Part of the territory of being a writer is working with the imagination and the senses on hyper alert. That means sensitivity toward the style of others. As I mentioned , I looked to other writers to act as stylistic role models; I sought out writers who could make words hum, who could set up some vibration, some rhythm that I could tune into. I read critically and then went out to try to make my own music.
For years it was heavy going. I felt like a six-year-old with a bulky guitar in my lap; there were sounds in there, I just couldn’t make them come out, not in the way I wanted. I strummed along anyway, and on the days when the guitar made my wrists ache, I leaned it up against the wall. Maddeningly, it refused to stay silent. Whenever I brushed against it, a vibration could be felt. I almost always took it up again and tried to pick out a new tune.
Was there a turning point, a moment when I composed something and thought: not bad? I can’t say there was. I think that I simply grew tired of hearing the same old tune. I wanted to write as if I were playing flamenco. I wanted dazzle, excitement, passion. I wanted writing that felt like the best adventure for that was why I had got into it in the first place: to explore the world.
All the way through my twenties I wrote for newspapers. I clocked up writing air miles on local papers and then papers in the Arabian Gulf. I excelled at landing front page stories and developed what is known in journalistic terms a ‘nose.’ It was easy for me to sniff out a story and like an over-enthusiastic Springer spaniel I adored the rewarding pats on the head from my news editors. Had my nose for news not lost its sense of smell, I might have continued to earn my living as a journalist.
I left my job and rented a room. On a bare table facing a wall I put my typewriter and began to write observation pieces and stories. I hated the room; the landlady had left me in charge of her three nameless, incontinent cats who stole my food and who I renamed Fuck Off, Piss Off and Bastard. I sprayed my room against the stench with Christian Dior’s Poison. It wasn’t the fault of the three curses that they were neglected and with me around at least they had plenty to eat. At night I read Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, so you can tell what kind of time it was.
Of course I returned to the newsroom. There were some adventures. One was covering the poll tax riots for the Sunday Correspondent, door-stepping Salman Rushdie on the release of the fatwa was not. In the words of the Sun journalist who let me share a bag of chips in his warm car: ‘the last effing place he’d be is at home.’ In between newsroom shifts, I wrote my own stories, but they lacked lustre and I fell into a creative coma. I could compose sentences; without compositional skill, I wouldn’t be published. I knew that I could carry on writing dutifully and competently and even profitably, but I wanted something more. I wanted to make a world out of words. Other writers could do it. The question was: could I? No, the question was: dare I?
There is a mystery to fiction writing and that makes it compelling. That’s not to say writing is a magic circle, admitting only the initiated. Good writing, I believe, is there for anyone with time and patience to discover for themselves. I used to believe, however, that effortless writing was a special power, one that usually bypassed the space where I happened to be sitting at my desk, waiting, always waiting for a day when I would receive enough of a power injection not to stutter and falter and choke over my first few paragraphs. It didn’t seem fair that other writers could butterfly while I was still floundering in the shallow end with my arm-bands blown up as hard as they would go. I was usually out of breath after even a width.
How then did I develop the endurance to go the distance of the cross-channel crawl that is the novel? I trained hard. I found the right coaches. I paid attention to people who had made it before me, and then, there is no other way, I plunged right in.
The first mile was exhausting. I thought I would die. My lungs were bursting and my eyes were stinging. I made the mistake of looking back over to the shore and thinking: I haven’t got very far. I did this so often I convinced myself I was writing a short story or a screenplay or a prose poem, anything but a novel. I convinced myself I could always turn back. It wasn’t too late to return home. Some cosy newsroom would welcome me back with a cup of strong, sugary tea.
Halfway through an early draft of my first novel I found what I was looking for – my writer’s breath. It came after a particularly exhausting bout of printing stuff off and weeping at the atrociousness of what I’d composed. I sat down on the edge of my bed with the typescript in my hands and I asked myself: what do you want to do now? You can stop and be done with it, or you can carry on, but, if you decide to carry on, you have to stop floundering; you have to stop trying so hard and just get out there and keep looking where you are going. Punishing the struggling writer you are won’t make you a stronger writer. Punishing the struggling writer you are will only slow you down and eventually drag you under.
I got my second wind and finished the novel. Inevitably, it wasn’t a smooth passage to victory, but I’ll save this for the next instalment.