The wonderful thing about doing an MA in Creative Writing is that everybody is there because they want to do it, not because it’s a useful qualification or a sensible career choice or a hurdle to be got over in order to go on to something else. All of those things may be necessary at some point in your life, but they don’t always lead you to ‘follow your bliss’, in Joseph Campbell’s famous phrase. The fact that we were all there following our bliss – all knowing we wanted to write and caring about doing it as well as we possibly could – inspired us and I’m sure made us write better.
What is so blissful about writing, then? For sure it isn’t always easy, it doesn’t always flow smoothly, and sometimes it’s so hard, painful, frustrating or even boring that you’d rather do anything than sit there trying to get the words on to the page – or, if you’re revising, off the page. But the pleasure of finding the words that match a thought or image or scene, the delight in making something out of language, is enormous. To practise a skill – at whatever level – and to develop and improve it – is always satisfying. And to create a world that is real to you and can become real to the reader – whether the microcosm of a poem or the extended world that is a novel – is a fascination and a delight. When it works, there’s nothing else quite like it. When it doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to be working (which inevitably is part of the process) you can easily get cast down into despondency and even despair: I can’t write, I’ll never finish it, it’ll never come together, nobody will ever want to read it…
Writers write because that’s what they want to do and, in some peculiar and sometimes apparently masochistic way, what they enjoy doing. But few writers, however absorbed they are in their work, are indifferent to the secondary bliss – if I can call it that – of having it praised, appreciated, recognised. Not many people are happy to write in a vacuum. Most of us like to present our work to the world, even if our world consists only of a few friends, and enjoy the praise that we hope will follow. Appreciation does make a difference and encouragement can bring you alive as a writer, but if people’s response is your main source of bliss you are not going to be in for a very blissful time. Criticism and its disappointment are the reverse side of praise and its elation. If I’m swept away by other people’s views, I’m taking my eye off the ball. I have become the focus and the work will inevitably suffer – as will I. We all know those times, just as we know the times when absorption in the work becomes compulsive and uneasy, so that losing ourselves in it is not a pleasure but a worry, or else an escape from worry.
Some of my most blissful moments have been on silent meditation retreats, not writing anything beyond a simple journal, and not much of that. The time was spent simply paying attention to what was there, both within and without, beginning to see through the distinction between the two. At such moments the existence of the world seems so tender, so beautiful that colours resonate with more of themselves and even an ordinary door handle or a few stones on the path become infinitely precious. Other beings – human or animal – live in their own right and not merely as extensions of my needs and judgements. Poets and writers sometimes describe such moments in relation to their work: the completion of a long and difficult piece, the sudden coming together of elements in a poem, the realisation that, however much I labour at it – and the labour is necessary – ultimately it is more than the conscious ‘I’ that creates the work. Such epiphanies may be rare but in them, it seems to me, we know something of our true bliss. For some people writing is what takes them there, for others it may be sport or music or being in nature – or some mixture of all of these, since we are not one-dimensional. In psychotherapy too there can be profound moments of recognition and communion that touch into something more than ourselves. I would want to use the word sacred, but for some that probably partakes too much of formal religion.
These experiences are by their nature exceptional. Most of the time we don’t live at that level, and the more we go looking for it or try to recapture it the less likely we are to find it. For most of us most of the time, the bliss we find in writing is a more ordinary bliss, but not to be underrated for that. To do what you love, and do it as well and honestly as you can, is a privilege, even though that doesn’t make it any less difficult or demanding. Not to do it, when you have the opportunity, leaves you half alive.