Writing, I feel, is like going to the dentist – the same dread, knees knocking, the same fear of the unknown, of the masked face staring down at you with the light behind it, as you squirm helplessly on the chair, and wait for the needle.
So, when I have to write, which is most days, first I must procrastinate: I go up the stairs, to fetch something, and down again, to perch, like a moth alighting, at the computer – then quickly off again, to catch the 9am news broadcast, or make a cup of tea, or look outside at the weather.
This applies whether it is fiction or non-fiction: research, report-or-proposal writing, or the interminable novel. Which is interesting, as I find the two processes – fiction and non-fiction – are quite different from each other. The non-fiction, otherwise known as work, comes to me easily – once I settle down to it – a generally quite logical flow, an argument of some kind, to be clearly set out and buttressed, start to finish. Generally I do it all, in one clean draft, whether this is over one day or several (longer pieces are a bit more complicated) with relatively minor corrections and revisions. Whereas fiction involves much staring at the screen, much muttering and cursing, writing and rewriting, and an irresolvable tension between reaching for clarity and simplicity and over-thinking; between simplicity and richness.
(The best advice I ever got, about how to write a report or paper, was from a professor who sat me down, when I was floundering and drowning, and said helpfully, ‘Forget about what you have written. Just tell me what you think.’ I took his advice, and have never looked back. Would that I had had similarly helpful advice, about the other kind of writing).
In both cases the process, once I have finally settled down to it, is all-consuming: not exactly pleasurable, but time-stopping, distraction-erasing and therefore, in some quite fundamental sense, an escape from the normal world into something else, something deeply private and personal, even when the writing is, in another sense, public.
It is like being at the dentist, as I’ve said, only now with the anaesthetic lulling and the dentist’s calm manner reassuring you, so that your mind fastens, with a kind of detachment, on the little details – the stain on the ceiling, the shadow on the wall of the tree growing outside, the white sleeve of the dentist’s assistant, while you watch, at the same time, from afar, the entire proceeding, as if you are some kind of disembodied presence.
Which is why writing, when you get down to it, is so absorbing – and why procrastination is so much part of the writing ritual.