As a prose writer and poetry, I know I do people well. I am always watching, without even thinking: in cafe’s, school playgrounds, at bus stops, over cash registers. My character may be twenty-five and living in a Black Panther squat in 1960’s London, but I know exactly the way his hips swing when he crosses the road – how low his pants are slung and what he had for breakfast this morning. I know what his mother thought the first time she saw him, and how he’d catch a football if it happened to come careening toward him.
Outdoor landscapes I’m okay with. Interiors I have to work at, but I'm getting better. I don’t particularly give a fuck whether the rug on which he spilt the red wine when he confessed the crime to his wife was red, or orange, or mottled brown, but I’m starting to realise that sometimes specific details do actually matter that much. If the rug was red, then wine won’t show, and maybe the bloodstain is actually hidden underfoot, right there while he is talking.
I’m a kick-arse public reader, a fierce poet, a good, but all too often lazy prose-writer, a great conversational journalist, a rubbish investigative journalist, a half-decent interviewer, a crappy academic essayist and a confident and exact auto-biographer. Increasingly though, I know my limits as a writer. That doesn’t mean I don’t push myself, it just means I know the areas, and circumstances where I need to put in a little, or a lot more research, or focus or effort. And I know which kinds of writing I have no talent, passion or interest for.
I like Maya Angelou’s non-fiction waaay better than her poetry. I like Nikki Giovanni’s poetry waaay better than her non-fiction. Roald Dahl’s adult stories don’t do much for me, but many of his kids stories are still, on re-re-reading them, a delight.
I am wary, and often scathing, of writers who claim they can ‘write everything’. Mostly, they can't. The fact is, there are very few writers who write every genre well enough to warrant publication (and I certainly am not one of them).
Why are we afraid to specialise, as writers? Name a track and field star as good at the 200 metres as they are at marathon?
Is it out of ego, delusion, or economic necessity that writers increasingly try to dabble in everything?
Are we are all J.K. Rowling, quietly panicking over that promise of a first adult novel?
Just because you can write everything, doesn't mean you should, or that it will actually be any good.