Ian McMillan: Why writers are always selling somebody out

Ian McMillan on how  he mines his own life for his columns.
Ian McMillan on how he mines his own life for his columns.
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One of my favourite prose writers is the American novelist and essayist Joan Didion; I first came across her work in the 1960s in her collection of magazine articles Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which seemed to pin down that decade for me to examine and think about and react to.

As I’ve grown older and spent endless hours tussling with words and meanings I’ve come to appreciate what a craftswoman she is, always landing on the right phrase, the resonant sentence, the paragraph that somehow tells you more about something you thought you were an expert on. One sentence of hers puzzled me for years, though. She wrote, in one of her pieces, “writers are always selling somebody out” and I could never quite work out what she meant by that. Surely writers are good people, trying to make the world a better place?

Well, maybe; but perhaps in some way all us ink-warriors are selling somebody out by committing them to the page for other people to read about. Writers have been said to have “a splinter of ice in the heart” and that’s because a lot of them, me included, mine their own lives and those of the ones they love for material. In my case, it’s mainly my life, and I try to make myself into a particular kind of character, a hapless fool bumbling his way through life, buffeted on all sides by what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”.

This way of thinking leads to a constant mental (and sometimes physical) note-taking whenever something is happening, and even as the thing is happening there’s a part of my brain, of any writer’s brain, that is trying to work out if the incident is useable for a poem or a story or an article.

So that is why, in the small hours of a morning the other week, as I was bashing the smoke alarm with a brush (yes, I know that’s not the right procedure, but I was only half-awake) to make it stop singing its repetitive song as my dressing gown flapped open, at least part of me was trying to decide whether it would make a paragraph or two in this column. The advantage was that it was quite a funny scene: I looked like a man-child battling some kind of electronic dragon, and I knew that if I wanted I could make it into a metaphor of me battling against the empty page to fill that page for others to read.

I swung the brush mightily and almost fell over as I lost concentration through trying to think of another image for my plight. It felt oddly heroic, oddly like a task that, if completed, would somehow alter the course of history, which it did in a small way when the beeping stopped.

So, next time you see me on the street, don’t say anything or even do anything because it might end up in print. You might even see yourself here in the Yorkshire Post Magazine because, as St Joan said all those years ago, writers are always selling somebody out.