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Deborah Dooley

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"Why Do You Write?"

Posted: 23/11/11 14:43

"Why do you write?" is a question often asked. By writers themselves perhaps, as they gaze in the bathroom mirror at the end of a particularly unproductive day, or by curious others, keen to know what drives their fellow man to spend great swathes of time committing collections of words to screen or pad.

Writing is a lonely and often thankless occupation. The pay is erratic and the potential for self loathing - as you stare at your latest literary offering and wonder who in their right minds would read it - immense. And yet creative writing courses and classes are increasingly popular, as more and more people take up the art of configuring and arranging their thoughts and dreams and setting them out in a format which others will - hopefully - find pleasing. Poetry, science fiction or romance, features for national newspapers, fillers for magazines, self help, travel - all are well subscribed areas of interest, and all fit comfortably under the umbrella of creative writing.

But whatever your remit, and whether you are published or not, the process, as any writer will tell you, is the same. You take a seat. You take a long look at the notebook or screen in front of you. You sigh. You get up and make tea or coffee. You sit down again and chew your pen or your fingers. You make a phone call/send an email, which may or may not be related to the project in hand. You sigh again. And then - finally, you write. And at the end of an hour or so, you may have a reasonable amount of words down, with which you are passably content. Or you may regard the work in front of you with disgust and despair.

This is a fairly typical slice of time in the life of a writer. Those of us who write commercially can afford less sighing and general procrastination, but the tendency is always there. And no matter how many years of writing experience you have under your belt, no matter how much work you have published, the insecurity, the nagging question "am I really a writer?" never leaves you.

I have come to think of this feeling as a gift. A tool which keeps you on your toes, keeps you sharp, keeps you endlessly searching for ways to improve your literary skills. Rather like a seasoned actor who still suffers from stage fright, it is the adrenaline rush brought on by that constant fear of failure, which spurs you on to constantly improve your craft. And the good news is that contrary to popular belief, improve you can.

Writers are both born and made. While it is true that some are blessed with a natural talent, those who aren't, shouldn't assume that the craft of the wordsmith is not for them. In the same way that you can learn and improve any other skill, be it acting, woodwork, cookery, dancing - whatever, you can learn to be a writer and then to be a better writer. And I firmly believe that if the desire to write is there, so too is the ability.

As the owner of a writers' retreat, I see all kinds of writing. And one of best answers to the "why do you write?" question, came from someone struggling to find an agent for her first novel. "Because I'd feel funny if I didn't," she said. There speaks a natural writer. But what she didn't mention is that along with the feelings of normality bestowed by regular writing, there comes the occasional magical writing moment. When exactly the right word or phrase pops into your head, which makes you smile as you hastily get it down. Because there on the page in front of you is a smooth and eminently readable passage - which proves beyond any shadow of doubt that you are a writer.

As I write this, I am on a week's family holiday in a particularly charming area of south west France. Everyone has gone out to a local market and I am here alone with my laptop, a big bowl of milky coffee at my elbow.

It occurs to me that I have created my own writer's retreat.