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Writing – The Sweetest Water Flows from Love

April 12, 2013

What drives people to spend days, months and sometimes years expressing themselves through writing?

One such person is Tim Mackintosh-Smith, chronicler of Ibn Battutah and my favourite travel writer, who was back in Bahrain last week.

Tim gave what was billed as a masterclass in travel writing. The event was part of the Bahrain Spring of Culture, which I talked about last month. Though entertaining and enlightening, I wouldn’t describe his talk at La Fontaine Centre for the Arts as a masterclass – more a rumination with nuggets of wisdom emerging from a stream of authorial consciousness.

Something he said about the art and business of travel writing set me thinking. It was to the effect that that if you want to be a travel writer, do it for love, not money. Because there is precious little money to be made from writing about your hikes around lesser known parts of the world, unless you happen to own the rights to the Lonely Planet series. And writing about pubs, tourist attractions, exchange rates and hotels is definitely not the business of writers like Tim and others of his ilk, such as William Dalrymple, Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sir Richard Burton and of course the great Ibn Battutah.

No less than great novelists, poets and historians, these writers offer us lessons in life – windows into the human condition. Yet today if you try and get published under the category of travel writer, you will struggle. Even if you get a publishing deal with an advance, the sum involved is highly unlikely to fund four years of effort, which is typically the time Tim took to write each of his books on Ibn Battutah.

Fortunately for him, the cost of living in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, is somewhat less than that in London, Paris or New York. Yet travel costs money, and as he said, there were times when things got very tight during the long gestation periods of his books.

So why would Tim, his fellow writers and writers past dedicate their lives to labouring with so little reward? Tim is an erudite and charming man who could have succeeded in many other walks of life, and probably made a heap of money in the process. I can’t speak for him, and you would probably get different answers from every successful writer on the planet.

He might say “it’s a job, guv”. But I doubt it. It’s not a job, and I doubt he would disagree if I suggested that it was more of a calling. And I suspect that he probably wouldn’t swap the two thousand books he has on his shelves in Sana’a for all the Range Rovers, country houses and five-star hotel visits that might have been within his reach had he chosen a different life.

All speculation of course. Then I got to thinking about why I write. Unlike Tim, I’m not a renowned writer. Yet I usually churn out a few thousand words a week. I look back on some of what I’ve written and think yes, that’s pretty good. Other stuff is not great, but not so bad that I regret having written it. I don’t write in the expectation of striking it rich with some future book, but if somebody wants to offer me a large sum of money for what I might produce in the future, that’s OK.

I write because I love doing it. I have decades of life behind me, and writing forces me to make sense of my experience. It also makes me think about events and issues when otherwise I might pass them by without a further thought. Writing without the need to make money from it, with no deadlines and no compulsion gives me the freedom to choose what I write, when I write and how much I write.

Perhaps it’s an act of self-indulgence rather than self-actualisation. Perhaps when I’m gone the words will dissolve into the vast digital soup and never be thought of or read again. That’s the fate of many writers, whose books find themselves on the shelves of charity shops or in car-boot sales on offer for less than price of a can of Pepsi.

Does that make the effort of writing all those words a waste of time? Words are ripples of thought that wash over the consciousness of others, and change those who read them in ways big and small. From the pens of some writers, words make giant waves that keep rolling over the centuries. In my case, if a few tiny ripples cause a few people to think anew, or think more deeply, I consider that to be a worthy reward for my time.

If there is one word whose meaning has changed for the worse over the past century, it’s “amateur”. A hundred years ago an amateur was someone who loved doing something and didn’t expect to be paid for doing it – as opposed to a professional who did the same thing and earned a living from it. There was no implication that the amateur was any less an expert at the activity than the professional. In cricket, for example a medical doctor called WG Grace set records for the sport he loved that have not been equalled since. And there was no implication, by the way, that professionals loved what they did any less.

These days the term amateur is often used pejoratively. It can mean inexpert, clumsy, not thorough. An amateur’s efforts might be rewarded with faint praise: “not bad for an amateur”. In contrast, professional has come to mean the paragon of excellence: “a really professional job”.

That’s a shame, because neither term any longer carries the suggestion of love.

I’m happy to call myself an amateur in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I do get paid occasionally for stuff I write, both directly and through people liking what I say and wanting to do business with me. But that’s not why I write. And I regard people like Tim Mackintosh-Smith – who has written about subjects that he loves, but whose books about Yemen and Ibn Battutah may never reach an audience large enough to bring him wealth as well as the fame he has deservedly won – as amateurs also.

The same goes for hundreds of thousands of people who have found an outlet for their words over the past decade through their blogs and self-published books. And so it has been for writers down the ages. Ibn Battutah didn’t regard himself as a “professional writer”, yet his words have echoed down the centuries.

There are many people scratching a living from their work who might wearily comment “art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake”. But at the risk of sounding somewhat Olympian, commercial success is not always the same as memorable work. Thousands, maybe millions, of writers are producing stuff that touches others deeply without gaining commercial reward for their efforts. They write for love first, money second. It’s a passion, a compulsion. One of the joys of reading is to be constantly surprised by great writing from unlikely sources. Take Russell Brand’s meditation in the Guardian on how Margaret Thatcher touched his life, for example. It’s a piece that radiates humanity, and couldn’t have been produced by someone who doesn’t love writing.

Another author whose work I admire very much, Tahir Shah, once wrote about story-telling in Morocco. He used an analogy of underground rivers of stories beneath the feet, waiting to be discovered.

In a wider sense, we walk today across digital rivers. We cannot discover all that flows beneath our feet. Yet to be a tributary into those rivers is an opportunity open to anyone with the time, the means and the motivation. And the sweetest water is that which flows from love.

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