An Interesting Question
On Saturday I appeared at the Stratford-Upon-Avon Literary Festival. I haven’t been to Stratford for a while (not that it’s very far away; I’m just lazy) and the only thing that has changed is the number of Japanese tourists delightedly visiting the Bard’s home town. The event had a terrific lineup of guests, and I was on with Dr Oliver Tearle, the charming, erudite author of ‘Britain By The Book’ and ‘The Secret Library’, about how geography has influenced authors and how we’ve missed some of the best books through history. I was chatting about forgotten authors, and during the Q&A some excellent questions were lobbed in – but not the one I was asked yesterday.
In fact, I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me this before. On Saturday night I went to a midnight screening of Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Infinity Wars’ (what do other writers do to relax? My excuse is it was raining and I didn’t fancy a walk) and the following morning headed to the Bloomsbury Paperback & Pulp Book Fair, a bi-annual event of Books I Didn’t Know I Needed at mostly reasonable prices. It’s a bit Arthur Bryant top-heavy (it’s the only place in London where I feel young) but there’s a lovely atmosphere and everyone hangs around and chats about books – what’s not to love (apart from their execrable coffee)? Here’s my haul…
Anyway, the question. At the event someone came up and asked me: What is it actually like being a full-time writer? I had to stop and think. I didn’t want to give a glib reply or make a joke, but sought to answer properly. I remember seeing an interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which he was asked what happiness meant to him. He said it was a clear sky with nothing ahead, knowing that you could start to make something from scratch. That’s how I feel on many days, that I have an open road and a head full of ideas.
There are other days; ones where I start already written into a corner and feel trapped, ones where I’m exhausted by trying to get a scene right. Then I know that something has to be broken in order to fix it, so I go back and search for the fault, a way of rerouting the plot onto its right track, and this can take time.
Then there’s the three-day rule; during the key points of first drafts I need a three-day run to really get up to speed and write smoothly. Conversely, if you leave a manuscript for three days, it’s hard to get back into with the same tone of voice.In an ideal world I’d write fast to keep the tone but it never happens. Distraction is a tool as well as a curse. It’s the downtime you need to process information, but it delays you and drags out the days (and nights).
The internet has put all kinds of gaps in the workday; mail, social media, browsing, dealing with questions from publishers and readers alike. We are now all actor-managers, largely handling our own careers. A great many fine writers have lost out because they only write (which is what they do best) and have trouble managing a career trajectory.
So, downsides; it’s solitary (writers rarely discuss their work with each other, I have no idea why), you work longer hours and through weekends, and it can bring on profound depression – I hardly know a writer who has not been touched by depression in their careers. The upside – the blank page turns into a filled page. You create something from nothing.
The best way I can sum up is to quote a poem called ‘Clear Accounting’ by Juan Octavio Prenz.
One day more is one day less
That is to say that every day is more
and every day is less
there’s no addition that doesn’t subtract
there is no subtraction that doesn’t add
clear like an adventure