A lot of people have asked me what the life of an unpublished author looks like. (Actually, nobody’s asked me, ever, but it’s a Saturday – the sabbath – and Tel-Aviv’s luxuriating in its weekly lull so I thought I’d try and sketch a picture for y’all.)
I think the best way is to describe it as living simultaneously in two completely contradictory worlds: the real world, and the world of crap that swirls inside your mind. One involves the good and the bad stuff that we all know – walking the dogs, waiting in line at the post office, cleaning dog vomit from the rug, cleaning baby vomit from the rug, buying meat and vegetables, overcooking said meat and vegetables and getting shouted at. You know: life. The other involves exactly the same stuff, but happening to people that aren’t you. That don’t even exist. Or they do, but only in a parallel universe in your head.
You see, the act of writing is more than just creating. It’s also editing, and being god. Although nobody wants to read about baby vomit (unless the baby vomit’s actually poison and is part of the dastardly plan of literary Wife to kill literary Author), there needs to be baby vomit in the other world. The world and the people in it need to be at least broadly analogous and, crucially, recognisable. Things that dominate our lives need to dominate theirs: there needs to be cause and effect, external stimuli, daddy issues and dashed hopes, fleeting encounters and life-long reegrets. A whole consistent universe needs to function if the characters and their stories are to make sense and, hopefully, prove compelling reading for two hundred plus pages. However, because none of it exists – or rather, it does but only in your head – you are responsible for every little bit. This, perhaps you can appreciate, is rather exhausting.
So, as I’m washing baby bottles in this world, I’m also thinking about that world and whether the Chinese would leave Taiwan and whether that would make space for secessionist movements and whether they’d become militarised and lead to bombings and whether that would pit communities against each other which would strain Lee’s relationship with the brothers which would strengthen Dafna and endanger Lee and oh my god what the fuck does it all mean and why does my head hurt so much and why have I been washing the same teet for half an hour?!?!? (Actual true story from Unpublished Novel #1.)
Really, calling someone a ‘writer’ is a misnomer. The writing’s the easy bit. Relaxing even, like TV. I write by hand using a fountain pen and a notebook (quick shout-out to design.y and Lechtturm 1917) not because I’m some luddite nostalgic for a pre-technological age I never experienced, but rather because I can write on the balcony, at the beach, in a coffee shop, under a tree or locked in a box if I want to (if there’s enough light) and I never have to worry about a dead battery. I’m unchained from the socket and free from a desk. The only downside’s that my fingers are usually stained with ink and so I frequently resemble a Pakistani peasant fresh from selling his first vote.
What’s hard is the sheer amount of noggin-space required to tease out all the intricate and interrelated details prior to putting pen to paper. It’s isolated and isolating work, and it doesn’t let up. Ever. There’s no office, so there’s no water-cooler, so there’s no conversations with colleagues about last night’s TV and how Wife’s breaking your balls ha ha ha. There’s no five year expansion plan to improve sales and corporate image, or current short-term project with targets and bonuses and working lunches at posh restaurants. Instant gratification is an unknown concept. Even ‘finishing’ a novel (which, really, means being so sick of that imaginary world you want to burn it with fire) is no reward for, being unpublished and sans-agent, your only joy will be checking the mail-box for the return of those stamped addressed envelopes you sent out with the first three chapters of your manuscript (international postage, cruelly, that you paid for). Those will invariably arrive accompanied by a polite letter from the literary agency which may or may not have spelled your name right. Rejection arrives via snail-mail, acceptance via eMail. Or so I now believe.
Why would anybody put themselves through this all? How can I recommend anyone take even a tentative step down this (apparently glamorous) life path? I can’t. Absolutely, categorically. I haven’t had a job for nearly three years and with a wife and a new baby and two dogs and no real income, the clock is ticking on this specific road, the land-mines are ready to blow, and the noise is getting deafening. In truth, I was a happier, more contented, better-adjusted person when I had a traditional nine-to-five, cheque-at-the-end-of-the-month job. Life was simple and simple is good, especially for a restless mind, but…
I don’t want to give it up. I can’t. And whenever I’m about to throw the towel in something happens, just occasionally, to remind me of why I’m still trying to make a go of this. Like a few nights ago when I woke at an ungodly hour and knew, just knew, a tiny detail which fundamentally changed almost everything about Unpublished Novel #2. One of the characters had been bothering me. He always seemed incomplete and some of the stuff he was doing just didn’t make sense. As I lay there in the blackness, it was suddenly clear why. I knew then that he – an Arab from Jaffa – was not only gay (itself a revelation), but was also living a double life as both straight and a Jew. While Wife groaned, the baby threatened to wake and the dogs eyed me from their orthopaedic beds resentfully, I scampered to my study, found my notebook, and jotted down a few sentences which in the light of the next day made no sense at all. Yet that didn’t matter. I remembered the basics, and that sudden, mid-sleep epiphany changed the whole context of my second book. It focused a series of issues I had been struggling to define and, even better, focused the plight of the other characters and their relationships.
More fundamentally, it gave me some new themes to drill down and explore – themes which, unbeknownst to me, had been the novel’s thread since day one. Of course I will have to go back and rewrite a massive portion of what I’ve already done, but Unpublished Novel #1 went through four complete rewrites and countless incremental alterations, so I’m well aware this is part of the long slow slog. What must be must be.
Amid all the frustrations and all the difficulties, that single moment was exhilarating. A novel is years of exploring and re-exploring the intellectual consequences of a single something that bothered you for an instant once and simply wouldn’t let go. It’s back-breaking, mind-bending, soul-destroying work and the triumphant instants are few and far between. Perhaps they arrive once or twice in the long gestation of a book, if that, but when they do they make all the uncertainty, the failures, the long hard incremental toil worthwhile in a way that ‘finishing’ a book should but doesn’t. And then you walk around with a goofy grin on your face for a few moments or days and everyone thinks you’re a loon because, of course, it doesn’t matter and nothing actually happened in the real world.
Ah yes, the real world… The place where events occur and lives are lived. Where the young dog’s just left a warm brown deposit on the balcony and is giving me the eye. “Yeah,” she’s saying, “so I shat in your home. And what?”. I’ll take a dose of unreality any day…