I have been thinking a lot about tribes lately, about families and the people you twine your life with. I don’t mean the people you’re born with. I don’t mean romantic love: I mean the other thing, the stuff that comes in between that people forget to cling on to.
In the pub, after my book launch, a friend wraps her arm around my shoulders. There has been talk all evening of how good it is to be around each other. We discuss living as a commune. She says: I think we should form a coven.
I say: I thought that’s what we were doing.
Everyone at the table laughs but I am not joking.
Writing is solitary. You do it in a room alone. Properly speaking, you should do it up in the hills with no one around for miles, just someone to bring you milk in the mornings for your coffee (except you’re a serious writer and probably you don’t drink your coffee with milk anymore.) You have no interests other than running or playing the cello or anything you can do on your own.
The myth of the Writer is that aloneness is inherently literary. If you could get walled in like an anchoress, you would probably win the Booker prize, the T.S. Eliot and the Pulitzer all in one year.
An article on the internet tells me that staring at a screen for too long is bad for my skin. I should be writing but I am reading this instead even though, if I’m honest, most of the time I don’t give a damn about my skin.
I love being friends with writers. I hate being friends with writers.
I feel envy over everything: awards and accolades are easy targets. But the strongest jolts of jealousy come from reading, when you come across a sentence, a phrase, a plot twist in a friend’s work that knocks you for six. The twin knives come for you together. I know the person who did this, sings one blade. I will never be this good, says the other.
It comes in drips and drabs. Some days, writing is like pouring salt into a wound. Like pulling teeth. Other days, it rushes out of me, the words coming faster than my fingers can move. The latter much rarer than the first.
Take the myths you know about writing and burn them. The secret no one tells you: it’s like anything else, really. You shove at it till it works. And it doesn’t always work.
I do mine in an attic. Or in a pub or a cafe or a library. Sometimes I do it at a kitchen table with other people. Their fingers clack at keys. They bleed on their pages. We do it together and we do it alone and magically, it does not make us worse writers or less literary. We are crowded together in a conservatory in Oxford where it is cold even in the summer months, or a beautiful house on the Norfolk coast or in Italy, the sun glowing over the hills outside our window. The circus of us, travelling from one place to the other, packing books and laptops and notebooks, our voices as frantic as our fingers. The hush and noise of work. The magic of us all doing it together. The complete madness when we share something and these people can fix mistakes that we would never have seen in a million years.
We will rise and fall together, good days and bad, mixed reviews and new anxieties. But I don’t want to talk about that: I want to talk about this. The clacking of keys. The familiar eyes on our work.
It does not sap my power to write with them: why on earth would anyone think it might.
SRL issue no 19 will go live on 11 am, Sunday 26 March and feature fiction by:
and poetry by: