Living up to Something

by Kathryn Heyman

In our culture, vice is sexier than virtue. The Seven Deadly Sins are the fun guys. Greed, lust, gluttony; who wouldn’t want to be at that party? Virtues, not so much. We somehow think of virtue as the quiet cousin, the one lurking in the corner of the party, tutting away at everything. What if, though, the holy virtues are the set of conditions which can help us really enjoy the party? Let me be clear here: when I say ‘holy’ I mean creative. For me, the nature of creativity is the nature of the divine. In Aristotle’s time, aretē, virtue, was less about moral good, the modern cliché, than about practical excellence. Those qualities which will bring us closer, not to heaven, but to our creative muses: what are they?

The American novelist Dani Shapiro (Still Writing), claims:

stillwriting_shapiro“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime… It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.”

On the other hand, the English novelist, Zadie Smith says:

“Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

Smith may be correct, but readers are at the very least expecting good writing.

“Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?”

(Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)

In Aristotle’s terms we could ask what kind of person makes good words? The answer would be, surely, a good writer. And what makes a good writer? Despite Smith’s view, this questioning isn’t circular. We can’t just respond: a person who makes good words. So what is this extra something? By what dispositions, processes, practices and habits is good writing made? These are the writing virtues.


Any creative act involves the unknown – the blank page, the empty canvas, the labour ward – and the unknown inevitably involves fear. In my experience these interferences, though no doubt genuine and pressing, are not the main obstacle. Somewhere behind them lies the secret, hidden fear, which gets dressed up. The fear that you won’t succeed – the mortification – or that you will. Or the fear that you’ll touch something, once you start to write, which might open you up so terribly that you’ll never be put together again. Without courage, how is it possible for a writer to face the truth?  And truth is the cornerstone of good writing.


Even among the chaos and requirements of everyday living, a desperate desire to write will outweigh the restrictions on time or space or money. Writers who overcome their fear of the unknown (or whose curiosity is stronger than the fear) wake up before their children do, write on the train, throw out the television, live in messy houses – do whatever it takes, in other words, to write the story that they are marked out to tell.


stillness-in-natureLast week I returned from a week’s retreat in a monastery surrounded by thick bush and the sound of shrieking cicadas. Silence and solitude are crucial elements in a creative life, the willingness to disappear into loneliness and quiet, the willingness to listen, to look: how else would we make art? The alternative is to endlessly regurgitate what we have already seen, already noticed, already said. The ability to be silent, to be present, to be attentive, a necessary virtue.


I set off on that retreat to begin work on a new novel. I thought I knew what it was. I thought I knew the world I was about to inhabit. But in the weeks leading up to my week of silence, I began dreaming of another story, haunted by a voice and am image that I can’t shake. I have a desperate desire to immerse myself in that particular world, to experience the luminous world of that particular story and to interrogate the themes that the world gives rise to. I’m curious, in other words, to see where that golden thread of story and image might lead me.

There are other vitrues, of course: compassion, humility, bloody-minded determination hope. These four, though –  courage, desperation, attention, curiosity – are for me the pillars of my writing life.

‘Living up to something’ – that’s how Anne Lamott described the feeling of writing:”It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them and they just want to help them get out”.

And this single simple moment is what takes a whole life to reach.

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