The View From London

08.05.134:45 AM ET

In Pursuit of the Writerly Life

Loneliness, procrastination, elusive success—the literary life isn't a cakewalk, says Emma Woolf. But holding that first book with your name on it is pure magic.

What’s your book about? You know, that book that you’re going to sit down and write one day, perhaps on that Greek Island that you’re going to escape to ...

In surveys, more than 80 percent of people say they want to write a novel (although less than
1 percent actually do). I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met—from cab drivers to hairdresser to CEOs—who say they dream of giving up the day job and setting pen to paper. Despite being lonely, difficult, and financially unrewarding, writing a book remains one of those Big Life Goals.

This might explain why, on a sweltering evening in Shoreditch last week, The Book Club was packed with aspiring young writers.

I live in Shoreditch’s Old Street, also known as Silicon Roundabout, home of Google’s Tech City. When I bought my flat here five years ago, it seemed daring: the area was run-down and my ‘local’ was a scruffy old men’s boozer. Now I can get fantastic coffee (or an espresso martini when I’ve got writer’s block) from local cafés, homemade lemon drizzle cake from the deli, fresh smoothies in my neighborhood bike shop, and mouth-watering Indian cuisine in Brick Lane, to say nothing of the flower market in Columbia Road and the art galleries of Hoxton Square.

We’re gathered at the Book Club for the 4th Estate Literary Salon to hear the authors David Baddiel, Tash Aw, and Nathan Filer discussing that elusive first novel—how to stay motivated while writing, how to cope with endless rejection letters, whether creative writing courses are worth it, how to handle your agent, and of course, how to get published.

It’s an interesting line-up: Baddiel is a British stand-up comedian, famous on TV before he became a novelist, Aw is an award-winning writer who has just been long-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, and Filer is a debut novelist as well as being a mental-health nurse. It’s disappointing not to see a female novelist on the panel (but to be fair, the last literary salon featured all feminist writers).

They start by discussing why the novel is still seen as the acme of literary forms: you can publish a screenplay, short stories, a biography or a children’s book, but writing fiction is the ultimate achievement. What is it about the novel form, that world created solely by the writer, which seems so perfect, so self-contained? This rings true for me: I’ve had two books published and am writing my third, but it’s my (unpublished) novel which keeps me awake at night. Nonfiction, however popular, doesn’t feel like the real thing.

We talk about success, and what it means to succeed as a writer. Is it selling lots of copies of your book, or being nominated for literary prizes—or is it your mum and dad liking it? They’re subtly different measures of success, and one does not guarantee the other. And why does a bad review hurt so much more than a good review feels good? Is it the public humiliation, the frustration of being misunderstood by critics? I think it’s the terror of setting your words free in the big wide world, after so long inside your own head.

We talk about the essential madness of writing, spending months alone in your pajamas, with no workmates or water-cooler chat, and how not to lose your sanity. Isolation is a big part of writing (if you crave constant company then writing’s probably not for you) because you need to be alone simply to get the words down. But you also need to experience life and people and relationships in order to have something to write about. When I went freelance a few years ago, after a decade in publishing, I found the enforced solitude hard. I missed the banter and time-wasting with colleagues, I even missed the silly office politics. These days I escape writing-at-home madness at the British Library: in its hallowed reading rooms, surrounded by other freelancers, I feel less caged (and you can’t work there in pajamas).

Avoiding the distractions of social media and the Internet is another problem for writers these days. I struggle with this: currently my screensaver is the warning from Jonathan Franzen: “It's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” It was Franzen who told Time magazine he’d resorted to pouring super-glue into his Ethernet port to deprive himself of Internet access. (He went on to write the novel Freedom, so it obviously worked for him.) Other writers, including Zadie Smith, use applications that prevent them from going online; I haven’t tried this software yet, but I’m considering it.

So, isolation, super-glue, madness—and you need to be obsessed with words and language. Do you know the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow? It’s being involved in your work to the point of “complete absorption, single-minded immersion.” For me, writing is the best and the worst activity in the world, the hardest and the most rewarding, the only one in which I literally lose track of time.

How do you find “flow”? The reason most books fail is because they never get finished. I remember what a writer in her 90s told me: “If you want to write, then write.” And this is the only advice that matters. You should be writing all the time— set your alarm for 5 a.m. and put in a few hours before work—and you should be reading voraciously. I’ve never owned a television, which helps.

For all the pain, boredom and loneliness of writing, it is worth it. Writing a book has been compared to childbirth: while you’re doing it you think “never again,” but when it’s over you forget the true agony. I’ve never had a baby, but I know there is nothing like holding that first copy of your first book, with your own name on it.


Read previous installments in The View From London here.

Emma Woolf is a journalist, TV presenter, and the author of An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. Her new book The Ministry of Thin came out in June 2013. Emma lives in London. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.