You know that question everyone always asks writers? The one about what we do all day? In my experience most writers spend their days doing a lot of nothing — interspersed with trying in vain to organize vast teetering piles of books and papers, totally forgetting the thing we swore blind we’d be doing this afternoon, along with wasting endless hours on the internet. If you add, say, half an hour of writing to that grueling schedule, plus getting your child to school and back, some dog-patting, searching the mail for checks, answering frivolous e-mails, paying bills, napping and snacking, the day passes in a flurry of relentless activity.
On top of all those aforementioned vital time eaters, there are school visits, book tours, and correspondence to factor in. And if I haven’t mentioned it in the past, much as I love a good book tour, it’s impossible to arrive home from one without being a.) exhausted, b.) ill, c.) guilty from having abandoned the family for so long and d.) weeks behind in everything. By the time I’ve unpacked, it’s usually time for another one, which doesn’t go to show how often I go on book tours, only how infrequently I manage to unpack.
Then there are the Just Say No time-eaters, particularly bad for me because I’ve always had trouble with ‘no’, and am usually so flattered that people want me to do things that it takes a supreme effort of will to refuse. That’s how I end up writing book reviews, or the very scariest things of all, The Charity Short Story. Before you accuse me of not being a charitable person, what I’m not is a great short-story writer. I’ve so far managed about four for various good causes and I swear that’s it.
Of course if you subtract social media from that schedule, which (let’s be brutally honest here, guys) is far more self-indulgence than self-promotion (and when was the last time you bought a book because some author was relentlessly flogging it on Twitter?) there would be plenty of time to write. Other suggestions are to divorce the partner and have the child(ren) taken into care. Hire a personal assistant to keep control of the papers that breed on the desk. Shoot the dogs (look, this is theoretical — I’m not going to shoot the dogs, I love the dogs, but they are huge time-wasters – all that looking sad and pretending they’re hungry or bored or lonely or want to go out and chase squirrels? And they’re not good at accepting explanations about deadlines, they just look more and more mournful). You could also lower your standards and get used to living in utter chaos and disorder and never cooking or doing the laundry (I’ve already taken that measure).
I remember reading an article in which Jeannette Winterson said she couldn’t possibly live with another person – in order to write she needed pure peace and quiet and to be surrounded by just a few beautiful objects (I laughed till I cried at that one).
The 20th century English literary critic, Cyril Connolly famously said that “the pram in the hall is the enemy of promise.” In other words, children and attachments and mess will stunt the most promising of literary careers. And this was before the internet.
But here’s a radical thought.
What if all the mess – the children, spouses, emotional demands, the dogs, the volunteer work, school visits, journalism, book reviews, the things we do to make money and to keep life ticking over for other people – what if they’re the fuel that runs the fire? What if the distractions and chaos of every day life are what give our books a heart and a pulse and an understanding that life is conflicting and complex and frustrating and full of unexpected pleasures?
Surely that includes broken relationships and friendships that go wrong, divorce, penury, loss, bad parenting, crisis, change, misery…and resolution, rebirth, joy that reappears when you least expect it to.
It’s life – and it’s death – and it’s what makes writing worth reading.
What do you think?