There are 1,267,069 words in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, 9,609,000 characters spread over 3031 mesmerising pages. I expect that you have read it many times.
It took Proust 51 years to write. Apparently, he would start each day by writing a sentence, then cutting up the paper into its component words and re-arranging them until he was satisfied with the order they were in. Some days, one sentence was all he managed.
In an idle moment of sleeplessness, I worked out that I had written around a third of a million words in the last year. 130,000 of these went into two books, 50,000 to my blog and the remainder, well, let’s not even go there. At that rate, I will be up with Proust in three years’ time, and therefore officially 47 years faster than him. In this business, you take excellence wherever you can find it.
Wanting people to like what you write is much like wanting people to enjoy looking through your holiday snaps, and I have learned not to push my luck. The truth is I’m going to write things down whatever anyone else may think, just like Rory McIlroy is going to hit golf balls, only not so well. It wouldn’t change anything if no one read it at all, because it is what I have to do. My working life, it turns out, is a constant process of selecting from the 171,476 available words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and then plonking them in the best order I can to say roughly what I have seen, or am thinking. Simple. I am a dung beetle, and words are the unfeasibly huge organic ball I push along the road in front of me.
The problem is that what might look frivolous to the rest of the world – (‘it’s so nice; Roger’s got a new hobby’)- is utterly serious to the writer. When I sit down in front of my PC every day, I am challenging myself to ignore the blank walls, vacant mind and unstructured hours, and get words, any words, onto the screen. It’s no different from a nurse, greengrocer or car mechanic in that we are all working as well as we can. And just like any of the above, sometimes the result appals me and occasionally it delights. Writers sometimes make the mistake of putting themselves on a creative pedestal, as if their art demands some special level of respect. It doesn’t. In reality, what I produce is just another tiny piece of the jigsaw that makes up someone else’s day, good or bad, like the yoghurt they had for breakfast, or the sunset they saw on the way home from work.
Of course, there are those moments. The people who still ask me, ‘how retirement is going’, or enthuse ‘how wonderful it must be to have slowed down’. I don’t think so. Inviting wholesale change and routine rejection into your life just shy of the age of sixty, time after time, day after day, is not retiring or slowing down; it is the single hardest, maddest and bravest thing I have ever tried to do. It is what I haveto do, but I adore it, and I’m proud of the risk I am taking. It makes wandering round Belfast in uniform and with a rifle all those years ago seem almost tame. There, the worst that could happen to me was getting shot or blown up; now it is silence. And sadly, it is our nature to think the worst of silence’s intent.
So let’s hear it for reaction. Share the sentiment, even if you don’t share the post. Get out there today and tell someone (not me, as that would be far too contrived after all this) that what they are trying to do is bloody wonderful.