A young student once wrote to the French novelist André Gide to ask him whether he should try to become a writer. “Only if you have to,” answered Gide, neatly summing up the best advice any writer can give a prospective recruit. The job clearly makes no sense from any practical point of view. It only intermittently satisfies ordinary longings for security and status. Trying to tie writing talent to a mortgage is akin to connecting a bicycle to the national power grid. So if one’s to become a writer, it clearly has to be from a motive other than the search for money or status. It has to be because of the deep fulfillment that some people feel in arranging thoughts and experiences on the page.
I wrote my first book at the age of eight. It was the diary of my summer holiday, spent in the Normandy seaside resort of Houlgate with my parents, dog, and sister. “Yestday nothing much happend. Today the wether is lovely. We went swiming for the hole day. We had salad for lunch, We had a trout for diner. After diner we saw a film about a man that found gold in Peru,” reads a typical entry, headed “Wendsay 23 of August, 1978” (not dyslexia, just learning English). If the book is unreadable, it’s because, despite the best intentions and neat handwriting, the author is unable to capture much of what is actually happening. There is a list of facts, an account of the trout, and a weather report, but life has slipped out of the picture. It’s like watching a home video in which you’re shown only the feet or the clouds, and wonder, bemused, what might be going on at head level.
The desire to record experience never left me, but as I matured, my technical skills slowly improved. I learned that wanting to say something very badly doesn’t always mean that one has managed to do so. Writing is about capturing experience. Behind the desire to write is a wish to gain mastery over beautiful as well as painful feelings. Inspiration comes in many forms: a fine weathered brick wall, a humiliation, a painting, a face glimpsed in the street. For me, the finest books are those in which an author has put his or her finger on emotions which we recognize as our own, but which we could not have formulated on our own. We have a feeling that the author knows us—perhaps better than we know ourselves. I aspire to write books that offer a feeling of recognition, and ultimately of friendship.
The task isn’t easy. The writer’s life is suffused with anxiety. In a highly productive, entrepreneurial age, it seems odd, even insane, to be locked away in a room, trying to hammer words into their correct places. I often have intense longings to go to an office—in order to share the burdens of my work with other people, as workers in offices can. Currently, I am overwhelmed by a desire to become an architect. I have always been marked by how much the buildings we inhabit shape us, and I would love the chance to improve (in my eyes) the environment around me. I have a running dialogue with myself about what is right and wrong with the buildings I pass daily. I admire the ability of architects to be artists and at the same time practical people of the world, whose visions translate into a solid mass. I don’t want to only interpret the world, I also want to change it, and there are days when I am painfully struck by what a modest object a book is as an instrument with which to make a difference, compared, that is, to the power of a government, a university, or a business.
I worry constantly about my future. Few writers are able to turn out a decent book a year—three or four years is more typically necessary, and even this rate is unlikely to go on over an entire working life. The idea of a muse may be fanciful and politically incorrect, but the lady evokes well enough the insecurity of the hold most writers have on their creative faculties. An element of chance lurks behind the birth of masterpieces, which aggravates financial anxieties: It is one thing to be poor and convinced of the worth of one’s work, far harder to combine poverty with an awareness that a book isn’t going well.
As for where I write, it seems that my work is always best done in places where it isn’t supposed to happen. At a desk, in front of a computer, my mind goes blank, but as soon as I take off (to the supermarket, to Australia), inspiration strikes. Journeys are the midwives of books. Few places are more conducive to the internal conversation that is writing than a moving plane, ship, or train. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of my eyes and the thoughts I am able to have in my head: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do. The task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand. Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks, are charged with listening to music or following a line of trees.
Of all modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to writing: The views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, and they move fast enough for me not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow me to identify objects. They offer me brief, inspiring glimpses into private domains, letting me see a woman at the moment when she takes a cup from a shelf in her kitchen, before carrying me on to a patio where a man is sleeping, and then to a park where a child is catching a ball thrown by a figure I can’t see. Out of such fine filaments, books are born.
Hotel rooms offer a similar opportunity to escape my habits of mind. Lying in bed in a hotel, the room quiet except for the occasional swooshing of an elevator in the innards of the building, I can reflect on, and write about, things from a height I could not have reached in the midst of everyday business, subtly assisted in this by the unfamiliar world around me: by the small wrapped soaps on the edge of the basin, by the gallery of miniature bottles in the minibar, by the room service menu with its promises of all-night dining, and by the view onto an unknown city stirring silently twenty-five floors below.
Hotel notepads can be the recipients of unexpectedly intense, revelatory thoughts, taken down in the early hours while the breakfast menu (“to be hung outside before 3 am”) lies unattended on the floor. I began my last book in a Sydney hotel room on a jet-lagged night in 2004. I’m hoping that the muse might knock at the door on this visit, too.