We’ve all got something that keeps our ego in check. Some of us have social media, others have mirrors or a mother. Me, I’ve got tennis.
I’d been feeling good about myself. Writing and work were going well and I was starting to believe I was somebody.
Then, on the weekend, the bubble burst.
It wasn’t a big event – just a dozen middle-aged boys vying for glory and some sports socks. Yet it was a tournament nonetheless.
And, for someone like me, someone who sub-consciously equates self-worth with success, competition is the best reality check of them all.
Reader, I lost to them.
Having performed poorly I now feel more like myself – like a nobody, that is.
Which is fine. The truth hurts but, as a masochist, I embrace the ache.
It’s a timely reminder of my rightful ranking – in tennis and in life.
Writing a novel is a lot like making stone soup.
Remember that story?
A hungry wayfarer meets a tramp who offers to make stone soup. Into the pot goes a stone and, while the water is warming, the tramp idly mentions that an onion might help. Tempted, the wayfarer takes one from his pack. ‘A carrot,’ the wily tramp says. ‘If only…’ And out comes a carrot.
This goes on until a rich minestrone has been made from the purloined provisions. The wayfarer is amazed. ‘This,’ he asks, ‘is stone soup?’
The first draft of a novel is a pot of stone soup: the seed of an idea swimming in a sea of words. Only by convincing ourselves that our book-to-be is a delicacy can we make it minestrone, adding ingredients until we too end up asking the wayfarer’s question.
This is stone soup?
Last night, in a tiny community hall in Hobart, a séance was held.
I was there, along with a few dozen others.
As we sat in a semi-circle, candles were lit. The lights were extinguished and, swathed in black, the medium swept in.
She took her place in silence. Eyes closed, she raised her arms and – voila! – contact was made.
For the next forty minutes I sat spellbound as the spirit of a man long-dead spoke to me from the past.
That man was Johann Sebastian Bach, musician and much-loved composer.
The medium, too, was musical. A fine violinist, she played Bach’s Second Partita from memory. It was an eerie, expressive performance.
In his day, Bach knew several languages, none of them mine. Last night, he spoke using the universal tongue: music. He bared his soul in sound and, wondrously, we heard every word.
Who do you wake up with in the morning? Someone you love or someone you loathe?
I don’t mean to pry but rather to posit a proposition: that the company you keep in your first waking hour sets your self for the rest of the day.
And I’m not talking about your bed buddy here – I’m referring to the version of yourself you choose to wake up with.
Stop looking at me like that!
Say you want to be a writer. Be your writing self in your first hour of wakefulness and you’ll feel like a writer for the rest of the day – that’s my assertion.
It’s nothing new. Back in 1886, the English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote: ‘Begin as you mean to go on.’
I’ve been doing so for weeks and it works.
So why not wake up to yourself and seize the hour?
It’s happened to anyone who’s ever had a blog.
You get an idea for a post. The phrases are flowing and you’ve got time on your hands, so you decide to dash it off in one go. What, you tell yourself, can possibly go wrong? You’ll just whack out the words then polish, publish and preen.
So you sit down to get the job done.
You’re still at it days later, of course, your idea now a literary iceberg whose hidden depths keep surfacing.
What went wrong?
Nothing, actually. Writing is almost always a grind, even if we like to think otherwise. None of us is a lesser writer for finding it hard.
As Thomas Mann famously (and fortunately) observed: ‘A writer is a person who finds it particularly difficult to write!’
That’s me all over. I thought I’d finish this post hours ago.
I had an upsetting experience at work today – doubly upsetting because I was at fault – and I need to write it out.
Yes, write not ride.
Some people let their emotional storms blow themselves out. Alas, I’m not so stoic. When troubled I have an urge to put pen to paper, and I wonder why.
Does writing help me learn my lesson, like copying out lines does at school?
Is it a self-imposed punishment, the page being a paper voodoo doll I prick with my pen to inflict pain on myself?
Or do I write to purge myself of evil emotions, in a kind of ritualistic ink-letting?
Your guess is as good as mine. One thing is true: when the turbulent toss of my handwriting has subsided, the cool calm clear blue lines of the page will remain, and the storm will have passed.
It was a weekday and I’d cycled to work.
On the way to the change room I found myself wishing I’d meet someone new. And so I did, in the locker room: a big blokey-looking bloke with muscles and a chin.
I instantly switched into masculine mode.
Hey, I said. Hey mate, he replied, going one better.
A blokey-sounding conversation ensued, one in which Luke – for that was his suitably red-blooded name – told me he was going jumping later that day.
Flummoxed, I froze. Jumping? Visions of the Dufflepuds from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader flashed into my head.
Mountain-biking, he said.
I felt like a fraud. When put to the test I’d thought of a child’s storybook rather than the trial of a man’s derring-do.
Enjoy, I squeaked, and rushed off to work. I’d got changed but I hadn’t changed at all.
I’ve been writing – my signature not my novel.
Too many writers, I’m told, suffer from autograph-induced RSI, all because they didn’t simplify their signatures before stardom arrived.
At the start of the session my head spun and my arm ached; signing my name was like clinging to a roller-coaster. By its end, though – well, more of that in a minute.
Some novelists made the move early on. Hemingway’s autograph morphed into cross-hairs, while Jonathan Franzen flattened his out so he now signs with a stroke.
Here’s food for thought: we’re told to sign on the dotted line but what if one’s signature is a dotted line?
I’ve always wanted to write about a character who forges his own signature. Some kind of murder mystery?
My new autograph looks like an arrow. The only way is up now that I’ve streamlined my signature.
I know a boy whose name is Adam.
The teachers at Adam’s school gave out prizes today. Adam had never won an award and he thought his time had finally come. He’d worked hard every day and although he wasn’t the fastest of learners, he was diligent, never leaving his desk until his work was done.
The ceremony was held in the hall. The winner’s names were read out one by one but Adam’s was not among them. He was devastated; afterwards, he ran into the bushes at the bottom of the school, fighting back tears.
Adam wanted to leave. And yet as he turned to go, the cries of his friends came to him from afar, seeming to say that if he went now he, like his namesake, might never truly return. So he stayed.
I know a boy whose name is Adam.
Here’s the thing about writing a novel. No-one will care if I do it.
I mean, who reads novels these days? Hardly anyone I know. A couple of my colleagues maybe, none of my mates, a precious few friends and family. That’s not many folks.
Of course if I write something that sells, then people I don’t know might care. But what’s the good of that? As the least famous Churchill (Charles, the poet) wrote, ‘Fame/is nothing but an empty name’.
But why do I even care if nobody cares?
Because I’m human and humans crave unconditional love.
‘Growing up involves accepting that we’re not as special as we thought,’ Nick Hornby once said. ‘But artists have to keep that feeling alive.’
Come to think of it, I do know someone who will care if I write a novel.
And that someone is me.