I was invited to write a guest column for ‘Cracking The Kindle’, a writerly blog by the wonderful Dan Trelfer. Go to http://www.crackingthekindle.com for his word-finery.
One of the things about writing a book is that you don’t want to tell people you’re writing a book because it’s not actually a book yet. Though you feel you should explain your oddness, your sudden receding from social events, the distance that takes over your eyes, you can’t quite bring yourself to say “I am writing a book”. It seems such a ludicrous claim. Not only because presumably a lot of people attempt it and never finish it, or if they do, only end up thrusting it in a drawer, or worse let it languish unprinted in the ether as an email to self or on a reductive memory stick. (People will assume you are one of these at first.) Not only because you feel like a tit saying such a lofty thing, that people will think you’re ‘a bit of a wanker’. But because the word ‘book’ itself is so rife with things that mock you.
It is a noun for a start, implying that what you are doing (requiring a verb; achievable by your own efforts) is instead actually a thing; an object. But where is it? It is a shifting thing on a screen; it is not even there until you open the document and summon the pixelated wisps from the hard drive. Is that a book? It has no pages unless you print it yourself. Is that a book? It’s A4 for Christ’s sake – that’s not a book, it looks crap. It has no spine but for the strength and structure which you attempt, it has no cover but the one you imagine in your most indulgent daydreams. Is it a book if it’s not a book? Do you have a right to hang on the coat-tails of the noun, if you are only really in the verb state; the doing, the trying? It takes a massive hop over the obstacles in your own self-confidence, a blind leap of faith in yourself, over all the hulks of self-loathing you have strewn around your head. What the hell are you doing writing a book, you twit?
One of the other worst things is that once you have ‘finished’ writing the thing (always believed before actually achieved), you have the gargantuan hurdle of trying to get someone to agree with you that it’s worth reading. It is famously hard to get published. You’ve got to get an agent first. That is hard. Then they have to get you a publisher. That is double-hard. The publisher will judge the current tectonics of the industry and see if you fit anywhere in the brusque economics of it all and might reject you even though they ‘love’ your book, even if they think it would be an absolute critical smash. It is really bloody hard. Saying you’ve ‘written a book’ before you’ve even attempted all this extra stuff is like saying you’re a war hero before you’ve even been measured for your uniform.
I am writing a book. There, I’ve said it. I can get that far. I stumble however when I try to explain what it is. (This is where an agent or publisher would dismiss me offhand, straightaway. If you can’t sell it yourself in a compelling line, they certainly can’t be arsed to do it for you.) I shall try here…
Ok, so, it is some true things, some deviations from true things, some made-up things as a necessary escape, some more true things I never realised were true…
There, see; I can’t go much beyond saying I’m trying. I wrote 70 thousand words in one month of madness. That was fifteen months ago. It has been a slow hell of relative sanity since. I’ve written and cut maybe another thirty thousand words and am bobbing around 80 thousand words. It is not what it will be yet. I don’t know if it ever will be. I can see it all, but it’s not there. I yearn to fuck off for a month and ‘get it done’, but what writer doesn’t? Is it a book? I don’t know.
I am somewhat encouraged by the fact that a lot of Actual Authors (oh, what an AA group that would be…in a church hall…all confessional and biscuity) seem to say you must have distance from the work, preferably months not just weeks, before you can do the final touches. I.e., you can’t write a book in a month and consider it ‘done’ without being a total buffoon. This appeases me when I think of all that work I did which every now and then I get out and poke, like an impotent husband who lurches on his wife when his dick becomes randomly charged.
A friend recently had her book published. She had a book launch and everything, and a week after it was published she said she found the whole thing terrifying. That the sales had been great amid all the first flushes of PR but were now trailing off a bit. I said I supposed she must now just ‘let it go’ – let it live the life of a book, let it float like a baby in a moses basket downriver, and run alongside it hoping it’s ok.
Once it’s an actual published printed book, a baby not a glint in the eye, it’s not ours anymore. It is its own thing, with its own fate, not to be guided by our own editorial impulses. Is that what we write it for?
I suppose what we should really concern ourselves with is not what we want to get out of it – a product, money, success, respect, fame, affirmation, reviews, acclaim, nominations, awards – but do we write our books for the love of the act of it? Our lives should be measured in how we choose to spend our time, right? Do you want to spend your time typing alone, splurging, deleting, editing, re-editing, emoting characters who don’t exist, caring for things you created, speaking in voices that aren’t yours, seeing entire worlds and the tiniest subtextual actions when you close your eyes? If you want to give your days up to all this otherworldly stuff, then you are a writer, and whether you have a book of any kind to show for it can become almost irrelevant if you let it; if you embrace the purest driving joy in it all. The writing, not the product. The journey not the destination. The verb and not the noun.