Thursday, June 05, 2014

Confessions of a failed author #1

I've never heard of Donna Tartt - in fact I have to check whether there are one or two 'n's in her name, that's how much I don't know her (or good English). Maybe the 'n' thing has got something to do with the way her surname is spelt. Two 't's instead of one, because that would make her a 'Tart'. Of course a Tart is the last thing a writer is. A writer must be as far from a Tart that it's possible to be because...I don't think writers get laid much. Which is possibly why they became writers. And if they did, then they'd stop writing...

So how does that extra 't' make the difference? How do I put that 't' into my writing? After all, Tartt is a Pulitzer prize winner. Her book, The Goldfinch, was just voted Amazon's Best Book of the Year. I've listened to the audiobook - the first 10 minutes before I fell asleep - in order to learn. I already have. I already feel inspired. Perhaps inspired enough to slay the furious monster, the frustrated writer who demands to speak but doesn't know how, and so mewls like a baby (except silently, inwardly).

For the record, I slept because of exhaustion, not because the writing was bad.

But here's what I want to talk about.

Have a listen to the above video. The part that gets me is from 3:42. What questions, the interviewer asks, are you grappling with? Let me tell you, this is a very personal question to ask a writer. And it's a difficult question to verbalise. Tartt does impressively well here. She says the real question she is asking is this, 'what is the good life?' Ask yourself that question for a moment. Is the good life wealth, or celebrity, or family? Is it holidays and parties? It's an important exercise even if only to contrast your hypothesis with Tartt's. Because guess what she says? She says we all have to work this out on our own. And then the interviewer asks - what is it for you?

The question seems to catch her off guard. Because hell, it's an incredibly personal question. Tartt says happiness for her are the 'two great salvations, love and work'. These are the main ways our life force expands, isn't it? We grow in love, our hearts build new rooms, and plant new gardens, and make new boundaries. In work, we learn to become masters (hopefully) at our craft. Whatever it is.

The interview then skips to a scene of the writer waking downstairs and suddenly it hits me. The immense wealth. Wow, with so much wealth it is easier to shut out the world and concentrate on one's thoughts. Or is it harder? Is there a temptation to take airplane trips, and holidays, and date?

Here's the thing that impresses me most of all. One of the things that I struggle with as a failed writer is the extraordinary loneliness of it. It's the reason I abandoned it when I went to varsity. And I failed at that too. Loneliness is the reason I think behind the failure-in-the-real-world of writers I respect and admire, like Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf and Enid Blyton. And Hemingway. And F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don't want to end up like them. Drunk. Suicidal. Poor. I want a well-lived life. Balanced. Mentally fit and well.

And I think the interesting part is the loneliness tends to suggest failure. Which is why I love the way Tartt re-phrases it. She calls it something more dignified, and even beautiful. Solitude. It's true. A writer needs that. I need that whether I am writing or not. But to write well, I absolutely need Solitude. And emotional quietude - at least from the outside world. My own internal chemical ooze is enough. Adding the poisonous broth of a breakup or the pride swallowing siege of the corporate cubicle slave makes my work erratic, and unbalanced.  But I've been a freelancer since 2010.  That's 4 years.  What's my excuse for not being published?  Not enough time?  Too much time?  Not enough solitude?  Too much?

At 4:43 the interviewer asks the pertinent question, but disguises it in a euphemism. Do you like the mystery about you? He's referring to her very infrequent interviews. Why become a writer, but shy away from one's own success. What is the point? Tartt says it's not about reclusiveness as 'a need to be alone when I work'. I get that. It's interesting though to be on the other side, seeing how the successful writer must push back the world, in order to function. The failed writer think his loneliness is a symptom of his failure, but actually he needs to be more alone to truly succeed. And once he does, he must resist the attentions and distractions and stickiness that comes with success, or risk failing once more.

At 5:09 I get the reassurance I really need. Can you be happy as a writer? Is writing living one's one wildest dreams? Really? Is it?

The writer's life, Tartt says, it to be able to daydream all day. 'As much fun as it is to read a book, writing a book is one level deeper. It's fun. It's hard at times. But when it's good, and it's going well, there's nothing like it.'

Tartt is 49. I'm 42. She brings out a book once a decade, and says she can't speed up the process. She's tried but doesn't enjoy it. When Alex Garland published The Beach as a 26 year old, I remember the urgency to publish hitting me. I think I was in my thirties then. Now I'm in my fourties. How long is this going to take? What is it going to take?

Here's a recent piece of writing, from Bloodline: Sharpened pencils. Scribbles on paper. These are my arrows. How far will they travel through time?  Which targets will hey hit?  Or will they sail, and drop and drift rudderless through the soils and seas of oblivion (and drown me in it).

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