When Thomas Keneally guested on Desert Island Discs in 2007, he described the act of writing as ‘an exercise in controlling fear – the fear is that you are not a writer.’
I recognized the emotion immediately but struggled to match it to the person expressing it. Thomas Keneally has written over thirty novels, for god’s sake, has a loft space stuffed with awards including the Booker, is an official Australian Living Treasure – what was he doing fretting over whether he was writer enough?
This was at a stage when I had published nothing myself, with the exception of one poem under a pseudonym in an obscure anthology. (Little tip: if modesty or embarrassment causes you to adopt a name not your own for submissions, you will never be able to cash the cheque. Then again, the cheque will probably be for £5.)
I was absolutely certain that if I could get a story published all the discomfort and anxious vanity I felt would disperse like frost on a griddle. I would be validated right down to my toe bones. Thomas Keneally’s refusal to internalize his own immense success was just irritating. When I publish thirty novels, I thought, or even one, I won’t be controlling fear, I’ll be laughing loudly and dropping cigar ash on my silk pyjamas.
Then I got a story published, and this is what happened: I experienced only a momentary flash of surprised joy before being flooded by the certainty that the magazine I had been holding up in my mind as a leading literary journal was in fact a cheap two-bit rag that would allow any old trash on its pages. If I could get placed or shortlisted in an actual writing competition, that would make the difference. Then I did, only to realize that the prestigious competition had mutated into a cheap two-bit scam that probably only a dozen people had entered. You get the picture. Instead of raising me onto the confident heights of ‘real’ authorship, each achievement was strangely diminished by my attaining it.
I look to the successfully published writers I know and have to admit they are mainly malcontent. The wealthy ones are worried about drops in their American sales, the prize winners are convinced it is all about to come crashing down. One told me they envied my lack of a publishing contract – ‘such a lovely stage,’ she said, ‘not having anything to lose.’ I bit my lip.
I’m not the type to jump out of bed smiling. I drag my reluctant carcass to the desk only after hours of displacement activity and guilt. But I bow to no-one in my compulsion to write, though the process is 95% discomfort. I said discomfort, not pain, so don’t write back to point out that mining or North Sea trawler work is actually worse. The most satisfying feeling in my life is having written, but starting is thorny, awkward. Every dismissive thing anyone ever said about me is running on a loop in my head and my many intellectual and technical limitations are crowding in front of me like a lapful of fat infants, making it difficult to reach the keys.
You may be thinking that I should be taking my hefty imaginary children and my head voices to a shrink, not a blog. So let me bring in someone else. Once on an Arvon course (‘Unblocking the Blocks’ anyone?) I met a man called Colin. Colin was a very talented writer. He was funny, he was really smart. He was not wealthy. On the last evening Colin told us that he had an arrangement with a friend that he either sent her 1,000 words a week or £100 as a fine for not sending them. It was the only way he had found to get any writing done. Many weeks, he just sent the money.
So even though I squirm with every new document I open, I gain a kind of solace from knowing that others are feeling just as reluctant or panicked. It’s no longer a question of getting rid of the fear, but of learning to accommodate it, like an ugly sofa that mysteriously won’t fit through the door.