From cats to editors – a top 10 of authors’ little helpers
The page before you is blank. When you try to write a sentence, it is like dragging your feet through a quagmire. With every slurpy step, the idea that you are a writer seems more absurd. Story? Hah! Who is going to read this stuff anyway? An hour ticks by. You write a sentence. You read it. Your groan. You delete it.
You tell yourself that this is just one of those days, but then these days every day is one of those days.
The moment has arrived when you need your writer’s support system – that safety net of encouragement and distraction that you have erected to catch you when you are in danger of plummeting into the abyss.
The questions is: who are you going to call?
- The spouse/lover/close friend (good). They know you well enough to recognise when you’re in trouble: the reluctance to get out of bed, the hollow look in the eye, the sudden enthusiasm for household chores. They will endure for a while the sighs and silences, the staring out of the window, the bouts of martyred ironing. Then, with an instinct and timing born of love, they will do or say something to send you back to the desk feeling that not only can the mountain before you be conquered, but that you are the very person to do it.
- The agent (good). You are a professional, not some footler caught up in a silly fantasy about being a writer. The good agent is there to remind you, quietly but firmly, that you have a job to do, that others (herself, for example) depend on your not falling apart when the going gets tough. It is quite a skill, to keep someone writing without adding to the pressure on them, and you are lucky if you have an agent who knows how to do it.
- The fellow-writer. Neither so successful that the tiniest bit of glad news from their lives can send you into a downward spiral, nor so hopeless that they are even needier than you are, your fellow-writer will know what you are going through and will quietly remind you that it goes with the territory and always has.
- The cat. Devious, predatory, self-centred and morally unreliable, cats reflect your own writerly nature but in a soft, purring incarnation. Their haughty, slightly bored presence as you write is not only calming in itself, but can shame you into squeezing out more words as you are watched through narrowed eyes.
- The editor (good). A real editor, as opposed to a product-manager whose talent is for talking bollocks at consumer-demographic meetings, is now something of a rarity. If you are fortunate to have one who has a brain uncontaminated by corporatism, he or she will be an important, if mostly silent, part of your support system. Do not turn to them when you are in trouble – there is a limit to their patience – but remember that they are there, waiting and watching, like God.
- Your children. For them, writing is simply what Mummy or Daddy does as a job. You write your words, and food appears on the table every day. It is the natural order of things. Telling them tearfully the problems you are having with your narrative arc is a waste of time. Their trusting, selfish little eyes will be enough to tell you that you have to butch up and keep going.
- The writers’ group. For beginners, these therapy sessions are a spur to creativity. The other writers remind you that you are not alone. One day, you will discover that alone is exactly what you are – in fact, that aloneness is an essential part of the deal – and will soon drift away from the group.
- The non-feline pet. Each provides small rewards for the author. A dog, adoring you however badly you write, is good for self-esteem. A rat will be a fascinating distraction. A parrot might make you feel like Flaubert. But not too much reliance should be put on pets. A novel depending on your relationship with a hamster is in a very fragile state.
- Your parents. They are rooting for you, of course they are. They have always had faith in your talent. On the other hand, they are your parents and that is only to be expected. Eventually their caring calls and encouraging smiles will merely sharpen your despair
- The spouse/lover/close friend/agent/editor (bad). There is a continuing debate in literary circles as to whether it is better to have negative support – someone you can talk to but who will invariably make you feel worse – than no support at all. On balance, dysfunctional relationships are probably more productive than a wasteland of solitude and self-loathing. You will add to your to-do list: finish the book, then sort out your life.
This article was commissioned for the Endpaper column of The Author, and appeared in its summer issue.