It seems these days everyone wants to write a book. That every podcast, brand, content creator, or individual with a story wants to crystallise some part of themselves or their ambition in a printed work. Publishing a book still has its prestige. Of course, there is self-publishing as an option but being backed by a publishing house holds weight because it requires external endorsement and financial investment. But in a multi-platform reality, not everything needs to be a book – some things do belong online or should live as a viral article or on a podcast.
I had dinner with a book editor recently who told me the first question she asks herself when she reads something on submission is: who cares? And in the main the answer is, no one. It leads to her turning the vast majority of what she receives down. There is a gluten of content, a saturation so that what ‘we’ (the reader) care about is being watered down. After all, we can’t care about everything. She told me her new strategy was to publish ‘pointless books’ – the ridiculous, the humorous and the bizarre. Because, she maintained: who cares?
With our dwindling attention spans, reluctance to keep still and our avatar-induced impediment to FOMO or not being culturally in-the-know, we really are disadvantaged when it comes to sitting the fuck down and doing slow, deep work. That’s what writing a book requires of you. I’ve written both my novels alongside running different businesses and working on other projects, all whilst in the throes of moving houses, countries or through grief. Being a writer is to continually practise the discipline. And yet there is this fantasy world around books, a lot of people want to write one for the accolade but I wonder how many are aware that the completion is like anything in life: once obtained it disintegrates in your hands like sugar paper
The thing about writing is that the external validation is fast and loose i.e., it makes you interesting in conversation for ten-to-fifteen minutes. It brings status and cachet, sure. But the announcements, Sunday Times reviews, awards and updates on exciting book sales come fleetingly. And like anything in life, the bar gets pulled forward and suddenly you’ve entered the next level of the game where there’s more competition and strife.
I wish there were a better analogy, but being a published author is much like being on a roller-coaster: there is a moment where your belly flips, your hands are in the air and the feeling of immortality and freedom booms from your mouth in a high-pitched wail. You could do anything. You could be anyone. You are actually quite good at this roller-coaster stuff. But mainly there’s a lot of: ‘Well this was a fucking mistake,’; and ‘I actually hate rollercoasters so why am I on a fucking roller coaster?’; then there’s the ‘excuse me I’d quite like to get off now’ moment (usually half way through a manuscript when you realise the water rafters looked quite nice all along).
To write is to slip through the seams of a sentence, it’s sewing together the fraying tendrils damaged through the destruction of existence, it’s exposing something sometimes repugnant and sometimes true – often both. It makes sense then that it’s hard to sit down and do it. And it makes further sense why it’s so thrilling and indicative of desire.
And yet, the celebration or validation or even relief that comes with writing books is so tiny, so short-lived in comparison to the hours and months spent poring over character developments in a room with the door firmly pressed closed. Behind that door, it’s just you, the ideas and anxieties and shame and complex intricacies of what made you want to come to the page in the first place. It begs (and also is the answer to the question): why do you write?
It is a feat to quieten the noise, to sit down and be still with yourself. And it is another one entirely to guard against incessant distractions that pull you away from instinctive creativity into the diatribe of capitalistic garb where the intention is often to expose a lack in order for you to purchase against it. Perhaps then, what we’re doing behind that door, or in our beds, or on trains and buses, or in libraries, is excavating the lack ourselves and smoothing on a salve in typed letters and ink. But the price is high when we’re working against our dribbling messes for attention spans.
The world beckons, is compelled to disturb, coming in to undo the stitches we’ve spent hours on in sentence surgery. Leaving someone alone, allowing for that itching feeling as they float away from the matrix and into their own reality is something writers and those who surround them contend with. I have a rule with Mark that he’s not allowed to disturb me, not allowed to come up to my office and knock on the door when I’m writing. He’s not a needy person, and yet sometimes I can hear him wandering up the stairs, lingering on the landing, scratching at his will the other side of the door. Most of the time he resists and takes himself back downstairs and some of the time the door creaks open, just a slither, making narrow shadows on the hopeful part of his face.
I can’t remember the last time I spoke to a writer who wasn’t in some sense at war with themselves in order to just, well, write. And I’ve talked about this war being the very point: the yin to the yang of creativity. I went to see the Irish novelist, essayist and short story writer, Colm Tóibín, speak at an intimate book event in London a few years back and what he said stayed with me: ‘I hate being a writer. I hate the act of writing, it’s dull and boring and excruciating. I don’t want to do it. But I can’t help it, I have to. I have to write; it’s who I am.’
Even if nobody cares, you still sit down, you wrestle and writhe. It’s not about the validation, or the outcome. It’s not about whether you get 2000 words out or 200. It’s not really about publishing deals or dreams of your face on a Bookseller announcement, nor is it for the faraway dream of ‘break-out’ success, not really. You write because it is who you are. It is what you do. You write because you are obligated by your compulsion. You write because you care.