I had some good news this week. After a couple of rewrites my agent thinks my book is ready. This may not sound like much. She is my agent. Liking my stuff, you might think, is part of the job description. The rewriting was voluntary, anyway. She suggested some ways the book could be better and I chose to listen, because I trust her judgement, because she’s actively committed to the success of the book, and because her comments rang true – and you always know, honestly, when someone’s put a finger on what needs fixing, even if you initially register that knowledge as irritation or resistance.
But my agent’s approval feels like a cause for celebration for two reasons. First because it’s a professional assessment of the book as a competitive product in a crowded marketplace, an assessment that moves it on to the next stage. Secondly because she said really nice things about it – and, when you spend your time writing books, such praise is rare. No doubt there are superstars in the book business who are constantly fending off adulation, but most people, in any area of work, live outside that kind of celebrity bubble. And what writers encounter, most of the time, is indifference.
Long before I tried it, I used to hear novelists saying that it’s a lonely occupation, writing a book. I have a better sense now of what this means. Obviously, it’s a solitary activity. For me at least, that’s one of its pleasures – I get to spend hours working on problems of my own making. But loneliness means something different. What writers crave, because it’s something we all need, is not company but validation. And this is the second most important reason to do other things on the side (money being the first, of course). For me that means editing, teaching and coaching, but I know writers for whom it’s working in a bookshop, writing advertising copy, bar-tending, lawyering or child-minding. In all these activities there’s a problem to which you’re the solution. You just have to show up and someone’s glad to see you.
When you get to the end of your working day or working week as novelist , no one’s going to say ‘thanks’, or ‘well done’, or even ‘see you Monday’. You hope for readers out there who will eventually be pleased, but meanwhile you have to write for yourself, or perhaps, as a poet friend once put it, ‘for the eternal’. I happen to think my new book is the best thing I’ve ever written. Clearly that judgement is entirely worthless. Except that it’s an essential source of pleasure and satisfaction, and it’s what motivates the work. Without it, nothing would get done.