There is no nicer phrase than ‘I have written’, and none more awful, more sweaty-palmed dreadful, than ‘I am writing’. I should know. I have recently finished a book on which I have been working for an embarrassing number of years. Let’s say seven, because it sounds just about respectable and even slightly biblical in its heroic capacity for endurance. And I can honestly say that every day has been hell.
It is not, of course, supposed to be like this. People who don’t write for a living think that this whole authorship lark must be heaven. Here, surely, is the beau idéal of unalienated labour: your only boss is you, and your only shackles are the limits of your imagination and your capacity to make the English language do your bidding. But that, you see, is the problem. Without any external authority hanging over you – except perhaps your increasingly frustrated editor, who can’t understand why you must make such a song and dance about things – you are left with no one to please but yourself. And you, it turns out, are not someone who is easily pleased. In fact, you are a right so and so who refuses to be impressed by anything and gives the impression of being, quite frankly, slightly appalled by this drivel that you insist on serving up.
But surely, you think, it isn’t supposed to be quite this hard? I went through years when feeling as though I wasn’t wrestling with myself so much as with the English language. Each morning (actually dawning – I like early starts) it felt as though someone had presented me with