Féilim James is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. In 2020, the Arts of Council of Ireland awarded him a Literature Bursary Award to finish his debut novel, Flower of Ash, as well as a Professional Development Award. He also received an Arts Bursary from Dublin City Arts Office in 2021 to finish his first poetry collection, I was a river, lost. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of journals. Visit his website
The Way of the Writer
‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’
– Thomas Mann
Serious writing is never an escape. Rather, it is an incursion into the plane of the unknown, from which we attempt to glean some sort of understanding. Afterwards, the equally serious reader embarks on the same journey. What is the value of this journey, of creating, reading, and studying literature, to our young people, to ourselves? Aside from its clear aesthetic value, literature, like the sciences, brings us closer to certain truths, both of the human condition and of the world in which we live. Camus was right in stating that, alongside liberty, a writer must be loyal to truth.
This is no easy task. The writer must engage diligently with two things if they are to succeed in creating illuminating literature. Firstly, their own self; and secondly, otherness, the people around them, the wider world. This involves challenging oneself in ways which other professions – and other, less serious writing endeavours, such as recreational writing, or writing for money alone – do not require. This is often a difficult process, as it in a way forces the writer to submit themselves to the status of subject in a creative experiment, and also to broaden their mind to all that exists outside of their mind. The writer imprints the essence of themselves onto the page for the reader, however disguised, alongside the raw truths of their society and contemporary world. If this is successfully achieved, it is likely that some degree of originality will be present. But before this is achieved, the writer faces certain forms of resistance: ego, perfectionism, solitude, and challenges to their mental health. This essay will explore these forms of resistance, which must necessarily be overcome by any writer of serious ambition.
Ego is the first obstacle on the road to producing serious literature. Often, ego is what brings someone to the art of writing, and just as often it is the reason for their failure in the field. When beginning to write, two notions start to form in the mind of the writer: a self-image of oneself as writer, and delusions of literary grandeur directed at one’s own work.
The writer new to the trade has a strong, ego-driven image of oneself, modelled according to their central literary influences. Usually they see themselves as heir to a particular writer of the canon. This writer plays a huge role in deepening their interest in literature, in reading at first, then in writing. Personally, Sylvia Plath is almost singularly responsible for my entry into this trade. Aged sixteen, to me her poetry seemed written in an entirely different language, different to the poetry of others and to the everyday mundanities of language, but crucially not different to the private voice of my mind, its medley of pains and longings. In short, her work spoke to me, and helped me begin to speak myself, to channel my own voice.
The writer’s key influence then changes hands a number of times as time passes. I myself moved from Plath to Ted Hughes, and then as I shifted from poetry to fiction, to James Joyce, and afterwards to John Banville. This influence-modelled self-image results in one writing in a similar, imitative vein to the influence. The writer’s self-worth here relies upon the already validated literary identity of the influence. In a world that is not always congenial to literary aspirations, the new writer’s confidence gains force from their association with a writer of accepted credentials. They research the life of this writer, and may even come to resemble them in personality. Meanwhile, and most importantly, their own style is developing.
In addition to the writer’s self-image, there is also the writer’s opinion of their work itself. Although not all writers will begin with a positive perception of their work, there comes a moment early in the career when something clicks, and one feels they have put something of quality down on the page. It is a unique high, almost spiritual in quality. This is usually more a reflection of the pleasures of creation and expression, and not of any actual literary worth. The younger the writer, the greater the ignorance to this fact. I was guilty of such delusions. I remember well one of the first poems I ever wrote, ‘Who am I?’, the title of which a friend at the time justifiably recommended I change. I recall thinking how there was no need for more than one draft, and that I was already rivalling Plath at the mere age of sixteen – ridiculous ideas, no doubt. But the fact that I was able to take it on board when my friend recommended the title change is important. New writers’ egos can often be so large that they are resistant to any form of critique of their work, which is disastrous. This obstinance is perhaps unavoidable when it stems from youthful overconfidence: either way, it must be overcome.
Some writers never overcome these obstacles presented by the ego, and remain unwitting imitators caught up in misconceptions of genius for the rest of their lives. So how does one surmount these obstacles? A healthy degree of self-consciousness and an openness of mind are two essential traits.
