There’s a very famous scene in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) stands by a well, looking into the burning desert. First there’s just dust on the horizon, then this transforms into a black dot. Slowly the dot comes closer until it’s clear that it’s a man on a camel. Finally Omar Sharif arrives. And there on screen you have two of the most beautiful men you could ever hope to cast your eyes over.
Writing books is a physical process – it is for me anyway. It’s not something that only engages my mind and intellect although obviously they are involved along the way. It’s a visceral physical roller coaster. That’s part of the attraction. So it’s not altogether surprising that when it comes to letting go of my work it all gets a bit tricky. So here is a quick run down of what happened to me after sending my most recent novel off for my agent to read.
- a brief moment of ecstatic relief, a feeling rather unusual for me of being surprisingly upbeat, a sort of zen like feeling you might feel in the airport waiting to come home after a really excellent holiday. This is followed quickly by …
- frantic and pointless and unaccustomed activity like hoovering and sorting my books – think hamster, think cage, thing re-arranged bedding, think tearing up receipts.
- sewing – yes odd but true – sewing, buttons, holes in clothes.
- picking up odd books at random and scouring them for insights.
- a bath – I pick up Robert Brustein’s Letters to a Young Actor and read the following quote from Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull:
“In our kind of work whether we’re actors or writers, the important thing isn’t fame or glory, not what I used to dream about, but learning how to endure … If I have faith it doesn’t hurt so much, and when I think of my calling I’m no longer afraid of life.”
- Oh, Nina, don’t be such a drip. Then I think, I’ve been writing for about twenty years now so I daresay that counts as endurance.Then I read this:
“… he who forfeits his calling forfeits his right to life.”
- I then immediately drop the book in the bath. Fortunately it is a very clean book because it has been hoovered half to death.
- I go into town and wander about fixating on poncey stationery, especially the brightly coloured variety – notebooks, pens … if you’re red or yellow you’re mine. I buy highlighters … I want neon … I also discover I want a Palomina Blackwing pencil (available from Foyles) with a replaceable eraser on the end.
- Home – more hoovering until the end of the hoover explodes. An attempt to order a new hoover part. I discover that the part I want is called an upholstery tool and is 35 mm wide – who knew? I certainly haven’t been vacuuming the upholstery with it. Maybe that’s why it shattered into a zillion pieces
- I pick up Don Paterson’s The Blind Eye and read this:
“The last thing I have written is always my favourite because I still host it; it is still me, is still in my body, in the wet red mill of my brain, and your insulting it can physically injure me.”
- Host it? This does not help although I daresay it might explain the anxiety. I immediately have visions of John Hurt hosting you-know-what and that startling meal. Is my novel going to burst out of me like Alien and run shrieking across the floor. Then I read this:
“Beware the obsessive between obsessions: if his brain doesn’t eat itself, it will eat yours.”
- Now you’re talking. It dawns on me that in order to stop my brain eating itself I’m going to have to start writing something else. Usually the idea for a new project comes in quite quickly. Well, it always has in the past and after reading this you can probably see why. In fact a bit like Omar coming out of the desert. Yes, here comes a very tenuous link to that opening paragraph. It starts as dust on the horizon, then gradually, very gradually it becomes visible as the thing it is. Then we look at each other for a bit and then the decision has to be made – am I really going to do this all over again?
- The answer? Well, yes I probably am. Especially if the alternative is an unhealthy obsession with 35 mm upholstery tools.
Are you good at generating ideas? Are you good at waiting? Or are you an expert on 35 mm upholstery tools? Even if you are none of these things please leave a comment anyway.