21 January 2005
Loitering with intent
Writer Henry Shukman takes time out for procrastination in the Guardian: "For the last decade I have been working on five fiction manuscripts. One of them is two decades old (and still incomplete)... I justified my delaying by convincing myself the current literary climate would be inimical to my kind of work. I came of age during the triumvirate of McEwan, Barnes and Amis Jr, who to my youthful eyes seemed to have little in common with the literature I loved. What had happened to Tolstoy? ... In despair, I became a travel writer and fled. Sixteen years later, when I had a bulging suitcase of manuscripts, and a slim volume of poems just published, the Wordsworth Trust took me in as their poet-in-residence. Only last year, while staying at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, did I finally complete and sell two books of fiction. Munro describes the first time she saw a street scene and knew there was a story in it waiting to be discovered: "It gave me something like a blow to the chest. What does this mean, what can be discovered about it, what is the rest of the story?" ... One of the novels I have been writing on and off for two decades has presented itself like that, in fits and starts. Nineteen years ago I wrote the first 20 pages; a year after that I forced out another 200 pages, but they were all wrong. So I waited, and a further nine years later, there it was again: 150 pages delivered in a wild three-week ride. Last year, more came. For many writers and readers, the above paragraph must seem the height of self-indulgent, self-delusive folly. If you want to write a book, sit down and write it. Had I not been making my living as a travel-writer for American magazines, perhaps I would have buckled down sooner; but I doubt it. Many are able to work with admirable, workmanlike efficiency. But there are other kinds of writer, for whom the lack of a deadline, the very open-endedness that can be so dangerous, is an essential precondition of good work. This kind never really finishes a book... But at least no one can accuse them of professionalism; they do it for the one right reason: their works are labours of love.