The capacity for literary self-consciousness, to see one’s work somewhat objectively, to let the thrill of creation subside and to read the work through the same critical lens as one would read someone else’s work, is a skill that takes time to hone. One might even argue that it is impossible to fully achieve this, as any clear-minded evaluation of a piece of writing is irrevocably coloured by the experience of writing it. But the writer must try to come as close as they can to that viewpoint of near objectivity. It is only through this lens that the writer can filter out the inevitable flaws in their writing, and also discern any disproportional likeness to other works. This self-consciousness can be cultivated through a combination of critical reading; a wilful attempt to see one’s work anew; time and maturity; and finally, the simple acknowledgement that one is not God’s literary gift to the earth.
Studies have shown that, in life in general, openness is a favourable trait, optimal to personal growth. This is especially true for writers. If a writer won’t truly hear a criticism of their work, regardless of whether or not they agree with it, and at least consider this new perspective, then they are limiting themselves gravely. A distorted perception of oneself and one’s work can trigger such an attitude of dismissiveness.
In the process of increasing their self-conscious awareness of their work, and opening themselves up to the opinions of others, the writer ironically comes into danger of being bogged down by every possible opinion out there. In many developing writers this occurs after a number of years steadily writing – and, just as importantly, steadily reading. The writer in this perfectionist stage cannot help but compulsively view their writing through a Marxist lens, a feminist lens, the lens of the fiercest scholars of modernism, the lens of the average reader, the lens of the average literary agent, the lens of their lecturers, their friends, their close family. Of course, they are not viewing their work through the actual lens of these people, but rather through what they perceive to be their viewpoints. As such, this type of overactive self-consciousness can be nothing more than a delusion, a distraction, and ultimately a check on creativity.
In terms of my own writing, I would like to believe I am currently on my way out of the perfectionist phase. Writing my first novel, Adam (a grim, and wholly unmarketable tale of mental illness which I’ve laid aside for now), I remember putting huge amounts of pressure on each sentence. It was as though each line had to pass a review committee, consisting of my uber-intellectual Joyce lecturer, a money-hungry publisher, Sarah Gilmartin, John Banville, friends and family, and then, finally, me. In reality, it should have just been me, myself, and I, though not without all the lessons I learnt from these people fresh, and at a healthy remove, in my mind. A fundamental truth of writing is that the sentence must be allowed to breathe, to live its own life on its own terms – everything else is secondary once the first word has been penned.
It is also a fundamental truth of writing that when perfectionism takes over, the writer becomes lost. The consequence of failing to overcome this perfectionism is ultimately that the writer is swamped and drowned in the perceived critical opinions of others, and the writer’s own unique voice is a jewel left to the obscurity of the riverbed. It can be fatal, can lead to self-mistrust – disastrous for a writer looking to establish themselves. What is therefore necessary is a leap of faith – trusting oneself – a necessary bridge over the waters of perceived judgement.
Another means of surmounting perfectionism is to place faith in writing as rewriting, in all the drafts that follow the first. This is something that can escape the writer new to the craft, who views their work through an all-or-nothing lens: their work, conceived fully-formed, is either terrific or horrifically bad. Perhaps some of this stems from secondary education, where essays are hand-written under time constraints, reinforcing a one-draft-only mentality. Trusting in the inevitable improvements of redrafting, where poorer elements can be filtered out, and stronger pieces inserted, is paramount to the developing writer. Paralleling this is a healthy approach to the first draft, which should not be written as though one were walking on eggshells, as I have certainly been guilty of in the past. A useful method for this is overwriting one’s first drafts, then subsequently cutting it all down. This is advantageous on two levels: if one writes enough, something good is bound to emerge somewhere, which can be separated from the weaker parts; and secondly, this gung-ho approach to the first draft achieves a creative output and flow of sorts, breaking down the most damaging symptom of perfectionism: not writing at all.
Writing is a private affair, a task undertaken while withdrawn from the world, in order to write of that world and of the self. Of course, solitude is not antithetical to normal living; a degree of alone time is normal and healthy for everyone. However, a great challenge facing the serious writer is that their meaning-making, their purpose, is not fulfilled within a community, or part of a team effort, but by themselves. In many ways, this is obverse to our evolutionary nature – the fittest survive, yes, but rarely if ever do humans achieve this as lone animals. We are not tigers. Every one of us relies on other people each day for survival. Therefore it is a personal challenge for the writer every time they set out on their lone quest.
