I have been writing my novel for nearly four years and I know less about writing a novel now than I did when I started. It may take another four years, more or less — I hope not too much more — to learn to write a novel. Never mind the books I have read about writing, the courses I have been on. None of these have made a great deal of difference.
It’s reading that makes the difference.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading recently. I got out of the reading habit when my mother became ill and I spent time caring for her in the last year of her life. It became hard to concentrate, you see. I lost the trick of reading. But that didn’t matter, I thought; “I can write.” Can’t I?
We all tend to think of writing as an activity, whereas reading is more passive; isn’t it? Well, no. Writing might work as a distraction when one is disturbed by a recent trauma. But it is oddly passive, or can be if it is not done properly. I can sit and write, and the act of writing engages the brain. But that is all. It becomes superficial, trivial, soulless and futile.
Reading however, is quite different. I had quite forgotten how active the process of reading critically can be.
For instance; just now I read a couple of chapters of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and it “skinned my eyes” to use a phrase from Joyce Carey’s “The Horses Mouth”. I kept thinking as I read, “This is terrific stuff! How could I not have noticed before?” And it is the same with any other literary work I read at the moment. I am reading quite a variety, and as I read these different authors: Salmon Rushdie; Vladimir Nabokov; James Joyce; David Foster Wallace — the list is endless — but again and again I read and despair of ever approaching that same degree of skill.
All that I have written — however satisfied I was with it at the time — now I could weep at how superficial and juvenile it all is! Oh, some of it is clever, or witty, or poetic in a self conscious sort of way — a bag of tricks, a mere bagatelle! But none of it says anything of any importance. None of it speaks to me — never mind anyone else!
I am reminded of the words of the heroine of “Educating Rita” who dismissed her rather patronising tutor, Frank’s attempts at encouragement tempered with too gentle criticism by tearing her essay up and saying, “What you mean is, ‘It’s crap’. So, when it’s crap, we do it again!”
And that’s how I feel about my novel. “When it’s crap. we do it again.”