On not writing

Someone, another writer who wanted me to do something for which he thought himself too busy, recently said ‘Goodness me, you are prolific.’ I was, perhaps unreasonably, annoyed. He sounded like the lord of the manor talking about an fecklessly fertile peasant (male poets do sometimes have that air as they speak of female novelists). I came home and expressed my views, perhaps at some length, and was reminded that I have published eight books in the last seven years and that, however irritating the conversation might have been, that’s quite a lot. Yes, I said, but one of those books is very short and co-authored (with Alec Badenoch, who did at least half of the work), and one is an academic monograph whose research predates my career as a writer, and anyway the point is that ‘prolific’ makes it sound easy, as if I just fart and another book comes out. Now, compared to almost every other way of making a living, of course there’s a sense in which writing books is easy. You can do it in cafés while sipping something nice, at home wearing pyjamas with a cat on your lap, in a beautiful old library where silence is the rule and no-one’s allowed to bother you. You can stop at any moment to go for a walk in the sunshine or get your hair cut or nip round the shops on a weekday morning while it’s quiet. This is not nursing or mining or primary school teaching. It’s not general practice or banking. There are no hours, no dress-code and no line-managers. I am not suggesting that in those terms, writing, or for the matter of that most other creative practices (we might exempt dance, perhaps), are ‘hard work.’

Writing may not be hard work, but it is difficult work. I have trouble imagining reading or writing an ‘easy’ book that is not also a bad book: predictable, formulaic, derivative? The difficult part of writing is making a new thing – the creative act, in fact – so if it’s not difficult, it’s probably not writing in the form that interests me. None of my books was easy to write, and if I make books fast I’d say it has more to do with being driven than being ‘prolific.’ With taking life fast, because it’s short. With glimpsing mortality standing always behind the curtains, and having things to say before I meet it face to face. Kathleen Jamie, one of my favourite writers, in one of my favourite books writes:

Once, I asked my friend John–half in jest–why we are so driven. By day, John counsels drug addicts; by night he is a poet. He wrote back, half in jest: “You know, my job isn’t to provide answers, only more questions. Like: why are we not more driven? Consider: the atoms of you have been fizzing about for a bit less than five billion years, and for forty-odd of those years, they’ve been pretty well as self-aware as you. But soon enough they’ll go fizzing off again into the grasses and whatever, and they’ll never, ever know themselves as the sum of you again. That’s it. And you ask me why we’re driven? Why aren’t more folk driven? Whatever are they thinking about?”

That said, I’m going to try to be less driven this time. The new book having gone away, I am bereft of the other world in my head and my impulse is set to and make another one, fast. I don’t remember how to manage daily life without the parallel world of a novel-in-progress running at the same time, and I don’t know why I would want to do so anyway. But for six months I’m going to try to reallocate my writing time to reading. I’m going to try not to write, and we’ll see what happens.