Life, Writing and Being Useless

(soundtrack to this post: ‘Wasting My Young Years‘ by London Grammar)

Posts here have been a little thin on the ground, mostly due to the fact that I’ve been work very hard on the manuscript for a novel – more news of which I hope one day to be able to share, but I’ll shut up about for now.

But I felt the urge to write a post about writing today, partly inspired by reading Jon McGregor’s piece here on ‘What’s the Point.’ He was responding to Noel Gallagher’s comment in an interview with GQ that “novels are a fucking waste of time”.

What’s interesting about Gallagher’s comment is that it feels like it has some traction. It’s not a completely ignorant thing to say because the response, the smart come-back to shut the ignorant prick up, isn’t immediately communicable. In other words, he’s tapping in to one of the core fears I have, and wonder if perhaps other writers share, viz: books are a waste of time, and throwing time at writing them thus falls into a category way lower into Gallagher’s ‘fucking waste of time’ – ie a complete and total fucking waste of time, money, energy, resources and coffee.

At least, that’s what it can feel like when things aren’t going well.

But the key question that this raises is this: what isn’t a waste of time? What would it be that Noel would have us be doing in the time we’d save not being involved in novels? Smoking? Taking cocaine? Drinking all night? Spending inordinate amounts of money on cars you don’t even have a license to drive? All things Gallagher has spent his life doing. Oh, and making music. Of which he says:

‘Music is a thing that changes people’s lives. It has the capacity to make young people’s lives better. Music got us through school, break-ups, whatever – so it’s more than just entertainment, the way I see it. It’s like, if you can write it, you should do. You’ve got a duty to the world to put it f***ing out there. There’s not enough good things in the world. You’ve not got a duty to make more guns, or synthesise more drugs, or f***ing design more cars. But you’ve got a duty to make music. If you can, you should.’

It’s that feeling of duty to an art, to a craft, that marks out those who a) will carry on doing it regardless of the returns and b) will periodically go through times of self-doubt and accuse themselves of having wasted their time.

I’ve been in bands and can fully understand Gallagher’s comments. It’s just that I wasn’t very good at music. Not that that will stop me listening. But writing is different for me. I’ve had a modicum of success in the non-fiction work I’ve produced and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done – and been richly rewarded in the comments I’ve had from readers who’ve found the work inspiring or challenging or just a pleasure to read. But that’s not enough.

Why not? Because writing – like any art, like any craft that one pursues – cannot at its heart be about production. When asked for tips on how to begin writing the thing I’ve said most is this: write to discover, not to reveal. Writing is one of the prime ways in which I discover the world – and reading is a way of sharing the journeys of discovery that others have taken. One of the prime benefits of that is, scientists now tell us, an expansion of empathy.

But what is the use in all of this? Well, here’s the nub: in a world where everything has to have economic use-value, writing and reading are useless. But it’s this lack of use-value that makes them so important because in the time they take and the empathy they produce they challenge this ideal that we should be spending all of our waking moments being economically productive. In other words, writing and reading become part of the body of arts that value people, not value. They are, in Lewis Hyde’s terms, within the economy of ‘gift’ rather than market. They leave us empty, unbalanced, over-stuff, desperate to share… And in doing this they connect us to other people, not as agents from whom we might squeeze another narrow dime’s profit, but as other people who have a value above the status that economics has given them.

This is one of the struggles going on in EM Forster’s Howards End, a book I’m reflecting on quite a lot in my own writing at the moment, and one I really recommend picking up again.

So – in conclusion, I’ve wasted 40 minutes writing. I have been a useless person. And, Mr Gallagher, I say thank fuck for that, because now I feel I understand you more than when I started.


2 responses to “Life, Writing and Being Useless”

  1. Kester, this is great. I would add that Gallagher’s description of the value of writing music, for many of us, could apply just as easily to the writing of books. When I look over my bookshelf, I can point to the volume that inspired an overseas move, or the one that helped get me through a particularly isolated time of life, or the one that “holds my hand” through every dark February. Of course, I didn’t come to any of these tomes expecting a serendipitous transformation – that was the “gift” the pages held for me, a surprise that came my way as I wasted my time between the covers. 😉

  2. This is great. Your writing has really helped me a lot. Even in all the ways that Gallagher says music helps people. So thank you. And I finally just started reading The Gift and it’s amazing! And I wouldn’t have known about Hyde if it wasn’t for you so thank you for that too!