‘Flying,’ said Douglas Adams, ‘is learning how to throw yourself to the ground and miss’
I read into that that most of the worthwhile things that we end up doing to bring change into our lives wouldn’t pass a basic risk assessment. When you choose to go from sufficiently paid to worryingly unpaid, when you remove the basic architectural structure from your working week, and when you work alone for the first time in your life, all of which I have done, you need to be a quick learner. And then you need to sift through that learning to see which bits count.
It is Wednesday and, so far this week, I have had a grim and lonely day when I achieved nothing, a thoroughly productive day when, among other things, I finished a chapter that had defeated me for weeks, a busy day up North and a scrappy sort of in-between day, which was nonetheless quite fun.
These things I have learned in the last three up-and-down months.
- The hardest thing for a writer is the silent echo.
- Words come when they come, and not when you want them. They will not necessarily come when you have set eight hours apart to harvest them, just as they will not necessarily stay silent when you roll over in bed at four in the morning. I have learned that all I can do is encourage them, and remove the obvious road blocks. But I have also learned never to get up from my desk without having written something, be it pitifully meagre, even if the next thing it is bound to meet is the “Delete’ button.
- You cannot polish a turd. Sorry to put it like that, but the thing on your screen you weren’t happy with when you turned in for the night won’t be any better in the morning. Desperation may persuade you that it is, but it isn’t.
- A good metaphor is a like a spotlight to the heart of the truth you are trying to explain. A bad one is like a fish on a bicycle.
- More than one subordinate clause, like this one, only not completely, and certainly not routinely, leaves people wondering why they, when they were busy in the first place, and, if not busy, then not idle, started the sentence in the first place. Short sentences work.
- Alcohol doesn’t help. Tea does, as does walking the dogs when creativity runs dry. Millie and Boris have never been walked so much as they have since August, and they are beginning to dread days when I am home alone with them.
- Don’t give anyone anything to read unless they have directly asked for it. A friend who constructively criticises something you have asked them to read is beyond price. But I have also learned that most of the 25 million or so words that inhabit the average bookshelf in the average house are unread, and it is arrogant to assume that your own should be accorded a higher priority than anyone else’s, Dickens for example. People still like you even if they don’t enjoy what you write, but they will tire of you quickly if you fail to grasp that.
- The thrill of seeing someone you don’t know reading something that you yourself wrote is intense. The first time it happened to me was on a train outside Woking, and the book in question was my first, and was supposed to be funny. The man reading it lasted all of a page and a half before he miserably put it back in his briefcase and took out the Guardian in replacement. Even so, and even with the opprobrium of playing second fiddle to Polly Toynbee, I was delighted.
- I have learned that there is no pleasure quite like that one sentence that says at its completion precisely what you set out to for it to say at the start. Painters must feel the same, and so must potters, garden designers and anyone involved in creation. Apart from God, presumably, who must still be wondering.
- I have learned that there is no going back.
I have hit the ground many times so far during this process, but I am still learning to fly. Metaphorically.