Last Thursday, I was invited to dinner with a book group in London – the hundredth meeting of this group as it happened- in order to discuss my novel One of Us. I sat, under a small but persistent IKEA style spotlight, at the centre of a long table groaning with food, for about two hours, while pertinent, persistent and often quite challenging questions were fired at me from all directions which I tried to answer intelligently while attempting to chew falafel and salad with a degree of elegance, probably the hardest task of the evening.
At the same time, I was forced to reflect on the detail of why and how I write. Sometimes my own answers surprised me, such as the comment I heard issuing from my mouth that ‘ I put the words down on the page first of all – splat! – it’s almost a physical process – and then I look at them later. If they don’t live, they have to go! Out!’
Of course, that is one reason why it takes me so long to write anything, including a recent short story that I drafted last year while on holiday and decided to polish up this spring, for entry for a competition. That process of ‘polishing up’ took virtually five weeks, full time, and I think it fair to say that by the end not a single sentence from the original remained.
At another point, at this book group supper, I remember curving and hunching my shoulders, an attempt at a physical representation of what it feels like like to carry a whole story or set of stories around in my head, often for years at a time. I told the table that I muttered while I walked, because my hour’s daily walk at lunchtime is often when I do some of my best thinking.
So, I was pleased to see a piece by Jenny Diski in the Guardian on the Saturday after entitled ‘ Advice for young writers-to-be‘ that expressed some of what I feel about the role of editing in good writing and the sheer hard work of writing as a craft. Her advice seems stringent, her tone severe but I think she is right.