While perfectionism teaches the writer not to trust themselves, the aloneness of writing requires they trust themselves or fail, simply put. No matter what is going on in life, when that seat is taken in the lamp-lit office, the silence of the library, the crowded coffee shop, the writer must trust in their capacity to bring something thoroughly new to the world, via the indisputable newness of their individual self. There is no one else there to help once the writer takes to the task. In this vein, the writer is to a degree a tiger in a world of pack animals, stalking the wilderness in search of new discoveries.
Social validation, or the lack of it, is therefore an obstacle presented by the solitary nature of writing, especially for the developing, unpublished writer. Three years ago, while I was undertaking NUI Galway’s MA in Writing, Kevin Barry came in to talk to us. He spoke of those years of hardship before being published, where he would ‘cry into his soup every day’. I asked him whether those years are the hardest in a literary career, and he said he believed so. Being at that stage in the present moment, I can vouch for this. Taking time to go off by yourself, attempting to weave words into some semblance of interest and originality, while others work hard to earn actual money that will be paid into their bank account in a matter of weeks, and not in small lump sums in an extremely hypothetical future, takes courage. I saw Sally Rooney speak before of these twilight years, where some friends and relatives are ‘annoyed at you for not having a real job’. This is a reality, and perhaps an understandable worry for concerned relatives, but it nonetheless translates to the average writer, already hard-pressed for validation, as a slight on their raison d’être. This, and many other slights (‘So what do you intend to do long-term, journalism?’), are what must be endured on the writer’s solitary path, and overcome in those early years.
One method of overcoming this problem is to immerse oneself in the literary community. My own experience of doing an MA in Writing almost completely alleviated this self-doubt and near-embarrassment for one’s career choice. It revealed to me the value of the literary community. The up-and-coming writer should look to socialise with likeminded individuals, and not with those intolerant of a trade due to its poor financial record or place outside mainstream conceptions of labour.
Aside from the problem of social validation, another challenge for the solitary writer is that they must be capable of a high level of unsupervised concentration, something which is in direct conflict with the conditioning of the digital age. Short attention spans are commonplace nowadays, with the mind accustomed to hit after hit of stimulation from alerts, texts, news items. A mind that is constantly hungering after the next hit of dopamine cannot achieve the poise required for the writer to enter into that state of fluidity where the writing bounces, with relative ease, from idea to idea, action to action, thought to thought. Kevin Barry was certainly on the right track in suggesting we keep ourselves away from the internet until after our daily writing is done, though this is no mean feat in today’s age. One problem with this, which I often experience, is the urge to fact-check and research small points while writing. This naturally involves the use of the internet, which can be a slippery slope of distraction. The writer must find their own way of mediating this, perhaps researching before the writing, or afterwards, or practising a speedy in-and-out approach to these incursions onto the internet. Nonetheless, the internet remains a potential minefield of distraction.
The sustained solitude of writing can at times threaten the mental stability of the writer. The final form of resistance which we will discuss is something that many writers face over the course of their careers: mental health difficulties. A study undertaken by Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute involving more than one million people found a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illness. According to its findings, writers have a higher risk of illnesses such as anxiety and bipolar disorders, depression, and schizophrenia, while members of this profession are also twice as likely to kill themselves compared to the general population. These figures suggest that mental illness is a very real problem amongst writers, something which isn’t discussed enough, and which mental health campaigns haven’t caught up on yet. (Although the advent of organisations such as Minding Creative Minds is encouraging.)
The myth of the tortured artist, whose misery is a constant source of inspiration, is harmful to the artist in how they see themselves, but also in how the world sees them. In broad terms, mental illness is felt the same way by everyone: it is a negative thing. For the writer to be told that their mental illness is ‘good material’, as I have been on many occasions, though meant well, is ignorant to and dismissive of the writer’s problems, and what’s more can confuse the up-and-coming writer who may feel that they should be executing some of their best work while they experience emotional pain.
