The writer, particularly the writer of fiction, is different from the storyteller … The storyteller lives in the real world: she has a life, as the current locution would have it. But the writer has two lives. He, or more probably she, is the hapless character who goes to the supermarket, performs domestic tasks, and is invariably worsted in arguments, and that other one … the cold logician who observes a beginning, a middle and an end, who determines causality, although subject, like everyone else, to the irrationality of circumstance.
I am convinced that writing is a displacement activity that gives one the illusion of an honest day's work. That may be its main function, but it is set in train by a different psychic arrangement. The strange organic process by which a body of written work is achieved has less to do with will than with wish. What that wish may be is rooted in the personal history of a writer, and is paradoxically known but also secret. But if wish — a desire to resolve something left frustratingly incomplete — is the engine that inspires the beginning of the enterprise, will is needed for the continuation, and a level of tension, sometimes extreme tension, must be endured to reach the point at which a degree of satisfaction, i.e. the conclusion, is arrived at.
Thus the process is both involuntary and deliberate, and inevitably a mixture of both. This is rarely comfortable, although it may be energising. One would rather be out in the world, pursuing more recognisable objectives, living the sort of life in which activities are recorded by more recognisable standards. Why do it, then? Perhaps in order to be sincere, perhaps because the impulse is too strong to be ignored, perhaps because one wants one's fleeting moment of authenticity. Writing is rarely undertaken in a spirit of grandiosity; rather the opposite. In answer to the question, 'What are you working on?', there is a reluctance, even an inability to give a good account of oneself. The reaction to the inevitably evasive reply is disappointment. This disappointment is experienced on both sides.
[Writers, especially women writers] have in fact inherited the Romantic tradition, in which art is allied to tragedy and doom. To bear this burden, while at the same time purloining fragments of real life, i.e. other lives, may well lead to various forms of alienation. Yet the writer's life, perhaps particularly the female writer's life, is without incident. The surreptitious function goes on undetected and is experienced in isolation. The moral conundrum is never answered, but is somehow resolved on the page. This has led to the suspicion that writing is 'therapeutic'. How could it be? To juggle with conflicting imperatives would, in any other occupation, be more trouble than it was worth, and would in any event guarantee a condition of permanent unease.
'I'm the other one', review of Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, Spectator, 9 March 2002 (Link)
This magisterial disquisition, hardly at all a review of Atwood's book, is highly revealing and well worth quoting at length. Brookner is able to view the writing process as it were from the outside. Atwood, by contrast, dates her writing life from her teens: she was a born writer; it was a vocation. Was it a vocation for Anita Brookner? Brookner, as we see, takes an unillusioned stance. Not that she doesn't admit the Romantic myths surrounding a writing life. But in conjuring Romanticism, Brookner returns to a theme from her early interviews. This is a Brooknerian Romanticism, almost indistinguishable from existentialism. Existentialism, she said, was a kind of late flowering of the earlier movement. For there was grandeur in a life sans espoir - to borrow a phrase of Camus's. Was there grandeur in writing? If there was, it was fleeting, provisional. Brookner, having come to fiction late, almost as an afterthought, had little truck with the romance or the game of the writer's life, and something of this may have lain behind the antagonism she experienced from other writers and critics.