For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write and publish a book. I wanted it more than anything else and for longer, and after a mere thirty or so years, I got what I wanted. Sometimes it felt like turning up at someone’s house with a bottle of wine and them going, “This is tasty wine. It’s (insert wine-related adjectives). I like it.” Which was nice. But what I wanted to talk about was the leech-infested swamps and the freezing trenches, the years spent trapped in the Great Cupboard of Futility and the gruesome injuries and humiliations I had sustained in order that I might arrive at that door with the wine. And then I was invited to write this. So off we go!
When, in my head, I go through the difficulties of writing a publishable book,* I like to create a list. I am a big fan of the list. Take the shopping list, for example. Few acts are as settling as plucking a list of items from the air, writing them down and then obtaining them. One can almost believe the universe tends towards order and wish-fulfilment rather than chaos and ruin. Likewise, the to-do list is a thing of beauty. There have been times in my life when I have written down drink a cup of tea, dress, eat breakfast and by ticking them off have managed to trick myself into believing I am a functioning human being and then actually become one.
Let us go then, you and I, through my list of the difficulties of writing a publishable book and let’s see what you can cross off.
1. The big one, the mountainous hurdle, right at the starting block: you appear not to want to write a book. You think you want to write a book but you do everything within your power not to write anything. You drink all the time, you go out, you clean your house. You decide that the time you have is not capacious enough to make an inroad into your writing project. Perhaps you need to do more research, perhaps that research is on Twitter. Ad infinitum for a couple of decades.
This is resistance. I mean, you may be rusty and not quite sure of how to find your way to the creative spring, but if it goes on long enough, it is resistance to the act of writing. It is the angel all writers have to wrestle. In fact, almost everything I have to say is about this so let’s leave it here, zip through the other items and come back to it at the end. Okay, okay, I’m afraid to talk about it. Have a bit of patience, won’t you?
2. You’re not a very good writer yet. You’re a good reader. You know what’s good but you can’t write that well yet. Hopefully there are promising signs—nice lines or a few good paragraphs, a character that haunts you like a dead friend—but you are not yet dexterous enough to weave together all the threads that make up a book. Confronting the yawning gulf between your reach and grasp is horrifying and may be part of why you avoid writing. Unfortunately, the only way of narrowing that gap is to write.
Read a lot of excellent writers and receive what you can by osmosis. Join a writing group or workshop and get a ton of feedback. Sift it carefully. Remember you can rewrite a lot and fix up a lot at the editing stage. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to work with an editor who will make you look better than you are. Write a ton and you will get better at it, and remember there are plenty of terrible books out there so you don’t have to be perfect. Humility is your friend. Do the best you can and reward yourself with praise.
May I also suggest writing some short pieces? I am wedded to the novel but it’s like taking up sailing and deciding your first voyage will be across the Pacific. Also, you don’t get to practice any endings. When you get to the end of your book, you’ll want to have some experience of endings.
3. Once you’ve become a better writer, you may find yourself with plenty of time to work on your masterpiece (maybe you’ve lots of money too, maybe you can go fuck yourself!). But most likely you will struggle with not having enough time to write. This is a fallacy. Those of us who are alive all have exactly the same amount of time. As do the dead. Your problem is that you haven’t decided what to sacrifice yet. It’s probably not that bad. It might just be Tuesday night yoga and the time you usually spend each night cooking proper meals (beans from a can, darlings!). It might be Saturday mornings in bed or hang outs with your best friend. It could be caring for disabled relatives, having children, living in a house and having what others might view as a career. The cost is uneven, the assistance given is uneven, and this is unfair, but don’t despair. People have written in freezing garrets and refugee camps, in the middle of the night with the bombs falling. It is possible.
At an event in Berlin, I once heard David Sedaris talk about his four-burner-theory. Like your life is a stove with four burners and to get really good at something you have to turn at least one off, but probably two. In naming them, he mentioned health, family, friends. I’m tormented that I can’t remember the fourth. Perhaps I turned it off so long ago that it didn’t register?**
But if you dedicate yourself to anything, you’ll end up short-changing someone, probably lots of people including yourself. Know it, accept it and it’s easier to live with. You will feel bad but it’s an inbuilt cost. You can’t try to become really good at something difficult and have a balanced life.
4. You’ve overcome your resistance; you’ve got better at writing and you’ve somehow managed to obtain the time to do it in (Louis de Bernières famously wrote his first book when he was bed-bound owing to a broken leg—just a tip). Now you must pick the right project. Some books you choose to write will never be good. Failure is integral to them. You’ve backed the wrong horse, your idea doesn’t have legs (you’re addicted to cliché), you’ve rolled all your ideas into one and without knowing it you’ve tried to write eight books all at the same time. Maybe the time for this book has not come, or you don’t have the skills for this one yet. The stars have not aligned. Good writers can write shit books or books that are unfinishable.
All you can do is abandon it and start another one. How do you know? It’s very difficult, especially if self-doubt is constantly in your ear telling you everything you write is awful. If you’re lucky, kind, brave people will try to enlighten you. Don’t kill them. Most likely you’ll already know by the pervasive smell of failure you catch a whiff of every time you open the document. All is not lost though because by writing and finishing your dead book, you will have hopefully learnt the skills to birth your viable ideas.
