night before, for I had no coal for the fire…

Oddly enough, not a description of my life, nor that of any writer I know, yet for many this is the popular perception of the writer’s life.

So what are some of the myths and realities of the writer’s life?

  • The Penniless Artist

I imagine if you just quit your job (or never had one) and without any savings decided to become a writer, you would very quickly become a penniless artist.

But who does that? The big name writers survive by their writing alone. For everyone else, there’s the day job. And even the big names had day jobs when they were starting out.

The overwhelming majority of writers are keen hobbyists who have a main income from another job. Even those who want to be full-time writers have an income from other sources when they start out.

Only the insane would pursue writing without some kind of income as a safety net. Writers have other jobs, and those that don’t are either seeking work, or are fortunate enough to have a partner willing to support them.

I had a job that, whilst I was never rich, left me comfortable. Last month I was made redundant, and as I can’t yet support myself from writing alone, I am looking for work, rather than sacrificing myself on some allegedly noble ideal.

  • Alone in the garret, hunched over a desk, with fingerless gloves.

A garret, or a single rented room, is part and parcel of the “penniless artist” image. Whilst many writers work in a room, it is usually part of a home that contains many rooms.

I write at a desk, but others choose tables, the sofa, in bed etc. Whatever works best for them. I’ll confess to the fingerless gloves though, but only because my hands sometimes get cold, and the gloves let me continue typing whilst keeping warm.

  • Writers all use dip pens and ink.

Or pencils. Or biros. Or we type. This isn’t the 18th Century you know. I work mainly in a combination of pencil and type, which brings us to…

  • Writers are beret-wearing, goatee-sporting, elitist Mac users

I look terrible in a beret, and these days I’m clean-shaven.

I am however a Mac user. In the UK, Macs were the computers used in schools. They were what I was used to, so when I got my own computer, I moved on to them. They had an elegance and user-friendliness that Windows has only recently caught up with (from XP onwards).

But I know writers who use Windows. I know writers who use Linux. I know writers who use Macs. To be honest, the only computer a writer really needs is a simple text editor like the AlphaSmart. Everything else is just a (sometimes distracting) bonus.

  • Writers are secretly jealous of the successes of other writers

Actually, I think this one is true…

There are other myths and stereotypes of writers, some with more than a grain of truth to them. What ones have you heard?

Of course a few weeks ago, when his boiler was still broken, Paul was holed up in his garret, shivering with a blanket wrapped around him, and considering burning some manuscripts to keep warm, so maybe it’s all true!
3 Comments
  1. March 28, 2010 11:18 pm

    Is is sad that I kind of want to write hunched up in my garret with my writing smock on and my hair all of a scattered mess, ink on my nose? That’s what all that good , old writing has done – it’s completely spoiled me for modern conveniences and the laptop life. I’m not cold, I’m comfortably ensconced in a chair with a lovely new computer starting back at me and do I have stacks and stacks of creative genuis lying around to burn in the grate? Nope. Maybe some measly drafts hiding away behind this glassy screen but where’s the physical proof that I’m a writer? Not even calloused fingers from all the scratchy pens and ink. Sigh.

  2. March 28, 2010 11:27 pm

    I’m afraid if I tried to write long hand that I wouldn’t be able to decipher what I had just written – so thank goodness for modern tech.. ( and Macs)

    here’s a nugget to be thrown into the fires of distain:

    “Writers are lonely souls whose best writing can only be extracted if they live in solitude, in the mountains or in a cabin far away from civilisation. ” hummm.. whilst this might work for some people, some of the best short stories I’ve written have been in the midst of a childrens playground – the air buzzing with little voices and shrieks.

    I know this has been a discussion in previous posts – but its always interesting to see where writers feel comfortable to create.

  3. March 29, 2010 5:58 am

    “Writers are lost souls – who rely on drugs, sex, alcohol and misadventure to survive creatively.”

    While there are plenty of writers who fall into the above category, there are plenty of writers who are not soaked in gin, puffing away on opium pipe, as their latest lover sleeps on.

    I have to admit cleaning up my act to write – which in a nutshell meant giving up alcohol and I don’t miss the binging nature of those past days at all. I’ll take writing over alcohol any day.

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