Many, many years ago when I was about 15 or 16 I decided I was going to become ‘a writer’. And from then on I thought of myself as ‘a writer’ who happened to be doing other things, anything and everything, in fact, that is except actually ‘write’. Why?
Well, when I was about nine I had translated a long German poem into English. I can’t even remember what it was, but I wrote it out carefully and produced, using a needle and thread, a little booklet and one morning, I think on a Christmas Day I read out my translation to my family at breakfast. So far, so unimpressive and, I now know, so pretty usual.
Then, at school, I wrote a poem and showed it to Mr Hinds, an English teacher - I say ‘an’ because he wasn’t mine. Mine was Mr Walsh. But Mr Hinds, or Hinds was we called him, was far younger, and I possibly felt he would appreciate my poem rather more than Walsh, who was very ill and off sick for much of the time he took us for English (or, I suppose, didn’t take us for English).
I can’t remember exactly what Hinds said, but it was something along the lines of ‘very good effort, keep it up’. That is, he did what any paedagogue would do: he encouraged me. I, however, in that rather silly and self-absorbed way common to pretty much all adolescents, I decided he had told me something entirely different. Hinds, I believed, had told me that I was pretty much something of a literary genius and, in common with all literary geniuses, I had a brilliant future ahead of me. And so, as far as I was concerned, the die was cast.
It was, of course, entirely delusional.
That was - I am 68 in November - roughly 53 years ago, and, sad to report, this literary genius has produced almost nothing and, more to the point absolutely nothing at all which might allow him to be described as a literary genius.
What have I produced? Well, about five or six short stories, five or six poems, and two-and-a-half novels. If I were pretentious I could always claim that I have produce ‘two novels and a novella’, but to be frank at 67 I have rather less time left than I have at any point in my life and most certainly no time at all for pretension and, far more to the point, delusions. As an ‘output’ it is thoroughly pitiful, and as an ‘oeuvre’ fantastically non-existent. But that must change, if only for my self-respect, and, dear friends it will change.
. . .
It so happens that I ended up working for newspapers, as a reporter for six years, and then as a sub-editor (US copy editor) for a further 43 years, and still am working as a sub-editor. I could have retired in November 2015, but for very simple reasons - I enjoy my work, I enjoy the company of people I work with, the work is by no stretch of the imagination ‘hard’, I feel I am paid reasonably well and I enjoy spending half the week in London and half the week down here in Cornwall.
My career was by no means stellar, but if I gained one thing from working as a newspaper hack, especially as a sub-editor, it is that I am familiar with words and handling them. They don’t frighten me as I understand they frighten some. The example I always give is that if you and I were presented with a pile of bricks and a load of mortar and told to build a wall, that wall would be a pretty awful wall. But give those bricks and mortar to an experienced bricklayer, and a wall, a very good wall most probably, would take shape in no time. The bricklayer is used to working with bricks and mortar. We are not. But I am used to working with words and am not frightened by them. I don’t agonise over them.
But being able to put words down on paper with reasonable ease - pretty much all sub-editors acquire that gift - most certainly does not make you ‘a writer’. That is where I come up short for a chap who a lifetime ago persuaded himself he was ‘a writer’. I can’t tell a story, or at least I don’t think I can in the conventional sense. I can bullshit, most certainly, and let’s be clear, there’s a great deal of ‘bullshit’ in writing and even more broadly, art. And, let’s again be clear, that word ‘bullshit’ is unfair, what with its connotations of ‘bollocks’, ‘nonsense’, ‘dishonesty’ and I don’t know what else.
I would argue, in fact, I do argue, that in one way all art is a certain kind of legerdemain: from virtually nothing a writer, a musician, a painter, using only words, sound and pigment creates something over and above that jumble of words, sound and pigment with which we are presented. If nothing else he or she holds our attention for just a little longer than a less successful jumble of words, sound and pigment might achieve. But just as all Athenians are Greeks, not all bullshitters are writer. Not by a long chalk.
Here’s a second hurdle (as though ‘not being able to tell a story’ were not sufficiently discouraging): I am no great thinker. I am reasonably articulate (and I mention that because all too often folk just aren’t) and I have finally learned over the years not to go off at a tangent, to stick to my train of thought. But I am no great thinker.
