Many of us have harboured a dream, deluded or otherwise, to write a book, a bestseller. These same people may then be familiar with the faint sound of a ticking time bomb when whiling away decent writing time at forgettable parties.
Ernest Hemingway once said writing was like bleeding, which means that it either comes naturally or painfully. Or both. A fellow journalist once told me that if you are not writing every day, then you are an amateur. I don't talk to him much anymore.
I do write every day, but not about the characters born in my imagination, who have accidentally killed a tramp or crashed a car, only to disappear into oblivion. I write about companies who decry regulation and calculate potential losses. I admit I used to blame these corporations for the fact that I hadn't published a novel yet.
But I recently dropped the grudge. There is a tried and tested way to stop the dilly-dallying. It does not involve buying more books about writing or seeking more matter-of-fact advice about what does and does not make a real writer. It involves reading your work to people who share your ambitions—or delusions. And the more they read your work, the more they help you to see that the characters you once thought would set readers on fire are in fact boring. What they need is more detail, more background, more consistency or perhaps a foil.
My writers' group is in Brussels, where I live. The works we discuss feature everything from Russian melodrama to middle-aged erotic fiction to sharp-witted existentialism. A story about a boy trying to divorce his dad within existing French law is a favourite. Another about a young nun coming of age is shaping up to be a corker. The agreement is that we go away and cut, clean, rewrite and return with fresh copy. The experience has reawakened senses I thought were lost to corporate journalism.
When I go to the pub, I observe the people differently, filing them away as possible inspiration for new characters. Last night I spoke to an American who boasted that his wife could land a plane better than "any man in Colorado". I took a good long look at his mouth, frozen in an open dumbfounded expression, eyes to the heavens as he sought more words to convey his wife's brilliance—an image that will surely be useful someday. "Writers know people," says Ann, a 70-year-old New Yorker and published author in the group. She repeats this often, her finger wagging in the air.
Like fellow soldiers in the trench, these writers have made tackling both my written and unwritten work less discouraging. "Be confident," Ann insists. The rest of us shrug, implicitly acknowledging a pervasive self-doubt. Still, we share the names and numbers of the publishers we know, and push on.
Picture credit: Rennett Stowe (via Flickr)