Zen and the Art of Writing

Posted by in February's Magazine

Marrianne Wheelaghan is a writer with a day job. Well, two day jobs actually…


…And according to the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey this puts me among the majority. Results from the survey reveal that an incredible 77% of self-published writers make £600 or less a year, with a startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally published authors, and 43.6% of hybrid authors, reporting earnings below the same threshold. Only a tiny amount (less than 2%) earn enough money to live in comparative comfort.

Even renowned crime writer Ian Rankin is on record as saying that after having published five or six books he still wasn’t making enough money to live off and was worried that he would have to give up the dream of being a full-time writer. I’ve published two books – a third is due out soon – so am I only two or three books away from living the dream? Probably not. But there’s nothing wrong with being optimistic!

Meanwhile, is it so awful for a writer to have a day job? Not according to Nobel Prize judge and Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl. He is of the opinion that those of us with day jobs can create better literature than those who are subsidised by grants, awards and such. In an interview with the French newspaper La Croix he said, “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

Now my first job is running a small guesthouse. You may find it difficult to see how grilling bacon and frying eggs on a daily basis can feed the literary me. But one of the paradoxes of creativity is that while it involves hard work and effort, the light bulb moments tend to come when we are not focused on ‘being creative’. Ray Bradbury, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, put it rather neatly when he said the great secret of creativity is “… to treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you. If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, ‘Well, to hell with you.’ And the cat says, ‘Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.’ Then the cat follows you out of curiosity.”

In other words, while I’m emptying the dishwasher and musing on why some guests have stolen my teaspoons, again, or why others have used my lovely, fluffy white towels to wipe off their make-up, or how the man in room four managed to break the flush mechanism of his en-suite toilet, or why the couple expected at 2 o’clock in the afternoon thought nothing of turning up at midnight instead, or why other guests leave the lights on in their room during the day, or why others knock on my door just as I’m putting my feet up to watch an episode of The Killing, because they’ve locked their key in their room…well, while I’m musing on these not so worthy things, somewhere in my sleeping subconscious delicious ideas are forming. And as long as I am prepared to wait, they will seek me out and find me, just like cats.

What of my second day job? Well, the one thing running a small guesthouse gives you is time. And in my time, apart from writing books, I also run an online creative writing school. Why? When I started out on the rocky road to becoming a writer, I thought authors were mysterious, special people. Then I discovered that being a good writer has nothing to do with having a special gift, it is, rather, to do with having the right attitude. It’s about facing your fears and taking risks, about rethinking your thinking and keeping going (a thick skin can help too). I also discovered that I loved writing. So much so that I wanted to share my passion for it with others – I happen to believe that teaching a skill is an honourable way to earn a crust.

Which is why I also beg to differ with the great Horace Engdahl. You see, in the very same interview where he extols the virtues of writers having day jobs to feed their imagination, he also says, “Western literature is being impoverished by creative writing programmes.” Ouch! I can’t believe my writing programme, or any writing programme, is responsible for the demise of western literature. I agree that inspiration isn’t something you can teach, nor is creativity, and a good writing programme can’t tell a writer the best way to tell his or her story, or even what it is. But it can help writers hone their skills and offer support and encouragement on what can be a very long and lonely road (with or without a day job). Western literature impoverished by writing programmes, Mr Engdahl? Maybe you should try

Twitter @MWheelaghan

2 responses to “Zen and the Art of Writing”

  1. Andrews says:

    This is really great article and I am inspired by the writer and his work no doubt writing a book is difficult to part I am also a custom writer for dissertation writing and I know how difficult to manage a time while you are working on a big project, and I work for the students and help them I don't work for making money.

  2. carolsatrana says:

    interesting post. it's very interesting and informative. Thanks you. will there be a continuation of this? our service https://essayag.org/ will help you write your essay quickly and efficiently

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *