Recently I recorded the audiobook of "Tipperary;" the reading will be in the bookshops alongside the novel early in November. My wonderful countryman, Oliver Goldsmith, defined one of his characters by "the love he bore to learning." As they say - I'll drink to that. Not much in life can be so pleasing as new learning. However - reading one's own book aloud in a recording studio is as fast and chastening a "learning" as I have ever found. With every previous book, the words I have written down, the patterns I have made, the edifices I have attempted to build - they were already imperfect anyway, as every author knows. Yet a certain relief at having completed the task in hand, and a modest glow at the achievement carry one on into a place of comfort, or, at the least, a haven of not too much discomfort. The nagging feelings, the doubts at this characterization, or that scene-setting, or the next setpiece – they can be brought under control by means of surrender. I have no more power over the thing because the book is at the printer's.
And then comes the audiobook reading. At the end of the week, in what had otherwise been a most agreeable studio experience, I simply wanted to rewrite the entire book all over again. In fact, out of twenty books that bear my name on the spine I can only identify one, maybe two, that I don't want necessarily to rewrite.
I agree that this is probably an unreasonable position. But this is not false modesty; this is a professional writer, i.e., one who makes his living from his writing, saying out loud, "I wish that I had the chance to write this all over again."
Will it always and ever be thus? And I'm certain there must be others - in fact I know that there are. The late John Fowles published two versions of "The Magus," the second a long time after the first. I might not want to go that far, and I doubt I'd get the chance - but I do understand it. For the moment I'll have to content myself with making a (long) list of all that I've learned from the reading out loud experience, and hope to apply the lessons to the next novel, "Shannon," now well and truly under way.
Oddly, I don't seem to apply such unforgiving savagery to the books that other people write – and if I do find stuff that makes me wince, I seem to be much more understanding of it than I could ever be about one of my own titles. And herein lies another wonderful learning experience – how to be comforted by the works of others. Dr. Samuel Johnson said that Shakespeare never wrote six lines without an error; fine for Dr. Johnson, the uber-perfectionist, who did not, it is true, make many errors himself. Thereby and therein, lies the learning.
I have always been appalled by the spectre of the infamous "Writer's Block" – the freeze that comes over an author and, if worse comes to worst, becomes a permafrost. Chilling stories exist of once-prolific and immensely talented novelists who suddenly stopped: Douglas Adams, Tom Sharpe. We've all seen the movies: Barton Fink, Shakespeare in Love (Is it true that there was a building in Hollywood where the screenwriters worked that was actually called, without irony, "the Writers Block"?) So, I worked out a scheme to head it off and since then I have never been threatened by it. This is what I do, and I recommend it highly:
On those days when the work simply won't start, I take down a book by a favourite author and I begin to copy-type at random. I always type no fewer than two pages, and by then the problem usually has ended. While I'm not totally sure why this helps, I know that I find comfort in it, because I get a closer view of their processes, see that they made errors too, and therefore the anxious writer is not alone.
Unless, that is, the writer whose work I happen to copy-type is Dr. Samuel Johnson. Several years ago, I wrote a book (and walked in the footsteps) that traced his renowned journey with his biographer James Boswell, to the Western Isles of Scotland in 1773. Each gentleman wrote a separate account of the trip, and to try and get as closely alongside them as possible, I decided to copy-type from their pages. Although Boswell was no slouch when it came to good writing, Johnson was – and remains - peerless. He wasted not a word (what is it about Scots writers that makes them so muscularly economical with their prose?); and when, for fun and irreverent mischief, I tried to edit him – I found that I could not get a razor blade into his sentences.
As to word usage: neither Johnson nor Boswell would ever confuse, as seems to be happening daily, the word "rift" with "riff," they would never confuse a split in relationships with a thrilling Chuck Berry guitar whirl (that's this month's word peeve off my chest).
Most of the time, I try not to "edit" the writers whom I'm reading for pleasure; I try to let it flow (which is why the interruptions - and increasing prevalence - of typographical errors are so irritating). This summer, I've been on a tide, so to speak. With, always a number of books running like sound-tracks on a studio desk, it's been one of the best summers of reading that I can remember; the second volume of Hilary Spurling's Matisse biography; a new Lee Childs thriller (his hero, Jack Reacher defines the old sense of the word "cool"); Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," about Lincoln and his "friends"; the Jack Cavanaugh biography of Gene Tunney; and the heightened pleasure of Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World," which should never be read at a faster pace than two pages at a time and then savoured. I have seen way more than a hundred Shakespeare productions (including fifteen Hamlets) and I feel as if all I learned from those experiences in the audience has now been opened out and taught afresh to me. When a writer brings love and knowledge together to bear upon his own passionate interest, the reader's learning curve starts to ascend. This climb, on a subject of which I never tire, is wonderfully, dizzyingly steep.