Paul Theroux on Necessary Solitude, Risks and the Joy of Writing

The Unstoppables is a series about people whose ambition is undimmed by time. Below, Paul Theroux explains, in his own words, what continues to motivate him.

After 60 years of writing and publishing — and almost 60 books — I feel ordering my thoughts on paper to be not a job but a process of my life. You always hear writers complain about the hellish difficulty of writing, but it’s a dishonest complaint.

So many people have it much harder — soldiers, firefighters, field workers, truckers. The writer’s profession is a life of self-indulgence. With luck and effort, you make a living. The only difficulty is its necessity for solitude. Writing is not compatible with anything — its utter self-absorption is generally destructive to family life and friendships — and yet I find it joyous. All creativity is uplifting; I finish a book in a mood approaching rapture.

Having difficulty writing? Has it occurred to you that maybe you have nothing to write?

I once wrote a book, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow,” on my friendship with the writer V.S. Naipaul, whom I have described as a drill sergeant who, if he had seen “Full Metal Jacket,” would most likely have shouted, “What is your major malfunction, numb-nuts!” He often prefaced his reading of my stuff with, “I must warn you — I’m brutal.”

Naipaul was a deeply flawed man — tantrum-prone and depressive — but a magnificent writer. His great gift to me was of encouragement. Everyone needs it, not only writers. Everyone. Naipaul would say, after reading something of mine, “You’re going to be all right,” which vitalized me and gave me hope.

Creativity is about experimenting — failing, failing again, failing better, as Beckett said. Growing up, needing privacy in a large family — I was the third of seven children — I became a fugitive, finding solace in libraries and in long hikes and in solitude, as well as in many menial jobs — anything to escape the conflicting demands and the scrutiny of my family.

From childhood, I had always written stories in a secret way, offloading my thoughts on paper. I had no idea of the path to becoming a writer. I imagined I might be a medical doctor, and so I studied pre-med and science at university. But, on graduation in 1963, instead of going to medical school, I became a teacher in Africa, the ultimate solitude in many ways — necessary solitude.

When I began publishing stories and poems in magazines, the path became clear. But the path is never straight. When someone confides to me that they think they might have an ambition to write, I suggest they leave home — go away, get a job. Never enter a “writing program.” Rather, invite experience and especially take risks.

It’s a great mistake to think of the writing profession as a game. People with dreary jobs usually stop. Writing is neither dreary nor a job. I see it as a process of life. When at last I fall off my chair, I suppose that will be my way of stopping.

Current and upcoming projects: Published the novel “Burma Sahib,” his 57th book, in February. He is now planning his next reporting adventure for a new travel book.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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