In my first week as an Eng Lit student at university one of the lecturers eyed us balefully and said, you're here to read and if you don't want to read, fuck off. Another one told us that most literature was really very boring - just in case we were expecting to enjoy ourselves. So that was us put straight. A bit rough, but it was the early eighties, we were mainly women, used to being told like it is by men of a certain age. As time went on, I could to some extent see where they were coming from. I had worked for a number of years and was there on a mature student's grant. This and the fact of no fees to be paid seems almost unthinkable now. With a little paid work in the summer, I was well able to live on the grant. And I loved everything about being a student. The younger ones would often arrive at tutorials smudge-eyed, smelling of last night's party, not having read the text of whatever it was. I was much sought-after in the ten minutes or so before a class for the quick summary that would allow them to bluff their way through the session. I was not bored by much, except for The Faerie Queene which sits on my bookshelves unread, the portrait of Gloriana on the front still measuring and finding me wanting. I thought Tristram Shandy boring too but persevered as everyone (even the hardened party people) seemed to think it was cool. Later, it would allow me to bluff my way through conversations about post-modernism.
Cut to when I began teaching creative writing classes. I suppose I could have echoed what my erstwhile tutor said but my preferred way was to give a short reading list, the first item being Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming A Writer'. I was pleased to see that it was placed at number two of Hilary Mantel's ten rules for writers (the first being to get an accountant). Brande had the belief that although there were varying degrees of talent, everyone could write. I believed this too and simply assumed that everyone who came to class - even the man who said he was there because his wife insisted he get himself an interest and the art class was full - was there because they wanted to write. And everyone did. We began almost immediately, writing in class and reading it back. People found that if there was no space to worry or censor, they were more brilliant than they imagined they could be. I would set a writing task for students to do at home, which they brought back to class the following week. Mostly they always did.
Being a writer is perhaps subtly different from Becoming - though I think we are always doing that, wherever we are on the writing road. Being a writer means you have reached that point where you know that this is what you are for, whatever else you have to do to earn money or to meet other commitments; this is what you have to come back to. It may be that you stop doing it for long periods because of health, lack of time or writers' block (yes, even experienced and famous writers sometimes get it and some have recovered with Dorothea Brande), but the soul is uneasy until you get back to doing it. And then the time comes when you might have to say to yourself: you're here to write and if you don't want to write, fuck off.
Dorothea Brande puts it more delicately. But she does say that if after a period of time you find that the resistance to writing is stronger than the impulse to do it - then it is better, dear reader, to find something else to do.
One of my favourite Twitter hashtags: #AmWriting.