5. You’ve finally written a goodish book, or a deliciously bad one people will love, or a work of staggering genius. It’s a book and it’s readable. You’ve passed it by some reader friends and they are fairly positive about it in a way that is believable. Well done you, you’ve now done everything a writer can do.
From here on in it is business time. You can avoid this by self-publishing which—unless you are prepared to do a load of marketing—is akin abandoning it on a shelf in a cave miles underground. You know what? My list ends with business time. There’s plenty online about how to get an agent. Will your work meet their criteria? Is it sufficiently commercial to sell enough to cover a publisher’s costs and make your agent some money? Or is it of high enough quality for them to want it on their list anyway? Are you lucky enough to have caught the zeitgeist? Is it similar enough but different enough? Original but marketable? All these questions will be yours in time, you poor, poor thing. But not unless you subdue that angel of resistance. Now let’s get back to that part.
. . . So it turns out, the angel really doesn’t want me to say anything about its existence. Hence the diversion we took above.
Thinking about it more closely, I would like to differentiate it from psychological resistance to the act of writing, although psychological resistance certainly exists and can hamstring you for years at a time. Do you have it? If it looks like the following, then probably yes:
1. Your fear of failure—the fantasy of becoming a writer can be a lifeline. To write well is to create an ideal self: articulate, amusing, dangerous, wise, sane, humane, lovable, worthy of respect. Whatever you desperately want or need to be, fashioned out of words in an act of lifesaving magic. If you believe that becoming a successful writer is your only hope of being an acceptable person, if it is the single torch in the darkness that wards off your fear of being annihilated, expect total paralysis.***
2. Your fear that what you have to write about is so toxic and dangerous it will destroy you if you attempt it.****
3. Your fear of repudiation—if you want to use writing to tell your truth of something you lived through and that version of events is one that other people are deeply invested in denying, your work will make you a target. Finally, in black and white, they will have all the evidence they need to destroy you.*****
4. Your fear of success—if you write well and get published, people may know you (ugh!). You may become rich and famous. What kind of arsehole will that make you?******
5. Because you can’t stand the internal criticism of your efforts—because your ego is so out of control that everything you write is immediately subject to a stream of vicious invective. If that’s you, then listen up: the part of you that creates is childlike and vulnerable and you will cripple your ability to write unless you develop a kind and encouraging inner voice. These days, I try and look at my work like a builder (not bad, not bad, might come back and move that shelf later, how about moving the bathroom downstairs, that will do for now, etc., fancy a Mars Bar?). Dial down the tortured artiste, dial up the friendly handyman.
6. Your fear of just being okay as a writer—oh, this one stings! If you’ve studied literature to any degree, you’ll know there is a hierarchy of writers. It changes a bit because it’s a construct but there are definitely tiers. What if you give writing your all and discover you’re filed somewhere around competent? That, when you finally attain the height of your powers, you’re a tin whistle in a world in which you’ve heard the sirens sing. In which case, your options are: firstly, to try and get over yourself; and secondly, to apply more love—to yourself, to other writers, to the beautiful and miraculous world. Love is a force which resists ranking, make a life raft of it.
Okay, so finally to that angel. The big golden angel with its finger to its lips and eyes aflame. Fuck. Can I whisper it under your door at midnight? Dance it for you instead?
No? Well, here goes. It turns out that what I want to say is just this:
When you write, if are serious, or lucky, or some other adjective, you may find that you become a door in the fabric of the universe and through it, the void will stare. You will become its thought and its eye and its nerve.
You will be both its instrument and the note it plays.
This is hard to bear because we are made of flesh and are not designed for that which is neither human nor mortal. It can feel like putting your hand on a hot plate and screaming. It can fill you with dismembering joy.
When I think about the famous crazy writers, I suspect that they didn’t start off crazy. They were very sane to stand as much of it as they did for as long as they did. It is where all the best work comes from.
How much of it do you want? Or more to the point, how much of it can you stand? A published book is just ink on paper. This is etched elsewhere and more enduringly.
There, I’ve said it. Now let us never speak of it again. . .
* I say publishable because technically Jack Torrence did write a book in the Overlook Hotel.
** I’ve tracked it down and over on this website James Clear explains the four-burner-theory clearly even if his ends are somewhat self-optimisey.
*** If this is you, you may want to consider therapy. Genuinely. A lot of writers worry that if they get some healing, they’ll no longer have anything to write about. But to write consistently you need to be in reasonable shape mental-health-wise. Happiness is not your enemy.
**** See above
***** I don’t know so much about this as I write under the guise of fiction via which you can deny everything. I do know writers who write unsparingly about their lives. I admire them—what they do is monumentally courageous and a gift to the world. None, to my knowledge, has been destroyed by it, although a couple couldn’t publish after they consulted lawyers. You may also want to see a therapist if you haven’t already.
****** Don’t worry—most published writers still manage to feel like complete failures.