writer. I have long entertained this notion of being suddenly inspired to write this magnificent novel, getting published and being able to retire to look over the sea while the royalties roll in. Quite aside from the obvious misconception that all good authors make retiring kind of money with their first book, most people who are going to create something great (novelists, songwriters, artists) usually start doing so fairly early on in their lives. Something burns inside them that compels them to write, compose or draw in every moment of spare time they have and they realize that is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. I look at someone like Chris Martin (of my beloved Coldplay) and marvel at his talent, am moved by his music, but have no sense of what compels him to write it. By contrast, he has probably been writing snippets of lyric and melody since he was a child.
I have written precisely two works of fiction in my life. The first, "The Industrial Mother Pig", was a short story written as a six year-old on a record card from my father's study. It was received well enough by its rather limited audience, but was destined never to be a best-seller. The second was my entry, a few years later, into a play-writing contest in the magazine of the Puffin Club, a reading club for children run by the Penguin Press, who published their children's titles under the Puffin Books label. It was good enough to win me a copy of the play adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and publication in the magazine, but the phone stayed strangely silent.
I took Economics and Geography at university, and in my Junior Sophister year chose "The Geography of the United States of America" as one of my electives. Given by a wonderfully enthusiastic lecturer, Dr. James Killen, this course, and particularly, its year-end assignment, was to instill in me a fascination with and love for US history and geography that continues to this day.
The assignment was to write a 5,000-word paper on topic given to us by Dr. Killen. Mine was to be the political and religious geography of the US. I was to explain how the distribution of religious and political affiliation that we see in today's America came to pass. Why, for example, the southern states are predominantly Baptist, or why northern inner cities have a large proportion of Democratic voters.
I don't know about you, but much of my assignment writing in university was pretty much an exercise in getting enough of what the lecturer wanted to see onto the page in order to get a reasonably decent grade. Not so in this case. The topic piqued my interest from the start and is an onion of many, many layers. Each book I delved into in search of answers as part of my research peeled away one layer of the onion only to reveal another. A stranger to the US system of government and to many of its major religious denominations, I had to learn about them, and then to trace the history and settlement of the United States back to the Pilgrim Fathers, to read the Constitution and the sermons of John Wesley in order to piece the story together.
For two solid weeks, it was all I did, rising early in the morning so as to be at the library as it opened, there to continue my research into the evening, surrounded by a horseshoe of stacked books, each open to the page that had caused me to get the next one from the shelves. And I loved every minute of it.
I think the resulting paper is probably the best thing I have yet written. The mark it got means less to me than the all-consuming pleasure I got from researching and writing it.
In recent weeks, as I have rekindled my desire to write, I have been wondering what sort of writer I want to be, and why I feel I want to write at all. I love to write, but without that creative fire burning within, compelling me to create that Great Novel, what would I actually write about? I thought about the way that creators spend their waking hours jotting down story ideas, or melodies, or sketches and, sitting at my computer recently, I asked myself if I did anything that emulated that. What is it that I am compelled to do whenever I have a spare moment?
As I contemplated this, my attention drifted to my web browser, groaning under the weight of the numerous tabs I had opened in response to reading an article someone had posted to Twitter an hour before.
Like those those stacked books in the university library two decades ago, the series of open tabs were the result of what I compulsively do whenever I have time on my hands. As a child, I was an avid reader of fiction, but rarely encountered something new in a story without having to go learn about it in a reference book, often having novel in one hand, and the reference book in the other.
Regrettably, my masterpiece term paper is lost to posterity, the victim of an era when a 20MB hard drive was an optional extra, but the the memory of those happy hours researching and writing it lives on. And now I know what compels me to write, I will watch for signs that a subject or story is piquing my interest just as the topic of that paper did all those years ago.
Retirement may have to wait, though.