A writer should always have a ‘big project’ on the go while other writerly activities are pursued. Among writerly activities I include looking for a publisher and dreaming about winning the Man-Booker Prize. At least these days there are lots more publishers to approach beyond the commonwealth of Random House. As to reverie – well, it’s innocent enough, the fantasy of being rewarded for what you think you’re worth.
I also include practice, or writing for its own unremunerative sake. By that I mean the words are never going to be sent away to a magazine, whether its editor pays you or not. Most of them don’t pay, but I’ve already written on this blog about the satisfactions of vanity, so I’ll not repeat myself. No, I mean exercises of the sort Alan Sillitoe once recommended, not realising perhaps that he was talking about a condition well known to the essayist. Sillitoe advised writers who were resting from their ‘big project’ to look at something – the back yard, the TV set, the bird-feeder, their flat-mate’s drying underwear – and just expatiate on it. Something will come, something will come, as Henry James was reported to have said every time he was storm-tossed in one of his much-subordinated sentences. Of course, the results of practice may well be worth submitting to an editor, pound-poor or not
My ‘big project’ is a novel about – well, I won’t tell you what it’s about in case you nick the idea and make a better exegesis. While I’m thinking about where it should go next, I make a start on the frothy column I write for a bi-monthly glossy magazine. An essay is essentially about the essayists – the effect something, anything, has on them personally, such as finding a Roman coin in a field or changing the water in the goldfish bowl. This is obviously not Hazlitt territory, where Wordworth’s fall from revolutionary grace sent nib scooting across page, or even Gore Vidal’s, a land populated as he well knew by intellectual coevals waiting on his every political word. But there’s a range, its contents legitimate fodder.
Like the act of painting, the act of writing transcends the object being addressed. Anyone who does not paint or write will never experience the pleasure they afford of making something. A carpenter and kindred craftspersons in predominantly utilitarian mode would. A chair is not the same as an aimless doodle or a trail of apparently disconnected thoughts, but you get the idea. In a literary milieu where experiment and innovation are dormant, if not dead, even a doodle might be thought significant by someone. I was writing short pieces – 300 words max – before I discovered that flash fiction, or micro-fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, drabble byte, ficlet and skinny fiction were accepted publishable forms. I think Dave Eggars started it in America. Hemingway may have been the inadvertent progenitor with this, or an approximation of same: For sale: baby’s bootees. Never used. A tragedy in six words. Anyway, I write lots of it to keep me in trim, some of which has been published without payment.
As for what will happen to the results of the ‘big project’, I’m almost convinced that self-publication may be the way forward, avoiding the rejection slip and the heavy investment in packets of Kleenex. Self-publication is the reformed child of vanity publishing. Whereas you paid a pre-digital vanity publisher to produce a dozen unedited, unpromoted books which arrived at your door in a parcel, period, the publisher who self-publishes you takes your money and produces no copies of your book unless someone wants to buy it, but edits, advertises and markets it without the prohibitive cost and prospect of remaindering so that someone will. I’m word-doodling around the subject of what could go wrong with that. A book is something which ought to be published or not; the means of publication are surely immaterial. As a commercial proposition, which is what publishing is about at all levels, self-publication seems waterproof, and not necessarily in the absence of traditional publishing (though who wouldn’t want an acceptance letter from Chatto & Windus?). Unless you want to scoot away, that is, apropos of nothing but in the hope that something – anything – will come.