Desperate Times, Desperate Measures and The Literary Impetus

John Le Carré explains in a Guardian newspaper online feature: ‘I wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold at the age of 30 under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy.’

Within six weeks the novel was completed. In the midst of the writing process, Le Carré knew this novel would change the direction of his life forever. At the time, in 1961, Le Carré was an intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Bonn under the guise of a junior diplomat. He says: ‘I was a secret to my colleagues and much of the time to myself.’

His two previous novels penned under a pseudonym had received his employer’s approval. In the Guardian article published on 12 April 2013 to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of his third book, Le Carré outlines the circumstance for the novel published in September 1963. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was pure fiction yet the media were instrumental in labeling him: ‘a spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it’. Both the press and reader alike assumed this particular novel was based on fact and that it contained hidden messages.  While this novel also, finally attained his employer’s publishing approval, unlike the first two novels, it was published under his name, and as he ‘watched with frozen awe’ it turned into a huge success. Yet, Le Carré admits he felt ‘impotent anger’ because forever more he would be branded incorrectly as ‘a British spy who came out of the woodwork’.

He professed: ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the work of a wayward imagination brought to the end of its tether by political disgust and personal confusion.’

The Guardian article does make for an interesting read. While John Le Carré did not set out to write a global bestseller or to assume a role in the literary world as a spy-novelist, once a novel is published there is no hope of controlling the outcome. After the publisher lets the book fly out the press take over and then the reader.

It is rare to come across a writer who originates new work under any sort of long-term pretense, or visionary premise; us writers are not prophets. At the time a writer finally sits down to write, that writer is simply driven to write the story he needs to write – regardless.

There are always exceptions to the rule or outcomes that writers never imagined.

Jack Kerouac spent seven years on the road discovering and exploring himself and America. It was not until he decided the time was ripe did he sit down to write. Then, in just three-weeks, Kerouac wrote what would become the iconic beatnik novel On the Road (published in 1957). This, his first novel, was typed on one continuous roll of 120-foot paper.

The hope, and extraordinary acts of loving kindness, Viktor E. Frankl saw in the most unexpected places moved him to write Man’s Search for Meaning (published in 1959) which has become a classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. To date, the book has sold 12 million copies worldwide. This novella, that relies on economic yet poignant prose, tells the story of Frankl’s struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other camps. It also gives the reader invaluable life lessons that were gleaned in times of distress and suffering. This line in the book acted like a beacon of pure light amidst the darkest of trials and tribulations of Frankl: The salvation of man is through love and in love. Frankl’s book offers timeless wisdom that rises like a phoenix from the fires of hell.

Because Herta Müller lived through a haunting period in history she was able to pen The Passport, (one of the most outstanding poetic works of fiction I have ever read) for which Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. The hopelessness of Ceausescu’s dictatorship is contrasted with the hope of the West in a novel that documents dreams, oppression, and conflict in the face of the struggle for freedom.

Twenty-four-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Suffering of Young Werther in four weeks in the spring of 1774. ‘A hot outpouring of a genius’ is the words Stanley Corngold, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, uses to describe the work in the introductory chapter to the Norton critical edition.

Throughout his entire adult life American poet, Walt Whitman added to Leaves of Grass, his collective work of poems. In 1855, the first edition was published. The ninth edition, also called the ‘deathbed’ edition, was published 1891. His writings are a tribute to Nature and Humanity.

Over one summer of two months of writing and two weeks of editing, Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated to a colleague through the use of one eye-lid the novella The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly; these 29 short stories offer a glimpse into the short life of the forty-four-year-old Bauby who was tragically rendered paralyzed and speechless after stroke. Bauby was the editor -in-chief of French Elle and a father of two. Miraculously, against the odds, he strove relentlessly to communicate; to leave a memory of his life and how he felt about being locked into his body in a state of loneliness but he found his voice even in the midst of silence. His determination defies human understanding. Bauby said: ‘I am alive, I can think, and no one has the right to deny me these two realities…’

Jean-Dominique Bauby passed away 9 March 1997, the day after the book was published.

