Writing v. Living: a conversation with myself

The great American novelist Jonathan Franzen is a man who takes his role as a writer seriously. He was snooty about the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. He abhors the internet. He disapproves of the use of ‘then’ as a conjunction after a comma.

I like him. On most matters, he takes the uncompromising, purist line that I would take if I had written such monumentally successful novels that I never had to suck up to anyone again. He stands for the kind of principles that the rest of us can only dream of holding.

While delivering a lecture about his writing methods, he once said: ‘When I’m working, I don’t want anybody else in the room, including myself.’

Brilliant. In a one brief sentence, Franzen has summarised the central problem of being a professional author  – the division of self between Writer and Everyday Person.

We all try to keep ourselves out of the room when we are working, but not always with success. Even as I write these words, I hear the irritating knock-knock of real life at my door, and I know that my Everyday Person just can’t wait to interrupt me as I write.

Excuse me, I’ll just get rid of him.

–  Yes, what d’you want?

–  Sorry, Writer, I just wanted to remind you that you’ve got to ring someone about the lawnmower at some point.

–  I can’t think about that now. I’m trying to write.

–  What are you working on? Ah, it’s an article for other authors in Endpaper*. You’ve always said that was more fun than work.

–  Fun can be work, too. And by the way you’ve just illustrated the problem I face every day. As an author, I need to clear my head of clutter in order to write. I’ve switched off the computer and the mobile phone. I’ve taken a major caffeine hit. Then you blunder in, talking about lawnmowers.

–  Let me break this news to you as gently as I can. You are not Jonathan Franzen. Enough of the self-importance. For years, you’ve been scurrying off to your office every morning with that constipated, I’m-a-writer look on your face. If it wasn’t for me,  you would have gone round the twist years ago.

–  Don’t be ridiculous. You’re the one who is forever forcing me to compromise my talent with those wheedling little ‘reality checks’, as you call them. ‘How d’you think the bills are going to be paid this month?’ ‘Maybe just a pinch of family responsibility would be in order here?’ ‘Come on, what harm can a little bit of ghost-writing do?’ It’s just nag, nag, nag with you.

–  Or, to put it another way, I’ve been keeping you sane and solvent. It’s me, your Everyday Person, who protects you from your endless capacity for self-delusion. You forget that I know your secrets. I know why, for example, you always make sure you hear the last few minutes of Desert Island Discs.

–  I admit that, maybe a touch optimistically, I have an innocent fantasy that one day Kirsty Young will say, ‘So, Philip Roth, you have the Bible and the works of Shakespeare on your desert island. You can take one more book.’ ‘Well, Kirsty, it would have to be that astonishing tour de force by Terence –

–   Don’t! It’s embarrassing. And what about all those handwritten manuscripts in the attic? Could it possibly be true that you are holding on to them just in case The University of Texas makes you a bid for your archive?

–  It could still happen.

–  Look, I can see that you’re stressed. Why don’t you give yourself a bit of a break from the old scribble-scribble this morning? Check your emails, visit your Facebook page, maybe have a little tweety-weety –

–  Leave me alone!  So what if I have a writer’s crazy dreams? Delusion is what keeps us going. In our heart of hearts, we need to believe that one day the world will catch up with what we have been writing, and say, ‘What? How could we have missed all this stuff?’

–  I think I’m going to call the doctor right now.

–  And, even if our past work  mysteriously remains unrecognized, then there’s always the one that’s just on the tip of our pen, that is working its way right now to the front of our brain. When we’ve written that, it will be –

–  Don’t tell me. The breakthrough book?

–  Exactly.

–  And this morning’s breakthrough book is…?

–  One day, when these columns are collected and published in a classily designed edition by Faber & Faber, they will be seen as part of a great creative endeavour. ‘Dazzling,’ Professor John Carey will write in a lead review for the Sunday Times. ‘The Endpaper columnstell you everything you need to know about pretty much everything.’

–  You’re writing your reviews again, aren’t you? We’ve talked about that.

–  I bet Franzen does that too, then writes a bossy little essay about people who use ‘then’ in the wrong way.

–  Now that’s more like it. You’re sounding almost normal.

–  Thanks. And for helping out with the column, by the way.

–  You’re welcome. Lunch?


* This article was my Endpaper column for the Spring edition of the Society of Authors magazine, The Author. An archive of Endpaper pieces can be found in the Writer’s Shed.