What do people study at the Idler Academy? Advanced loafing? Forty winks for beginners?
I have been worrying about these things as my talk at the academy – next Thursday, 7th November (details below) – approaches. According to the monthly newsletter sent out to the idling community, the evening will be “just the thing for anyone trying to write for a living.”
It is too late to break it to them that it won’t be just that thing at all. These days I find it more and more difficult to offer advice about writing, whether it be as a way a living or for fun. It is 30 years since I became a writer. Yet the more I do it, the less I know about it.
This is not bogus modesty. Down the years, I have collected advice on writing from great and successful authors, past and present. One appears as a Tip of the Day on the home page of my website. Two others appear most days on Twitter under the hashtag #writersrules.
Even as I pass on these rules and tips, I am aware of a niggling sense of futility. Flaubert said you have to be cool to write emotion; Fielding said the opposite. Larkin supports gloom; Faulks opposes it. Updike speaks up for first-person narration; McEwan says it’s a way of disguising a terrible style.
Who knows which of these literary sages is right? Actually, who cares?
Virtually any kind of writing advice engenders self-consciousness which is – this is so obvious that it is almost the first rule of all – the enemy of good writing. Perhaps the only worthwhile tip is the one given by Saul Bellow to his son Adam: “Keep your legs under the table”.
Here is the problem facing me as my gig at the Idler Academy’s bookshop approaches. The only thing I could truly say to someone trying to write for a living is that he or she should not be idle – they should work. Working every day is not only – obviously – the way to have a chance of surviving professionally, but the daily business of keeping your legs under the table (though the boredom, panic, uncertainty and self-doubt) is what helps one discover what one really wants to write. For a writer, it is not having project which brinbgs unhappiness.
As Baudelaire wrote (and the quote was found in one of the notebooks of Gwen John), “Travail immédiat, même mauvais, vaut mieux que la rêverie.”
Perhaps I am worrying unduly. I have several books on my shelf written of co-written by the dynamic godfather of idleness Tom Hodkinson – among them, How To Be Idle, The Idler’s Companion and The Idle Parent. The message of these books seems to be that idleness involves resisting the thrall of mindless activity, the temptation of being busy for the sake of it. That, if I am not mistaken, takes effort. To be an individual in an age of conformity involves hard work.
I feel more relaxed now. My lecture to the Idler Academy will not be a lecture at all. I’ll chat, read, and even sing a song or two. We’ll all pretend that we are idling our way through our lives, and we’ll know in our hearts that we are working a lot harder than we like to pretend.
The event at the Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 5QH, is at 6.30 for 7pm on 7th November. Tickets here.