If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to hang out in coffee shops, from which follows as day follows night that you'll learn to smoke, become addicted to caffeine, and then discover you need red wine to counteract the multiple café lattes that helped you over the bridge from chapter four to chapter five. Soon after, you'll acquire a small sexy hat, related to if not actually a beret, and a shabby-chic leather jacket, neither of which you'll have bought. Café managers distribute these items as assiduously as maître d's hand out ties to those messieurs who appear to have forgotten theirs. And voilá: you haunt your coffee shop table, gaunt on caffeine and nicotine, gazing pensively through paisley spirals of blue smoke, pen poised above notebook. You are a writer.
More good news awaits: you no longer have to pay bills on time, wash your dishes, hang up your clothes, co-ordinate outfits, or remember to post anything. You can have destructive and painful relationships which are actually good for you, because they lead to fine poetry. You're always fashionable, because bohemian-chic is in every other year, and on the inbetween years you're counter-culture. The extreme of this is what Wendy Cope calls “TUMPs” – Totally Useless Male Poets, who explain beguilingly that they couldn't possibly learn to drive, because what if they had a poetic moment on the motorway? It's possibly worth noting that “beguile” comes from Middle English gilen, “to deceive”. Deceiving people into believing you're useless is a marvellous tool for escaping responsibility. At this point, I should point out the following:
- I nearly crashed my car having a poetic moment to Tannhäuser during a right-turn
- I regularly walk into lampposts, tables, chairs, and small children (they're under the sightline, so it's not really my fault), and trip over the deceptively flat ground, because I'm daydreaming
- I've never got the hang of laundry
- Interrupting my writing is punishable by death
- Yesterday I diverted the bailiffs from carrying off my books to pay for my electricity with an eleventh-hour phone call to pay my bill – I did have the money, I just hadn't got around to it.
I don't really think this is all okay, but I also feel that as I'm living four separate main lives at the moment, plus dabbling in a host of subsidiary brains, I'm actually doing pretty damn well.
Our fondest notion of writing seems to come from the sixties, which in turn nabbed it from the Romantics: writing is something that springs forth from one's soul, some unadulterated, pure, platonic essence, its only form deriving from the shape of our individuality, the way water is shaped by a colander, at which point the metaphor starts to decline. (I can't be the only person who's poured a pot of pasta into a colander, forgetting that the colander's design and purpose center around its not containing the water. I was thinking about a story at the time, is my excuse.) Being art, though, being an expression of one's being, one doesn't just think about it, one lives it. Again, I'm guilty as charged. I've built my altars and mixed my herbs, learnt to build databases, tried to prove Fermat's last theorem, taken up painting, studied AI; I've dressed as a witch, a gypsy, a peasant, and a desert queen. I cook the food my characters would eat, turn cold with fear in the scary bits, and murder my characters with tears streaming down my face and huge gulping sobs, rather like the Walrus in Alice In Wonderland whose handkerchief-covered hysteria hides how many oysters he eats.
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
So what happens when I write erotica, with this tendency to lose myself in my stories, play out my characters' selves, and experience their textual sensations in my own body? I dress up to write – not smartly, but in a child's dress-up-box way. I tried wearing a corset once, but the clasps of the garter part dig horribly into one's thighs, and anyway, none of my characters actually dress like that. As with my other writing, I have additional, complex lives to lead which include sex. I get published and try to be professional, returning contracts and proofs and queries swiftly. I write for a living, ie. all the time, and so I do still try to keep my house tidy, and accept and host houseguests, and retain friendships, and try to be pleasant to my other half not just stare through him at my interior world then get weirdly moody because it's touching depths...
Most of the time, despite the other lives, I try quite hard to be an acceptable human being. Every now and then, it can all go hang because the only important thing in my life is this incredible story I am breathing/bleeding/ writing… And during that tumultuous raging storm, on those rare occasions I am wholly consumed, I have a way to explain to people what's happening: "I'm a writer." The rest of the time, it's just an excuse. How do you combine your art and life? Does what you're writing affect your life? If you're writing and working a day job, how do you still maintain a life? Do you like the 'writer' image? Have you ever used it as an excuse? It it useful or unhelpful to you? And so on.