To some degree, my own evolution as a writer has been modelled upon the myth of the tortured artist. As discussed, Sylvia Plath was a major influence. Kurt Cobain was one of my favourite musicians in early adulthood. Jim Morrison held my imagination captive for a time. All of these were self-destructive though brilliant artists who died either intentionally or unintentionally by their own hand at a young age. All were artists who channelled their demons in remarkable ways to produce great art. As a younger man, I had the demons, I had the creative urge, and thus I fixed myself into this template of tortured artist doomed to self-destruction. It was an emotional affair – I had greatly romanticised the ideal of artistic martyrdom. Indeed, I can even go so far as to say that fixed at the back of my consciousness until around the age of twenty was a conviction that I would die young. This underlying attitude to life and art was unhealthy, and I am glad to say has been exorcised. My demons, on the other hand, will remain with me forever; only their degree of intensity varies.
So how does the writer best manage challenges to their mental health, and continue to create work that fulfils their potential? It is difficult, but doable. As someone who has kept writing through periods of serious distress, I can attest to the benefits of getting even the smallest of amounts down on the page each day in such times. Even an hour’s work, even 200 words, gives to the anguished mind a small sense of achievement and of expression, without which it would be that bit worse off. Also, the mind has an awful habit of asserting in such moments that what one is writing is not at all to the usual standard. I have learnt this to be a lie, and a dangerous one. In general, regardless of our mental state, what we write tends to be of similar quality from one day to the next, or so I have found from my own experience. Listening to the voice that tells you that what you are doing is worthless can be extremely debilitating. It is therefore of the utmost importance for the writer to remind themselves when they are working through distress that what they are putting down is of more or less the same quality as usual.
Once this biting self-criticism is treated as insincere, the writer experiencing mental health difficulties can focus on completely immersing themselves in their work. It can be helpful at such times to focus on projects which are more pleasant to the writer, or represent some form of a better life which they can envision for themselves. In early 2019, I wrote a short story, ‘Old Man’, while in the clutches of an anxiety so great it was a major challenge to leave the house. Each day, for three hours, I sat at my desk, cut off from the world, and embraced the life of this successful sixty-year-old writer of who is met with an old-age crisis over the absence of a magnum opus in his oeuvre. Entering into this man’s consciousness provided me with an alternative, more pleasant reality which relieved the severity of my symptoms.
I have said that serious writing is never an escape. While writing about different, better lives when in the grip of mental illness may represent an escape from the pain, it is not an escape from life. Rather, it is the opposite: it is a return to life, a re-entry into all of the beautiful possibilities which life holds. Living with mental illness is not truly living. Writing can allow the troubled artist a few hours of life a day, even if it is lived vicariously through fictional characters. What’s more, it can aid the writer to regain a more positive outlook on the world, and, in time, recover.
Another method for working through mental health problems is to write out the negative emotions when they come. Simply put pen to paper and give voice to all the demons are saying, till they quieten and tire. Though one may at first be filled with frustration during this exercise, with practice it can certainly assuage the distress, not least because the very act, the very gesture of writing affirms the writer’s faith. Additionally, the writer must also trust in treatment methods used for the general population, as their needs dictate: talk therapy first and foremost, exercise, time off, antidepressants, an adjustment of triggering environmental factors, and so on.
Though the idea of the writer’s distress amounting to ‘good material’ may be laughable, and rather unhelpful to the sufferer in the eye of the storm, long-term it is not without some shred of truth. I have found suffering to be one of my greatest teachers. It opens us up to the near infinite amount of experiences and emotions that a human can know, and also to what the mind is capable of. It teaches us empathy and compassion, highly valuable traits for any artist (or human). And, in its own, it brings us closer to ourselves, helps us know ourselves that bit better, which is extremely useful for the developing writer.
Writing is commonly regarded as a dream job – in one sense, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Numerous challenges present themselves to the serious writer, many of which take a heavy toll on them. A healthy degree of self-consciousness, openness of mind, self-trust, involvement in literary communities, self-discipline, writing with religious consistency, immersion in one’s work, and self-care are all invaluable to the up-and-coming writer in staving off the unique obstacles presented by a unique career. And once these obstacles are overcome, and the onerous journey of a writing project completed, the writer’s sense of achievement can indeed be unparalleled, and dream-like.