Virginia Woolf said “One ought to sink to the bottom of the sea, probably, and live alone with ones words,” a sentiment all us time-poor philographers would understand. In the river of passing events, you snatch moments where you can, always with the feeling that you’re taking time away from something or someone else, because (let’s face it) you are. The other elements Woolf insisted upon for the writerly life were money and a room of her own, all of which she conveniently had. Woolf’s contribution of the English literary canon cannot be denied, yet her personal circumstances (mental illness and early suicide aside) were about as ideal as they could get.
While I doubt they’ll be studying her at Bachelor level any time soon, infinitely more inspiring to me than dreary old ‘Ginny is the story of an unemployed single-mum living in a council flat on benefits, with three chapters of a book at the bottom of her tatty suitcase that she just won’t abandon. For the sake of the exercise, with a bit of creative writing we could argue that Woolf was right, that her dingy flat was Joanne Rowling’s writer’s garret (a room of her own), unemployment gave her time to write (living alone with her words), and benefits were money enough to survive. QED, as my maths teacher used to infuriatingly gloat. But would we have Hogwarts if the author’s marriage survived, she got that promotion, and filled her cupboards with Gruyère and vermentino?
Suffering for your art, one of the great cliches of the literary life, is evident in the bio of both authors. For Woolf it was mental illness, for Rowling it was poverty. Did their travails influence their work, absolutely. Would we have their work without it? Maybe, maybe not. But why do I equivocate? Because everybody hurts (thanks R.E.M.); the only test is whether you blink and miss it.
Graham Greene famously said “there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” which allows them to adopt a perspective upon tragedy that other people might find distressing or loathsome. Writers mine suffering for material — their own, and other’s — like some symbiote clinging to the carcass of life. If you want to test this theory, read then research Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” or DBC Pierre’s “Vernon God Little” for some particularly nasty examples of where authors draw their inspiration. If you can’t stomach it, better stop pretending. Morbid fascination aside, normal people keep driving past. Authors jump out of their cars, roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty. They have to taste it, smell it, know it, then reflect it somehow in their writing.
A writer can feel all the usual emotions of horror, disgust, outrage and fear, they just can’t blink.