On the other hand, I would again argue, nor is pretty much anyone else, and that might, for me, be a certain saving grace. So I don’t want to write novels about ‘how awful families are’, how badly - this is very modern and has won many a mediocre writer the attention of a publisher - we are ‘treating the environment’. To cut to the chase, I don’t at all want yet again to observe, as has been observed so often over the years, that water is wet, that all farts stink except our own and that you should never trust anyone, least of all yourself. All I now want to do is entertain.
. . .
I have learned one or two things about writing along the way, and I don’t just mean ‘writing’ as this blog is ‘writing’ or a committee report is ‘writing’, or that a manifesto or a PR handout is ‘writing’: I mean what - Christ I really do hate the word - is known as ‘creative’ writing. (NB There is only one - only one - response to anyone who, when asked that they would like to be,
‘ . . . and then in one bound he was free!
replies ‘I want to be creative’ and then waits for general approval and schmooze: tell them ‘well, fuck off and be creative’. That is by far the kindest thing you can do.)
I have learned this: writing is work. I know. I learned that by ‘writing’ my ‘two novels and one novella’. Both the novels took several months and the novella two weeks. But each time I followed the same routine: I sat down two or three times a week and wrote and didn’t get up again until a substantial amount had been written. Ironically, starting at a set time, telling yourself you are going to do nothing else but write for the next four or five hours makes it just a little easier. Odd, but true.
That brings me to the second thing I have learned (but which, frankly, I still forget): nothing you write has to be perfect from the off. In that first instance there doesn’t have to be any agonising over a word, a sentence, a paragraph. There is just one objective: to get it bloody down on paper. You then have all the time in the world to edit it, hone, it reshape it, rewrite it. Don’t ever kid yourself: unless you have signed contract and your publisher is waiting for your manuscript, no on, but no one give a flying fuck about ‘your novel’, except you. But unless you first get something down on paper, you are pissing in the wind or, to revert to my personal them, deluding yourself.
Related to that is another truth: don’t talk about it, do it. The more you talk about it, the less likely you are to do it. And you nor do you have to throw it all up and head of for that Greek island ‘to write my novel’. If you can’t find the time and discipline now to do it, you’re never going to do it and you most certainly won’t find it there.
Finally, think. Don’t write that sentence on paper, write it in your head first. As I say, you can always rewrite it later.
. . .
So where, you might - or might not - be asking is this hole I am digging for myself? Well, here I go: our cottage is an old and quite small granite building which, I’m told, was built in the 16th century as a small farmhouse. And outside it is a tiny granite building, about 12ft by 8ft which, when I first arrived here was derelict. It was then rebuilt by my brother-in-law David into a small playhouse for my daughter (The posh word is renovate, but David rebuilt it). It has power and a neon light, and although the building is 12ft by about 8ft, inside is even smaller.
When she and my son were young, they used it to play in, but for these past ten years after they got older and became less interested in Lego and dolls, it became used to store all the shite which could not be stored in the cottage (and there was and is a lot of shite - my wife, a farmer’s daughter, hoards everything). For these past four or five years I have been hatching a plan and two weeks ago, that plan began to take shape.
First of all I got rid of all the shite, and for these past few days I have been vacuuming the carpet (it had a carpet) and wiping down windows and the walls. Next week I shall freshen up the walls with two coats of matt white paint and then I shall build for myself a den, a hideaway.
This is the plan, or pitfall if you like - I shall at some point in the next few months crack the whip and start my routine: get in there by 9am every morning to write and stay there for at least four hours. Every day. No excuses. Work. It has to be work. It will be work. What will be done, what I might produce, the good Lord knows, but at the very least I shall finally put my money where my mouth is and do my very best to convince myself that I am not just another of life’s self-delusional bullshitters.
I shan’t go in with no ideas at all. Christ I have several ideas if not more, but ideas count for nothing: they have to become words on paper (so to speak). Somerset Maugham used to do it, tuck himself away in his top-floor eyrie with a view of the sea at his Villa La Mauresque and write, whether or not he was inspired. He, modestly, described himself as - I paraphrase - first among the second rate. Well, even if I only become fifth among the fourth rate, at least I shall know when I finally breath my last that this gadabout, this self-delusional charlatan, this complete wanker at least after all these years he tried.
. . .
The best thing about it all is that of one thing I am certain: when I put my mind to something . . .