I was wondering if you would like an update on my writing endeavours? If you don’t, no worries, do feel free to move right along and I’ll be saying something about proper, existing books in the next post. It’s a topic I feel rather shy about myself, as if I’m not really qualified to discuss it. But, to recap: around about 2007, strictly under the heady influence of blogging, I began to think how nice it would be to write in a way that wasn’t academic and I started to try my hand at commercial non-fiction. What I wanted to be able to do was to bring all the wonderful ideas and concepts and stories that I’d been teaching my students to a wider audience. For decades now, academic writing has become more complex and inaccessible to the general reader, its conventions obsessed with intellectual rigor, with straining to express the furthest reaches of thought, and with sounding terrifically clever. This all makes it jolly hard to read, and not always a great deal of fun to write. I had always been a shameless populariser, because I think ideas are beautiful and all that really matters is to keep people open-minded to them, and I’m enough of a soap-box prophet to feel inclined to foist my particular interests on the public in the name of the general good. And so the first thing I did was start writing a book about how important stories are to us, and how they crop up in everything we do.
So I sent this first book around a few agents and struck lucky. One was interested in working with me, but didn’t think that the book I’d begun had sufficient commercial interest. She’d noticed in my covering letter that I had also mentioned an interest in writing on motherhood, and could I put together a proposal on that topic? Naturally, in my first flush of enthusiasm, I could. She liked it, I started to write it (and the chapters I wrote are available on this site, linked from the side bar), she liked it less. There then followed a long, long series of proposals written by me, which only went to show that I was not good at writing proposals for the commercial market, after all those years of academic rigor. Editors want to be teased and seduced by a dirty trick of a concept; they want to have their imaginations provoked, as it’s the only way they can envisage a book so marvelous that they can actually sign it up. I wanted to set out a nice, clear, coherent structure of what I was going to do, showing how the ideas jigsawed together in satisfying ways – far too easy to argue against. Anyhow, eventually I wrote a proposal that the agent did like, I started writing while she showed the proposal to the other agents at the agency, and they shook their collective heads at it: too academic, not sufficiently commercial.
Well, after a few more proposals I decided to go back to this one, as it was the only idea I personally liked, and at that point I hooked up with a writing coach. This was probably the best thing I ever did. Although I felt very enthusiastic about my project, I had a sneaking feeling that the narrative wasn’t coming out quite right. Jacqui, my coach, read my first (huge) chapter and made a remark that carried the force of an epiphany. ‘I’m wondering,’ she said, ‘what you want non-fiction to do for you. Because it really feels like you want something from this, but I’m not sure the material is giving it to you.’ At that point all the tumblers in my mind fell into place and the inner sanctuary swung open. Of course! What I really wanted, I realized, was to express myself. I didn’t want to compress masses of research material into some arbitrary shape, I couldn’t bear the thought of another footnote (you know the image in Tom and Jerry cartoons of Tom being dragged along the floor, face down, his claws gouging corkscrews of wood out of the parquet? That’s me on the day when I can no longer put off doing my footnotes). I wanted to write something straight from my experience and from my heart.
I put all thoughts of motherhood to one side and embarked on a book in August of last year that I finished in July 2010. It was about my experiences of teaching literature at Cambridge while suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. It was a lot about learning, about how hard it is to learn in ways that promote real, deep change, and how satisfying it can be when we do. It was a chance for me to try to put this invisible but infuriating illness into words at last, so that others might understand it better. And it was a way to talk sneakily, on the quiet, about how important stories are. Finally I had found a way of combining the things that really mattered to me in narrative form. And the book wrote itself; I only had to show up at the keyboard.
So, back in summer I passed the manuscript on to an editor I know, who passed it on to her non-fiction colleague and we talked (I liked her very much). Her verdict was that it was ‘brilliant but unpublishable’, which was an interesting comment that has held something in it for my every subsequent mood. Her feeling was that it had too many themes. If I could fillet out the chronic fatigue material and just write about teaching at Cambridge, it might work. But she quite understood that I didn’t want to do that. And I don’t; one of my main points is that if you work constantly at the furthest reaches of your capacity, there is damage. Waste, idleness, rest, contemplation, mistakes, doodling, dreaming, in fact these things are more important than we think to maintaining emotional balance and essential to learning in a long-lasting, fulfilling way. Show me a driven workaholic and I’ll show you someone who probably doesn’t feel very well or very happy most of the time. But I digress. I’m coming gradually to realize that the commercial market is even more rule-bound and regulated than the academic one. In academic writing you can try anything, so long as you observe the conventions of form (more or less). In commercial writing it really helps if what you want to write looks like something out there already.
That puts me in an awkward position because I’m never going to want to do that. I always want to do something different, something new. But not all hope is lost. I still think of myself first and foremost as a reader rather than a writer, and the reader in me knows that if you want to do unusual things, you have to pad them out with reassuring familiarity so as not to startle or confuse. I’m letting the book settle for a little while, and taking in the excellent advice I’ve received from people who have very kindly read it (heartfelt gratitude to you all), and then I shall do some editing. The real problem now is what to write next. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from the experience of writing a book from start to finish. I’ve had to realize that all the things I want to talk about are not considered commercial and require much creativity from me to make them appeal to the modern market. I realize I have a fatal tendency to want to pack too much into everything I write (although I love that! I protest from the sidelines). And I learned that it’s worth my while to take the time upfront to find the right project. Last year it didn’t feel like I was Writing A Book; it just felt like I was doing something I had to do. That there was nothing else better I ought to be doing. It’s all too easy in the commercial publishing world to be lead astray by what everyone else wants (and there is a barrage of suggestions, not all of them equally helpful) that you have to figure out how to recast in ways that make sense for your own integrity and creativity. But I’m very impatient to be writing again – as you can probably tell from the amount of blog posts I am churning out!