This piece was originally called Fuck That Shit. It was going to be a short, angry blast describing how I had finally kicked the writing habit, or more accurately, how I had finally kicked the delusion that I would, that I had to, become a successful novelist.
The delusion, which could from a certain angle, be called an ambition, had already been downgraded. By my late thirties I’d dropped the word successful.
But no more. I was done with it. I moved all my novels, part novels, ideas for novels and novel scraps to a tatty data stick and cleared my laptop and my mind of the compulsion to write novels. The relief was exhilarating.
I never wanted to be a novelist. In my late teens I developed an inclination towards poetry. My poetry was awful because I’d never read any poetry. So I read Dylan Thomas, Keats, Owen and Les Murray and churned out poetry that sounded like Dylan Thomas, Keats, Owen and Les Murray, but wasn’t quite so awful.
The poetry habit continued, off and on, and I progressed from seventh division poet to sixth division poet, but there’s no money or future or recognition in poetry, so I compromised. I would write novels.
I hadn’t read many novels. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading novels. In fact I still don’t. I have ploughed through some classics in recent years and developed an appreciation for the craft. 1984, The Master and Margarita, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Riddle of the Sands, Money, The Cement Garden and others. It’s hard work, usually. I’ve tried reading bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code or the various Harry Potters or historical fiction. I usually find I dislike the hero or the premise or both, and eventually the accumulation of clichés chokes off my interest.
Reading novels is something I have to make myself do. As is writing. My attempts at novel writing have been sporadic, ineffective and tentative. I’ve written five complete novels, all of them failed like badly baked cakes. Sometimes the icing was tasty, sometimes the sponge was relatively edible, sometimes the recipe sounded good, but at no stage had I ever produced anything approaching competent.
So what the hell is my problem?
My problem is that at the age of nine, I wrote a descriptive essay. It was a flowery, ornate thing based on a day at a Welsh beach. The PE teacher read it out to the class. It would have been an odd direction for football training to take, so I assume he was filling in for the English teacher.
He liked it. My parents liked it. Everyone liked it. I was going to be a writer. Of course, coming from a working class family, ‘writer’ was soon boiled down into something more bankable. I was going to be a journalist. Later on, I won a sports journalism prize. I was a maroon blazer away from becoming Alan Partridge.
The problem was, I didn’t want to be a journalist. A week at my local paper cured me of any residual journalistic inklings. It was an office. An office full of snarky, insecure adults who looked at me like I was pond scum. Court hearings, local businesses, a press conference at Dudley zoo. Tedium.
It had nothing to do with writing. So I didn’t become a journalist, although I still ended up in an office doing something that had nothing to do with writing.
But I clung to the delusion that I was going to be a novelist. I conducted interviews with myself describing my new novel to the fascinated television viewers. I rehearsed how the reviews of my book would go on the Late Show (Germaine Greer was a big fan) and I came up with really snappy, catchy titles for my epic novels.
Writing them was the problem, mainly because I don’t care about plot. I don’t watch much television, I very rarely get into a plot-driven book or television show, because, well, it all seems so pointless. What is the point of constructing a tightly-built plot that entertains and stirs emotions? Why do I want to stir anyone’s emotions? That’s like prodding a stick into other people’s muddy pools and swirling it around. I wouldn’t want anyone stirring up my emotional pools. I don’t want an overbearing artist getting into my head. That’s why I don’t listen to music
So I’ve tried literary fiction, I’ve tried detective fiction, I’ve tried science fiction. I’ve tried being Oscar Wilde, George Orwell and PG Wodehouse. I’ve put hour after hour after hour into tapping away on my own with no realistic prospect of achieving anything, and the majority of those hours have been miserable, teeth-pulling exercises in which the words drop slowly onto the page like droplets of spilled blood.
Worse than those hours are the hours when the words come easily, glibly and only later on turn out to be worthless currency.
I’ve even gone back to poetry, and have found that in the interim, I have progressed to the bottom half of the fifth division. There is still no book with my name on it, and logically, an outsider would say that there is never going to be. Face it, deal with it, drop this nonsense and move on. Know your strengths and weakenesses. And so on.
So I have. And I will. Just as soon as I finish this one last thing I’m working on. I like the characters. I’ve got a great idea for the title. The themes are strong. I’ve already cast the parts in the critically acclaimed British film version and the commercially successful but less adept Hollywood adaptation. This will be the one.
The last one, anyway.