Sorrreee, I’ve been busy.
“Not for profit work,” I say, when people ask what I’m doing ‘these days’. Which sounds better than, “Something that takes all my time and mental energy and will never earn me a cent and probably won’t ever even see the light of day.”
“Wrestling a dolphin,” I want to say, because that’s what it feels like: struggling with something vast and slippery and liable to crush you at ay time.
Which might even earn me an even stranger look than the truth. I confide the truth only on a robust day, or when I’m in a teasing mood and feel like making someone squirm. Telling people “I’m writing a novel” is a bit like confiding a religious conversion or a new fascination with alien abductions: something that locates me firmly on the lunatic fringe.*
Or else it elicits a kind of wincing sympathy: all that obvious pretension and self-delusion, like George W. Bush fancying himself as a portrait painter, or your auntie gifting her watercolours to everyone at Christmas.
I had braced myself for questions: “What’s it about?”; which is difficult, because the elevator summary tells you nothing useful at all. The grippingest story in the world can be miserably botched by a cack-handed novice; the best books can be reduced to limp one-line summaries: “It’s about a dysfunctional family from the Midwest” (The Corrections); “Rehashing the Anne Boleyn story from the point of view of the lawyer” (no prizes). It’s all, of course, in the execution.
But surprisingly few people ask any follow-up questions at all. Perhaps they don’t want to frighten the muse away by prying; more likely, they don’t want me to embarrass myself by waxing verbose about something cringeworthy. “It’s about the human condition; the cycle of life, birth, motherhood, death,” or, worse, “It’s a historical novel, a Victorian pastiche set against the [insert New Zealand historical event here].”
A few people say, “That’s so brave”, which is the widely accepted euphemism for folly, or, “Good on you for following your dream,” kindly offering me the out clause of noble failure.
But guys, it’s fine. I know the chances of publication or any other manifestations of visible ‘success’ are vanishingly small. I know that after a year – and more – of hard labour, what I produce will probably be slightly shit: not embarrassingly awful but just a bit amateurish and wide of the mark. And that, of course, is the point of a first novel: a vertiginously steep learning curve in which you make a squillion mistakes and then decide whether you want to pick yourself up, arnica your bruises, strap your snorkel on and wade back in for round two.
*Though the alien abduction idea is also a useful one, since it would account for my continued sense of profound disorientation, where details such as the fact that we have exactly zero household income at present seem distant and irrelevant, as if they’re happening on another planet.