American novelist and journalist Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was quite clear about what she wanted to achieve as a writer; she penned her dream-goal in her childhood diary. She wanted to write one book everyone in the world would know, and that would last a lifetime. It appears her writing turned into a holy prayer for the American Civil War-era novel Gone with the Wind (published in 1939) is not only a classic but it held the position for twenty-five years as the highest grossing novel-into-film until James Cameron’s Avatar took the title as a best-selling film performer in the 21st century. (To compare both stories is to compare the divide that has developed between the world of fiction and that of science fiction.)

Harper Lee had given the world only one book until the year before she died in 2016; that one book is a household name in every American home and is known the world over as To Kill a Mocking Bird (published in 1960).  Go Set a Watchman published on 14 July 2015 follows the story of Scout, the female protagonist from Lee’s first book.

This blog feature was born out of my own need to overcome a recent spout of procrastination with my own new fiction. When a state of confusion or fear overcomes me I tend to pick up a selection of books that I admire by authors I have made it my business to read up on. What you are getting right now is that list of books. Each one has taught me some excellent craft lessons which I endeavor to apply, and I find each author and their experiences an enlightening inspiration in their own right.

As many books as one can read always helps a serious writer and the study of authors lives has always been of great interest to me. But, at the end of the day, a writer has to stop talking about writing and simply get on with the task of writing. There is no way around it. If you want to be a writer who produces work that an agent and publisher will consider seriously and a reader one day will admire, you need to write and deliver the work.

No one purposefully selects desperate times or seeks to invite desperate measures into one’s life to force a result such as writing a novel or a short story.  If such times or measures prompt a story or work of nonfiction or fiction so be it.

Personally, and thankfully I live in a time in history and a time in my life where I am able to elect to write new fiction. I am trying to be a master of own destiny. Somehow this is proving more of a challenge than I imagined. Until recently, I produced nonfiction on a continuous basis under a pressure I inflicted on myself; I respond well to elective and appointed deadlines; yet, this motivation to produce work is not proving advantageous for me in the pursuit of fiction writing.

I am thinking back now to a period of time in my life when I put two features out a week, for about six years; I managed to do this by working from around 7 pm until 6 am Monday through Thursday and then again Sunday night, all the while my children were sleeping.  I found I could originate story best at night; the day I found was only best for revising and editing and being a human being; a mother, a homemaker, a mentor to other writers.  During that period in my life, I felt this desperate need to write and give out stories to the world. Fortunately, I had a window of opportunity for my work.

Now I am trying to create a new window with new works of fiction and this goal seems to be harder than I imagined to work towards.  My current resistance to the work forces me to consider my real intent for the work and what I really want as a writer and creative person. For the act of the originating story is an act of creation. An almost heavenly task.

I am thinking of the wise words from King Solomon in Ecclesiastics when he says:

To every thing, there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heaven.

I used to say a Psalm or two before I wrote during the long years and long nights between 2004 and 2010. I think it is time to return to prayer before writing.

Writers are a rare breed of a human; to write we invariably find we require some private space, some silence and some time. And, I now see I need to return to praying before I write; that was the one ingredient I let slip when I transferred my energy and efforts from nonfiction to fiction writing.  I see now I need all the help I can call down from heaven to guide my thoughts and my words to the page. It worked before. I pray it works again.

To a fellow writer reading these words I say:

If you work best under pressure then set a date to deliver your first draft to yourself. And, honor this commitment to yourself.

If you need to team up with a writing partner or you feel a group of writers would be better because peer pressure produces the best performance in you; go for it.

If you need to go out there into the world to explore the unknown, plan a trip and write as you go and take photographs; they will be helpful to refer to when you get home and start writing up your adventure in the genre of your choice.

Finally, I write these closing words as a reminder to me and a helpmate to you:

one word leads to two,

one minute of writing leads to two,

one chapter leads to two and so on.

And, don’t forget to say a little prayer…

Good luck and keep in touch.


Photograph credit: John Le Carré at work at his desk, The Guardian Newspaper, ANL/Rex Shutterstock.

Recommended resource:

Interview with John Le Carré, The Guardian online:

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