Revising and Editing: building the Orient Express
The very final and very good word on my PhD

A few strings

I've just agreed to write a story for an anthology which is being published by Glasshouse Books in July. It's called 33 because that's how many London boroughs there are, and it's one story for each borough. I'm doing Bexley, and since Londoners are no less parochial (arguably more parochial) than anyone else, even my London-based friends might need explaining that Bexley is fairly south and very east London: specifically, it's lined up along both sides of the bit of the A2 which you hope to whizz through on the way to Rochester and ultimately Dover and then France, and usually find you crawl through because there's an accident at the Danson Interchange and traffic backed up from the roadworks by the new Eurostar station at Ebbsfleet.

No, Bexley is neither the borough of my birth (Kensington & Chelsea) nor where I was at school (Hammersmith & Fulham) nor where I live, nor have lived (Lambeth), though I'm looking forward to reading other writers' take on my past and present stamping grounds. But, believe it or not, there's a Bexley story I've been wanting to write for ages. In researching A Secret Alchemy I spread outwards from Eltham Palace, which is an important setting for both medieval and modern strands, and found all sorts of other things. William Morris's Red House I would have been tempted by, but it, too, was refracted through the fictional prism, into The Chantry, and I haven't yet cycled back round to want to revisit that material. So it's neither of those: what it is would be telling... When I got an email about 33, from my friend, novelist Debi Alper (who's doing Croydon), I read down the list of boroughs still up for grabs, and there – oh joy! - was Bexley, un-tenanted. Now I can sort out the stuff in my head, my memory, my notebook; now I've got somewhere to put ideas that didn't quite fit into A Twist of Gold; now my writerly mind, which has been in editorial mode for months, can start feeling its way through the forest towards a new house, as Anne Enright puts it: start tapping on the walls, peering through the windows, with everything still to discover. And it's not just the creative satisfaction: there are practical reasons for being pleased, too: money and publicity, and perfect timing for running it through the writer's circle I've just joined.

And then another friend and contributor, the novelist Jessica Ruston (she's doing Merton), described how she passed the details on to a just-starting-out writer friend, who has now been asked to write a story. The friend is thrilled to pieces, overjoyed, soooooo excited... Oh! how I remember that thrill, that joy, that excitement; the champagne in the veins that collects in your belly and grows and grows till it could lift you off your feet and take you sailing over the rooftops.

But I realised, with a thick, bass twang of envy, that even though I'm delighted to be writing my story, maybe I'll never feel that pure, unadulterated joy about something writerly again. For one thing, I only have limited time, and bills to pay: these days before I can say yes to a piece of writing there's always a complex equation (mathematical sister, the floor or rather whiteboard is yours) going on at least intuitively: what's the algorithm for computing creative satisfaction (do I really want to do it? Is is asking to be done?), time (if I don't have enough time, I won't do a good job), career (is a good investment of time and creative effort?) and money (can I afford the time for the money, versus other things?), before I say yes or no. For another, this is now what I do. It's my job, and a job I love, but it's not manna from heaven. And, finally, and to be really, really crude, it's hard not to think, in our Western way, of your biggest achievement to date as your biggest joy. In which case, only an achievement bigger still can really bring you as much or more joy. Of course it's not linear – there are different kinds of achievement, from a literary prize to a huge advance, from a friend laughing or crying over your new novel to a fabulous poem that appears once in a small magazine and is the best, most perfect thing you've ever written. But, however you measure it, a big chunk of your sense of self and self-esteem is now bound up with writing as art and industry; as a result there's always a lingering sense of 'What if the peak of my career has already happened?', and anything good that then comes along is greeted with 'Phew!' as well as 'Yay!'

In other words, if you have to leave Eden as a reader, and learn to be bad and then good as a writer, then I think there's an equivalent when a writer becomes an author. When you combine straightforward economic pressure with the hard-to-root-out sense that every day and in every way you need to do better, merely to allow your self-esteem to stay in the same place... then no achievement comes without at least a few strings, tying you to the ground.

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