The thing about writing a book is that you end up being good for nothing else. You absolutely resent all interruptions – work, the postman banging on the door, birds singing outside, the couple talking next to you in the cafe. One day you have the best idea of your life, but the next day you are stuck halfway through a chapter. So you text your brother (who has been reading along avidly, all this time), and fire questions at him about what he thinks your main character would do. You are asking this because you have no idea what your main character would do. You feel like Adrian Mole, who writes a story about a man called Jake wandering round a shopping precinct questioning where he came from and where he is going. Adrian abandons the story because “I don’t know where Jake came from, or where he’s going either.”
So, you take a break. And luckily, after you’ve made tea and listened to Tales of Hoffman, your main character appears. She glares at you and says “I hate my mother”. And you say, relieved, “Of course” because that’s given you your plot and the rest of the chapter writes itself. And so we beat on, boats against the current, trying not to capsize into the Lake of Unfinished Manuscripts. You can see why writers go on retreat. I sometimes fantasise about a six-week holiday, all expenses paid, up a mountain where I can finish this damn story.
The other thing about writing a book, or giving time to writing in general, is that it is a slow background process. It involves patience and trust in yourself. Sometimes I do feel as if I’ve vanished into the background to write, and worry that I will have nothing to show for it when I come back.
I find it’s hard to vanish these days and just get on with it, because I use social media, and social media is all about telling people that you’re still here and getting on with the job (or procrastinating on the job, whichever it may be). Writers on social media generally use it as a tool. They sell their books. They talk to readers. They post snapshots of their half-finished work. Some writers publish microfiction online, which is the most instant form of fiction you can get. (And I am completely and utterly all for this, although personally I would rather die than publish a photo of one of my shitty first drafts, and I use social media to talk to friends, procrastinate and vent. To each their own.)
Because writers on social media talk about their successes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “These writers all know what they’re doing. I’m not a real writer. I’m not doing anything.” Easy to discount your own background work and feel as if it doesn’t count, because your project is currently so messy that you feel shy about summing up in 140 characters or less.
We live in a culture that doesn’t reward or even acknowledge quiet background work. But then, I can’t think of a culture or a time in history that ever did; it’s just intensified now because online culture moves so fast. I feel like young writers see their favourite writers on Twitter, posting updates on their projects and thanks to their fans. We see writers publishing hot takes, 800-word thinkpieces, on an event that only happened 2 hours ago (“how did she have the time to write that?”) And we feel pressured. We feel like we should work very fast, very publically, and have something to show for it straight away. The idea of putting months of time and effort and reflection in is, and always has been, scary to a young person. It feels like a huge percentage of your life.
And yes, it is hard to steal time from school, or university, or caring for younger siblings or relatives, and from the capitalist system we live in. It is hard to do the background work with no promise of reward, when other people seem to already be so far ahead of you in every way.
My only advice is, if you have a passion for something and you can find any time in which to do it, even half an hour in bed with your laptop – nick that time. Rob it, run away with it, use it. Don’t hesitate, and do not regret. I’ve had friends at my day job ask me how I find time to read. “I used to love reading,” they say, “I don’t know why I stopped.” But we work the same amount of hours. I don’t have any more time in the day that they do. But I choose to make time to read and write, working late at night or on the train, because it feels vital to my well-being. No, it’s not easy, because capitalism wants to steal every shred of time we have, but once we’ve nicked some time – even that half an hour, in the evening – we can do something with it.
The pianist James Rhodes wrote that we have “evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity”. He argues the time is there if we look for it.
I read an essay by a writer who commented that she spoke to a lot of people who seemed to want her to ‘write that 70,000 word novel for them’, rather than putting the time in themselves.
In EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, written in the 1920s, the narrator is stunned by a woman who says that she would write a play if she had time. (‘Would we all be able to write a play if we just had time?’ the narrator wonders.)
And I’m not knocking anyone who says they don’t have time, because I feel like it’s really universal to think: ‘if I had more time, I could do anything. Creative work is so much effort, I wish I could just finish the project straight away, and then I’d feel like I was really doing something with my life’.
And that leads us to the more important reason for this feeling of vanishing, which is that I graduated six months ago. Last year I was involved in student journalism, writing interviews and articles along with my dissertation. As soon as I finished my dissertation and exams, I locked down and started writing what Ali Smith calls “story-shaped things”. Since I have ADD, I struggle to focus on work. I figured that my ADD affects my ability to start a story and tell it all the way through. And I thought, challenge accepted, because I will die if someone else writes these stories before I do.
So I just… wrote. Story after story after story. Bits and pieces and fragments, long tales and short: one of which grew into a book, and is still growing. Being out in the world is difficult. Writing is hard. But that’s what I’ve been doing – background work – and I feel proud of what I have so far.
I told a friend recently that I feel like everyone else around me is moving on and doing great things with their lives, and she reminded me that what you see on social media is the “best bits”. It’s a very salient point for writers and for everyone in general: most people you meet will only tell you the best bits. Why? Because they are self conscious, they don’t feel obliged to tell you the difficult parts, they’re frightened of being judged.
I really forgot about this blog for a while, with that and the hurricane of events that happened in the last few months of 2015, but I’ve been reflecting on its purpose. I’ve decided to keep the blog as a space for short personal essays, and to update when I can. Why? Because you can say more in an essay than in a short paragraph. Because a personal essay gives you space to be truthful. Because in an essay you can write about anything.
So: hi. I’m still here.
Like the mother says in Ali Smith’s How to be both: “And yet, here I am. Still happening.”