“You have got to read this book—it’ll change your life.” How many times a week does some bugger come up to you and say that? Not many, eh? How about we make it a bit easier since most of us don’t spend our days surrounded by bibliophiles: how often do people come up to you and say, “Listen, you’ve gotta hear this,” maybe adding, “It’ll blow your mind,” for good measure? That’s more like it. And how often has your mind been blown by the revelation of said information? Probably not that often. Because what other people think is mind-blowing does nothing for us.
Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot. You’re a writer. You have things to say. How many of them need to be said? How many of them will blow our readers’ minds? And if not why are we bothering to say them? We have an expression here in Scotland although I don’t honestly know if it originated here: When he opens his mouth you can hear his belly rumble. Or alternatively: He’s a big bag of wind. Same idea. Typical of the kind of colourful language we Scots employ. We do love our metaphors.
Why am I writing this? Why am I sitting here rheumy-eyed at two o’clock on a
Thursday morning scribbling away on an A4 pad with too small a pencil (I honestly thought this was going to be just a wee note) if I didn’t have something to say, something important to say and not simply important to me?
I don’t write that much anymore. I never wrote that much in the first place except when I was about thirteen when everything that came out of my mouth mattered terribly. Now I only write things that matter that maybe won’t blow people’s minds—a bit too much to ask that—but will at least make people
I have a shite every day (sometimes two)—I just tried to have one in between the last paragraph and this one—and I usually feel better for it and the kind of thing I might say afterwards if I did happen to have a particularly satisfying bowel movement would be, “Well that’s a load off my mind.” We Scots are nothing if not self-deprecatory although to be honest we really don’t mind who it is we’re cutting down to size. (Our ancestors ran around wielding claymores so I guess this is the modern equivalent.) I have a shite every day (sometimes two) but I very rarely mention it not even to my wife who, bless her, would show far more interest in the state of my bowels than most mates. I certainly don’t show her what a good boy I’ve been. Not felt the need to do that for a good fifty years.
Most writers are shite. At least most of the stuff they write is. Occasionally instead of a stinking turd we look down and there’s a golden egg and we think, Where the [insert expletive of choice] did that come from? That would be worth showing someone. That would be worth going on live TV and talking about.
I have to write. I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. Much of life is, however, not worth a second thought let alone preserving in written form, let’s be honest, but we need to get it out of our systems and get on with the rest of our days. We don’t publish it on the Internet or as an ebook. It’s of no interest to anyone bar us. My poos are of great interest to me—and, maybe, someday (although I hope not) will be to my doctor—but that’s about it.
Now I’m not saying the elimination of bodily waste can’t be satisfying but one should not confuse the pleasure derived from the process with the product, albeit the waste product. Writing is often satisfying. I’d forgotten how pleasurable scribbling away with a pencil could be—Christ knows the last time I wrote anything by hand longer than fifty or sixty words—but when I read this
over in the morning I may be very disappointed with what I’ve produced. I don’t think it’s shite but it’s half-two and who can tell at half-two in the morning how good anything is?
Thursday, 08 August 2013, 11:15 AM
Okay I’ve just typed that up. It’s actually okay. That it took me forty-five minutes to write a mere 700 words is a bit depressing but that’s fine. It’s been a long time since I wrote anything substantial by hand. It didn’t even need much editing.
So what prompted me to get out of bed in the early hours and write this? Well, when I was going to sleep I was thinking about the book I’d been reading earlier that day and how mind-numbingly ordinary it was. I’ll finish reading it this afternoon, at least that’s the plan, and I’ll review it and probably say nice things about it because it’s far from being a bad book but the question I so want to ask the author is: Why did you need to write that book?
I read steadily, a book a week (maybe a bit more), and the question I find myself asking all the time is: Why do we need this book? Is the world a better place because this book exists? Mostly the answer is: No. Most books don’t need to be written. Most books don’t make an iota of difference. Most books are entertaining but I get frustrated by books whose only goal is to entertain. I’m not saying there’s not a place for them but I really don’t think we need so many. TV’s far better at providing pure—or maybe that should be raw—entertainment. They’ll gut a book until it’ll squeeze neatly into a couple of hours of TV and then you’re free to get on with your life and maybe have time to read something worthwhile.
I can’t imagine reading any book that’s being marketed as “a great beach read.” I really can’t imagine writing a book that one might describe as “a great beach read.” That’s not what reading and writing are about for me. I want to write the book that someone, after reading it, feels the need to press into the arms of someone they care about and say, “You have got to read this book. This book changed my life.”
Let me tell you a story—it’s a true story—about when I wrote the first draft of Living with the Truth, my first novel. Of course it was only a novella at this point, about 25,000 words long but I gave it to the girl who sat next to me at work and asked her to read it, which she did. And there were two things she said about it that have stayed with me. The first was—and I quote—“How DARE you…” I don’t remember the whole sentence but I do remember how it opened. She was appalled by how I’d treated the protagonist in the book. She was offended on his behalf. She felt for him. She’d been hurt too. That kind of reaction I never expected but then she said something else: “You’ve made me think about my life.” I’m paraphrasing but she’d been so affected by what had happened to this fiction character that she’d realised that her life was heading in the same direction and she didn’t like where it was going. She was in a dead-end job in the civil service with no chance of promotion and that was going to be her life for the next thirty years. And that terrified her. She’d, apparently, always wanted to be a nurse and was now—thanks to me and my wee book—seriously thinking about packing in her job and going off to nurse training camp or wherever nurses go to get trained. I left the job a couple of months later so I’ve no idea if she did anything about it. She probably didn’t. People generally don’t. But I’d like to think she did.
The thing is that ever since then, every time I’ve sat down to write a novel I’ve set out with the same lofty goal: to change someone’s life or at least to make them stop and think about their life. If you’re a writer reading this then I hope I’ve made you think about what you write and how you write. If you’re a reader I’m hoping you’ll think twice about the books you choose to read and what you expect from them. Think. That’s all I’m asking. Think.