stupid every day of your writing life.

Lately I’ve given some thought to what I’m doing here – doing blogging. It’s grey and raindy outside (Jakob coined that one at 3 or 4, obviously an eminently sensible way of combining ‘rainy’ and ‘windy’, kids being so much better at neologisms than adults), but since it’s usually grey in this part of Germany (and living in Germany can seem awfully grey in the best of weather), I can’t really blame the heavens for not being able to write.

Or rewrite, which is the stage I’m at in my new novel, and all I’m finding is how bloody awful it is, while everywhere I turn, here I confront a great piece of prose, there a mind-blowing insight, and there another acquaintance, internet or warm-blooded, who’s having something published.

Tomorrow I turn 58.

Aha, you say, I thought you indie writers don’t care about being published.

Well, here it is: an admission that I don’t … and I do.

The thing is, part of me is still a dreamy teenager who believes she’ll write great stuff one day. Who only wants to write, and write well, and let the problem of readers look after itself.

And then there’s the part of me that’s waiting for a teacher to say ‘well done’ and give me a high mark, a gold star, a tangible proof of success. (For teacher, read publisher – or maybe father. One day I might talk about mine.)

Tomorrow I’m turning 58. I’ve left it a bit late, wouldn’t you say? To grow up, I mean.

Nobody likes to talk about envy, but it’s pervasive; dreadfully invasive too. Apparently there are a few enviable and wise people who have moved beyond it, or who were lucky enough to be born without the envy gene, but I’m not one of them. I even envy them their lack of envy.

At the moment I’m reading a lot of short stories. There are days when I’d sell my … my what? soul? kids? ten years of my life? … my whatever to be able to write one page – no, one sentence – as well as Colm Toibin or Charles Baxter or Jim Shepard or …

It’s not going to happen.

So to paraphrase a fellow writer, adjust your ambitions.

The internet is deadly for someone like me. Every click takes you to another review, another blog, another site where you’re reminded of how writing is supposed to be; and how far from that magical, mythical place you are, and always will be. Something I’ve learned from years of watching my children do music and of rubbing shoulders with professional musicians, some of them very good indeed, is that competence can be learned, but no one can put in what god left out (I’m an atheist, but you know what I mean). There’s a great deal to be said for craft and skill and competence. A gift, however – that rare way of seeing and feeling and intuiting and analysing and remaking experience as a genuine artist – well, either you’ve got it, or you don’t. For years Jakob rubbed shoulders with fellow cellists who received top-notch tuition, practised six hours or more a day, and yet would never – never – play like Yo-Yo Ma.

It’s bitter hard.

So why keep blogging?

I’m not really the sort of person who likes to air her every thought and feeling in public – in part because I’m afraid they’re not good enough. Nor am I the sort to work hard at crafting my blogging voice – the persona which we have, all of us who blog. We’re playing to an audience. Otherwise, we’d simply write a private diary or journal. And I detest the thought of interviews, speeches, book signings, book trailers, YouTube self-promotion. Originally my main goal was to develop a readership for my fiction. This hasn’t changed.

But something about my blogging feels insincere; dishonest. All of us embroider things a bit – exaggerate an anecdote, polish a joke, suppress a detail – to make a better story. And bloggers are essentially telling a story – if nothing else, about their interests, their take on the world.

Which story do I want to tell in my blog?

I’d like to try an experiment, I think. In the future I want to tie my blog more closely to my actual writing – to discuss as honestly as I can the scary, frustrating, obsessive process of trying to write well. I’ve always been a bit superstitious about this (go figure!) but perhaps it will help to pacify – though hardly banish – the demons.

No, I’m not setting out to rival Neil Gaiman (who is not one of the gods, American or otherwise, some people think him – but remember I’m an atheist anyway).

Perhaps the best thing one can do about envy is give it some living space of its own: blog space. We’ll see.


16 thoughts on “Envy, or what it’s like to feel

  1. L.M.Noonan 16 years ago

    Long post (unusual for you) even longer comments.
    1: DAMN–I missed your birthday
    2: SORRY– I missed your birthday
    3: Belated Birthday Greetings
    4: I’d give my left tit for your writing ability–well maybe not my tit; but certainly a nipple.
    We love what you write, to hell with the critics.

  2. pundy 16 years ago

    Hi Lee

    Yes – I’ll be there. Booked my train tickets down from chilly Scotland to the Great Wen.

    Hope you make it too.


  3. Frank Wilson 16 years ago

    Oh, you’re all a bunch of kids. I’m 66!

  4. Lee 16 years ago

    Jenny, one last thought. While working I’ve occasionally had the experience of transcendence – ‘in the zone’ – but on rereading at a later time, am appalled by what I’ve written. While I do believe that learning the basic moves very well, so to speak, can enable a qualitative transformation, the subjective sense of transcendence is in itself no guarantee of quality.

