Peter Cook once met a man at a party and asked him what he did. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ said the man. ‘Oh really?’ said Cook. ‘Neither am I.’
We all have our favourite displacement activities. In fact, novelists have activities the sole purpose of which is to act as displacements. Here are some of my other excuses for not writing.
I prefer not to write novels in the spring.
The world is awakening. All manner of possibilities emerge. Thoughts bubble up of how nice it would be to go to France, or anywhere. The garden needs maintenance. Friends need calling. I prefer not to write novels in the spring.
I prefer not to write novels in the summer.
There are too many distractions. With luck it will be hot and sunny. The terrace and a cool bottle of rosé wine beckon. There are sporting events to attend. Friends want to visit, or be visited. I prefer not to write novels in the summer.
I prefer not to write novels in the autumn.
That is my favourite time for travelling. It is a time to ruminate and reflect, not to create; the time to think about writing a novel, certainly, but not actually to write one. It is also a time to recuperate from the summer evenings on the terrace and the bottles of rosé wine that have accompanied them. I prefer not to write novels in the autumn.
I prefer not to write novels on a computer.
Computers are technology. They are cold. They are impersonal. Words that appear on a computer screen are not mine, even if I have written them. They already belong to the ether. Which is why computers are so wonderful for editing. Because it is not my own words that I am mangling, but someone else’s, which is how it needs to be. When I write on a computer, I go back constantly over what I have written, amending it, abridging it. There is little flow. When I write by hand, I don’t do that. It can be done later. Instead, there is only the flow, only the connection between brain and the immediate written word. I am writing this on a computer, but I prefer not to write novels on a computer.
I prefer not to write novels with a ballpoint.
(Too cheap.) Or with a pencil. (Too impermanent.) Or with a felt-tip. (Too messy.) To write a novel at all requires the temporary delusion that one is creating something of lasting value. Anything that bolsters that delusion is to be prized. I prefer not to write novels with a ballpoint.
I prefer not to write novels in a crowd.
Or in company. Even one other person is a distraction. I have tried writing in bars and cafés and I love it. It works for songs, for articles, for anything short. But not for a novel. For that I need complete solitude, complete stillness. I prefer not to write novels in a crowd.
But when it is winter. When I am at home, in front of a roaring log fire. When lined paper and a fountain pen lay on my lucky fairground gypsy table in front of me. Then I can write novels.
All this is what I thought six years ago, after I had written The Breaking of Eggs, when it had been written how I have just described, and when I naively assumed that this must be the only way of writing that suited me, and would be how I wrote any future novels.
Now I know different.
There is no single way to write a novel; no single device for getting it down on paper; no single time of year to do it; no single way of planning it, or of not planning it. Novels are not interested in the quirks and inadequacies of their authors: they have their own agendas, and they are the ones giving the orders.
Trading Futures was written when it wanted to be written, which was in the spring, the summer and the autumn. The only time it didn’t get written was in winter. It went straight on to the computer. It got cut and pasted, hacked to pieces and reassembled several times. It enjoyed this experience more than its author did. It was extremely intolerant of displacement activity.
There are fifty ways, or more, not to write a novel. There is only a single way to write one, and that is the way it tells you it would like to be written.