This blog is mainly about writing, though I stray from time to time to account for my unaccountable interests – as Douglas Adams so famously wrote, in life, the universe and everything! It is never entirely clear to me, whose life it is I am living, why I get interested in the things that I do, or how they transform themselves into fiction or indeed any kind of writing, and I am perhaps being self-centred in thinking that other people might enjoy reading about the process as mystery, as it always partly is to me. But I do think that.
Just now I am putting together the elements of a new novel, tentatively called Lemmings though I have some other possible titles in my head. It is the kind of book that is easy to spoil by talking about in advance, and I definitely don’t want to do that. If I can write it properly, it will be the kind of book my heroes wrote. I am not sure I can.
Writing for publication is hard. Joan Didion called it the loneliest profession or something like that, and I think I understand what she meant. There you are, all by yourself, tip tapping or scribbling away with only yourself for company, necessarily, yet what you are doing is aimed, in principle, at the whole wide world. If no one out there reads it, that changes absolutely nothing. All this is just as true in a newsroom, where I spent many years, as it is in total isolation, where I have spent long periods working out novels. You are there alone with your thoughts as you create, but your words, once put “out there” into the world, are never alone to you as author. They are incapable of being erased, even if you go to a great deal of trouble to erase them as writers ashamed of some efforts devoutly wish they could do.
Yet writing is easy too – too easy you might say. Electronic keyboards and the internet make it so simple to go from brain to the outer reaches of our solar system and even beyond! Somewhere far far from Earth some intelligent but indescribably bizarre being may read these words as soon as they are published, and say to itself in whatever way it is able, “???? Hey this dude is weird. Not only that, he’s ridiculous too.”
Before typewriters, when writers typically made do with pens made from bird feathers and ink that smeared, writing was a lot harder than it is now. It seems amazing to me that so many writers in the 19th century could write really fat books, just immense really, hundreds of thousands of words…and in more than one draft. Even after the invention of the pencil and the steel-nibbed pen this was still a problem. Celine, the French novelist, used to string his manuscript pages up in his lounge with clothes pegs so he could read them in flow as it were. He claimed late in his life that he wrote significantly fat books – like eight hundred thousand words fat – and then cut them back to a few hundred thousand or even fewer, pruning and pruning as well as rewriting.
Today writers are gifted with PCs and easy to use editing tools, and extra fat books are in vogue again, but it’s not the same as when Dickens wrote them, or Thackeray, or indeed Celine, whose books were not noticeably short and were handwritten..The typewriter – which featured prominently shall we say in his second novel, Mort a credit* – had been invented in the 19th century and Mark Twain, a fan of new technology to the point of bankruptcy**, wrote Life on the Mississippi on one, the first author apparently to script a book with the wonderful new device.
Where was I? Ah, right here, in front of the laptop, watching the letters cascade, one after another, onto the screen. Dear reader – I am embarked on this adventure, a lemming in my own right mysteriously determined to jump over the cliff of literature to land on the choppy seas of indifferent readership.
Yeah sure. Onward. If you’ve got this far, dear reader, thanks for your perseverance.
*The first person narrator attacks his father with one in a gesture of contemptuous modernity at his inability to learn to type.
**Twain invested huge sums into a linotype machine that was pipped by the real deal. Visitors to Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut,, can see the version he sought to develop, a monstrosity compared to the successful competitor. Twain had to embark on an extended tour of the world, lecturing and writing. Following the Equator, far from his most successful work, is nonetheless worth a read.