Are Writers Selfish?

It’s undeniable, that to get a book written, an author has to be selfish.

We have to make the time to be alone in our creative space, to open the channels into the fictional world we command. That’s one of the joys of writing, for however confusing things become, we authors are at least able to decide how our stories will play out—unlike real life!

Not that it’s always pleasant to be confronted with a blank page. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe compared writing a novel to being imprisoned:

It is like wrestling; you are wrestling with ideas and with the story. There is a lot of energy required. At the same time, it is exciting. So it is both difficult and easy. What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment — you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes.

Prisoners are occasionally visited by family and friends, and like a prisoner the writer needs to make a conscious effort to shake off the hidden world that occupies their thoughts, attempting to return to the reality of everyday living to interact with normal people.

That’s not to say, that writers constantly take pleasure in excluding loved ones, and even strangers, for sitting alone working, tussling with your imagination and confronting your own humanity has a way of throwing you back on yourself. Solitude may help creativity, but it helps to be happy in your own skin.

The commitment we need to write a book is assailed by doubts about its lack of commercial worth. We’ve created something, but if it doesn’t interest anyone and fails to sell itself, we’re effectively non-productive. It helps to have admirers among your relatives and friends, to buoy up your ego.

George Orwell said in Why I Write:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” 

In 2016, Irish novelist John Banville stirred up a hornet’s nest of recriminations, after declaring that writers are bad fathers.

It’s undeniable, that the 20th-century’s best-selling children’s author, Enid Blyton, was a terrible mother, bringing misery to her daughters. Her writing came first, and she preferred the idea of happy families, rather than making one herself.

We have to be self-centred as writers, but does that make us selfish?

I live a solitary existence, happy to be reclusive. I don’t have a family and no friends who live locally. I made a deliberate decision to leave a town where I’d lived for 15 years, to move to an area new to me, so that I could write without distractions. This could be seen as selfish or egocentric or devoted to my craft.

I’m in regular contact with half a dozen friends, in the U.K., New Zealand and the U.S.A., and three have graciously acted as readers for me. As I’m happier than I’ve been in years, they don’t worry about me being stupidly selfish by doing something that’s frivolous and potentially harmful. I like the devotion and discipline required to be a writer, and freely admit that it’s addictive…but, it’s an addiction that enhances me, and which may benefit readers if they ever discover my stories!

Do you ever worry about being selfish?

What have you given up, to be a writer?

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