I don’t want any record of my days.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to keep a diary. I tried throughout adolescence but always gave it up. I dreamt of being very frank, like Joe Orton, whose diaries I admired very much; I found them in the library when I was about 14. I read them half out of literary interest and half as pornography, thrilled to follow Joe around the many corners of the city in which I had only walked but he had managed to have illicit sex. I thought: If you’re going to write a diary, it should be like this, it should be utterly free, honest. But I found I couldn’t write about sexual desires (too shy, too dishonest), nor could I describe any sexual activity—I wasn’t getting any—and so the diary devolved into a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance and I was soon disgusted with it and put it aside. A bit later I tried again, this time concentrating only on school, like a Judy Blume character, detailing playground incidents and friendship drama, but I was never able to block from my mind a possible audience, and this ruined it for me: It felt like homework. I was always trying to frame things to my advantage in case so-and-so at school picked it up and showed it to everybody. The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts. Or maybe it’s the other way ’round: Some people are able to write frankly, simply, of how they feel, whereas I can’t stop myself turning it into a pretty pattern.
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Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talent kept them at the head of the class.
Forced into a challenge we’re not prepared for, we often engage ‘self-handicapping’: deliberately doing things that set us up for failure.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English class. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.
The lesson author Dorthe Nors took from Ingmar Bergman: It’s not drugs, poverty, or wild lovers that make a great writer. It’s discipline and time alone.
NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three 3 invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no $0.00 money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.
People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.
When I tell people I run a bookshop, they often respond with envy or admiration. But first, a funny look flashes across their face—sometimes fleeting, sometimes not. A look that says, Poor girl. A look that says, She must be daft.
I am not daft. It’s no secret that the bookstore industry is in trouble, and, six months into this experiment, I still don’t know if this dream is viable. Aside from the question of whether people will buy books or will simply use the shop to browse and then order from Amazon when they get home—or, as Michele Figlate’s fantastic Center For Fiction piece flays, order from their iPhone on the spot using our free Wi-Fi—there are the more prosaic reasons I may not be cut out to run a small business, like quarterly taxes and mopping the floor. But people’s love of books is not something I lose much sleep over.
I’m a romantic, but I’m also a pragmatist. I did not open Moody Road Studios and assume it would pay my home mortgage or student loan, or even for my dark chocolate habit. Like many writers, I survive by keeping a dozen lines in the water. So I write. And edit. And review. And copyedit. And teach. I love each of these things and feel fortunate to be able to do work that I love and get paid for it. And I knew that in order to open this shop, I would need to continue to do all of these things in order to make it work. I won’t necessarily make money, but I can’t afford to lose any money either.
In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.
We did this interview in McEwan’s house, whichis Dr. Henry Perowne’s house in the novel Saturday(2005). It is a lovely Georgian townhouse that sits in the shadowof London’s BT Tower. Fromthe balcony of this house Perowne sees a plane on a crash trajectory, its tail on fire. It is a perfect McEwanesque incident.