I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: what happens when you lose your way.
Word count at the start of this week: 40381
Word count this morning: 38345
There’s a point when you’re running a marathon where you hit a wall – or so I’ve been told. And if writing a feature or blog post is a sprint, writing a book is a marathon. The wall is waiting here too, halfway through. Everything stops. Your confidence runs like piss down your legs. You’re a fucking idiot for even trying this. What were you thinking, you deluded twat. Go home. Get under the covers. Never show your face again.
I try to achieve something different, something more, as a writer with each book I write. I go to different places. I wrestle with how much of myself to put into the text. It’s always difficult – I make sure of that. My last book was my most personal yet, in a subject area I hadn’t really written about before. It got really tough in the middle. At one point I turned to Liz and said, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised to the publisher. I think I’m going to have to pay back the advance. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.”
She looked at me steadily and said, “Lovely, you’ve said that in the middle of every single book you’ve written.”
This time is different, but of course it always is. This time there’s no advance, and Liz is the publisher. The motivation to keep going has to come entirely from within.
This project was designed to provide structure and purpose to our lives during an indefinite period of lockdown, and also to provide a source of income at some point in the near future. It’s a buttress against the stress we all feel around Covid-19, but yesterday the fear and anxiety got through.
I had a bad day.
I bet every single one of us is having bad days and good days. Yesterday I heard some grim projections about the future for pubs – even grimmer I should say – and became very pessimistic. I compartmentalise as a way of dealing with negative thoughts, and yesterday the bulkheads went and they flooded in.
This happened when I was already struggling with the book itself. Last week I talked about thickets. I’ve been in a really big one. People often say to me, “Ooh, you write just how you talk!” It’s the biggest compliment anyone can give me, because it shows I’ve succeeded in hammering the subject into my style. But because my style is easy and open and readable, people sometimes think it must therefore be easy to write like that. It really isn’t. Especially when you’re dealing with complicated topics that are new to you, and you’re trying to understand academic writing, retain it in your head, put your perspective on it, and then get the whole thing down in your own tone of voice and make it look simple and conversational.
I’m currently writing about the history of work, division of labour, and scientific management. I’m lightening this with reminiscences of going through the round window on Play School, and the enduring popularity of The Good Life, then trying to round it off with the story of a car advert from 1979. At the end of this bit in my notes, there’s 2500 words on tools and machines and their relationship to craft and craftspeople. It doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t belong anywhere. But it’s really important that it goes in somewhere. I can’t find where it fits, but it has to. Whether it goes here or not, I need to link either it or the car ad directly to the meditation on nostalgia that follows, which then jumps to a bit about Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, before coming back to nostalgia again in a craft beer-specific context via a discussion of pricing. In other words, despite all my careful planning, it’s a fucking mess.
I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.
I can of course, because I have nine times before. As a source of – not comfort exactly – but bitter, empty strength, I remember my favourite line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I pissed away yesterday afternoon playing Warhammer Total War, drank too much, slept through my alarm this morning, got to my desk two hours late.
And then I sat down, said goodbye to the 2500 words that had been blocking me, and started writing again. It’s going quite well. I wouldn’t have had the energy to stop and procrastinate and write this instead if it wasn’t.
It happens to all of us. The difference between people who want to write a book and the people who have written books is the stamina to get through this wall.
When I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, one Saturday morning I heard the thwack of something heavy hitting the doormat. It was an A4 brown envelope which contained – I think – the fifth round of changes requested by my editor. “I can’t do this,” I said to Liz. I threw the envelope and its contents in the bin. I said “Fuck it. For the first time in six months, I’m going to read something that isn’t about beer. Maybe I’ll try again to be a novelist instead!”
I went to the book shelf and picked up a novel by Chuck Palahniuk. I got as far as the dedication, which said something along the lines of “To my editor, for saying this is not good enough. Again, and again, and again.” I went to the bin, too out the envelope, and got to work.
That stage is still to come – Liz has promised me she will be as tough as she needs to be when she assumes the role of editor. So this is not the last wall. But it is the first. I think I’ve got over it. Or through it. Now I just need to go on.
My new book The Meanings of
Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. It really bloody well will.