  5. Lee 16 years ago

    Kelly, Bookwitch, Liliya – Thanks for the birthday wishes. And Liliya, sometimes I do just that: lug my laptop away from any broadband signals. Maybe the next step is a shed in the garden!

    Nick, I like that a lot: ‘There are no advanced moves, really. Just the basic ones, done well.’ Of course, some of us do them ‘weller’ than others …

  6. Lee 16 years ago

    Hi Pundy, yes, perhaps I must learn to accept that failure is inevitable.

    (Are you going to be at the J & B launch? I’m going to try to be there as well.)

  7. Lee 16 years ago

    Jenny, I must have expressed myself badly, because I never meant to imply that authors produce anything magically and effortlessly. Of course it’s pretty much exactly the opposite – sheer hard work, hours and hours and years and years of it; endless rewriting and revision. However, what I do mean is that competence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the greatest art – and no, I’m not going to attempt a definition of that!

  8. pundy 16 years ago

    You think things are bad now. Wait till you’re 59 – like I am.

    Anyway, I’d rather be hung for a sheep than a….whatever else it was they used to hang you for. Shoot for the moon. You’re gonna fail anyway. But you’ll be a glorious failure.

  9. Jenny Davidson 16 years ago

    Oh, re: grace: I’m not talking here about the psychological experience of the author, I am talking about exactly the experience of transcendence that you feel when you read Toibin or whoever. It seems to me entirely possible that a handful of those authors really do just produce stuff fairly magically and effortlessly–but really a lot of ’em are toiling away and revising things ten times before you ever see them, it looks seamless but it is not, so that in a sense (it’s reflected in Nick’s comment too) one might think of oneself as pushing through competence to transcendence (hopefully!), or at least coming to do the basic moves so well that they somehow make a qualitative transformation that is slightly beyond rational explanation…

  10. Anonymous 16 years ago

    happy birthday!

    cure for envy – turn off your internet connection…

    writing a blog is an art, and surely the way art reaches the truth is through, well, art, artifice, right?

    On being published – I think almost everyone needs some kind of validation for what they do. How else can you live in society? The kind of artists who are so absolutely self-confident and self-obsessed and driven that they can lock themselves away in a garret all their lives and sell just one painting (or wage war on god, to use your paradise lost analogy) are often pretty much failures at interacting with other human beings, which is a whole art in itself… (thinking of the protagonist of ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ as well)

    Anyway, hope you blog your way out of envy’s clutches…


  11. bookwitch 16 years ago

    I’m certainly guilty of embroidering, or whatever, when blogging. I don’t lie, and I don’t say anything about people close to me that should stay private. But if a potentially very boring piece can be improved by some stupid 35-year-old memory, it’s a way of killing two birds with one blog entry. Blog gets better and the world gets to hear about my fascinating past…

    Someone was praising me, not too long ago, and I had to point out there’s no depth at all in my writing. The praiser quipped that “shallowness is under rated”, and this is what I cling to. I’ll take shallow to new heights, if that’s possible.

    Happy Birthday!

  12. Kelly 16 years ago

    I don’t have any answers for you, Lee. It’s such a difficult issue.

    But I am glad happy you’re still blogging and that you’ll blog more about the writing process. I will be reading.

    And a Happy Birthday to you!

  13. Lee 16 years ago

    The idea of grace in this context is fascinating. However, isn’t grace more process-oriented, i.e. the effect on the creator, whereas my concern is with the result – the text?

  14. Nick 16 years ago

    I like what you say about competence, Jenny. If I can get all Mr Myagi for a moment, it reminds me of something an acquaintance of mine (a jujitsu master) once said:
    ‘There are no advanced moves, really. Just the basic ones, done well.’

  15. Jenny Davidson 16 years ago

    Hmmm, interesting; thought-provoking. (Very well-written, too!) I don’t have a strong position on the wanting/non-wanting of traditional publishing success, though I see why it is natural to feel strongly ambivalent about it (certainly it is not as strongly correlated with wonderful writing as an optimist might hope). But you know I believe something different than you do about competence. I really believe that the sustained application to the challenge of competence can lead in the end to a kind of grace (there’s a good conversation about this at the end of Rebecca West’s “The Fountain Overflows,” re: piano playing, which I am certain I have mentioned to you before!), and that this is what we all aspire to. I am more interested, as a reader and writer, in that kind of achievement than in the one that seems like magic…

  16. Nick 16 years ago

    Writing as someone who is, perhaps unusually, both a published writer and an unpublished one simultaneously (you Lee know whereof I speak) I have a foot in both camps. And my feet have this to say…

    Never confuse being published/publishable with being a decent writer. Know that there are legions of published writers with a fraction of the talent of many who are not. And if you ever decide that being published is actually more important to you than producing your best work, you’ll be published like a shot. A character in an Eva Ibbotson book says, ‘When you know what you want you usually get it.’ Good writers who aren’t traditionally published are that way for a reason. They simply want something else more, something that may not always be compatible.