The Authors’ Club were kind enough to invite me to give a talk at their monthly lunch about my books and my writing. I took the somewhat self-indulgent and meta route of talking about talking about writing. If you read the below, you’ll see what I mean.
Hello, and thank you Sunny and everyone here for inviting me to speak to you.
But I won’t pretend this is going to be easy. In fact, this is a session of aversion therapy for me. Because I am going to speak – DEEP BREATH – about me and my – SWALLOW – writing!
Groucho Marx, as everyone knows, said he’d never join a club that would have him as a member, and thus inevitably ended up posthumously donating his name to a club.
Today is the opposite of that for me. Because here I am, at the Authors’ Club. A club of authors.
Talking about myself.
Talking about being an author.
My teenage self has just roused himself from the floor, where he was listening to heavy metal and dreaming about Kate Locke and her amazingly tight jeans, and given his future self a round of applause.
But why should this be aversion therapy?
Anyone who’s ever seen me talk about ‘being an author’ will know that I have had a profound aversion to it ever since my first book was published in 2011. Not to talking about myself – oh no, I can gladly bang on about that for hours. But when it comes to talking about writing, I’ve encountered an insurmountably English diffidence.
So, you’re all here to help me with this desperate affliction. I want to talk about being an author.
Why do I want this?
Firstly this: not wanting to talk about being an author has the unwelcome, and entirely unsought, side-effect of making said author sound like an arrogant scoundrel. I learned this, actually, at another Authors’ Club event. You kindly shortlisted my first book, The English Monster, for the Debut Novel award, more of which in a moment. Part of my duties (as I then saw them) was to read from the book and answer questions alongside the other shortlisted authors. One of these questions was along the lines of ‘was it hard, writing this book?’
Yes, of course it was hard. It’s a hundred and ten thousand words! I’ve never written anything as long as that before! It took bloody ages! And then the pacing was wrong, and the tone was inconsistent, and a lot of the imagery was naive or didn’t work, and most of the characters were entirely unsympathetic, and I did it all on my own, and I had a job at the time as well, and I can’t believe I pulled it off, and here you all are saying this book is quite good, actually, and I can’t BELIEVE IT!
The trouble is, I did not say any of these things. No, indeed. Because it was drummed into me at school: Don’t show off. Don’t display enthusiasm. Adopt, at all times, an air of worldly insouciance. Discussing one’s own achievements is deeply uncool, not to say horribly gauche. DO NOT DO IT.
So that was playing round in my head. The other thing that was playing round was this: my wife was then working as a headteacher in a Peckham primary school. She went into work every day at seven, and got home at eight. During those thirteen hours, Peckham threw everything Peckham could throw at her, and believe me, Peckham’s got a lot of stuff to throw.
In that light, how could I possibly describe what I did as hard? Even if it perhaps was.
So I answered the question like this: “No, it wasn’t hard. I wrote in the evenings. I treated it as a kind of hobby. Some men build model ships. I wrote a novel.’
Tumbleweed echoed around the room. My wife put her head in her hand. Somewhere across London a child could be heard to laugh derisively.
Why? Because I sounded like a colossally arrogant scoundrel, that’s why.
I learned something that day: both listening to my own woeful underperformance, and to the words of my fellow authors on the shortlist, all of whom spoke amusingly and movingly and above all interestingly about their work. I learned that when people ask you a question such as is it hard being a writer they’re not expecting modesty, be it fake or be it genuine. They’re expecting insight. They’re expecting interest. They’re expecting amusement.
They’re expecting you to talk about yourself, with self-confidence, in an interesting way.
But this raises an interesting issue, and it brings me to my second reason for wanting to talk about being an author. I noticed two very distinct things on the day I was published. The first was the wave of self-doubt that broke over my head. It was like an acute version of Imposter Syndrome, that feeling many of us have that we are going to be found out, that we don’t really know what we’re doing, that one day someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say I’m sorry, but there’s been a terrible mistake. So, even though an agent has taken you on, even though a publisher has paid you cash money for the privilege of turning your manuscript into an actual proper published book, even though it’s received some decent reviews – you still find reasons for why it must be a rubbish book, and you must be a rubbish writer. And being English, I tended to smother that anxiety in diffident self-deprecation. And thus ended up looking conceited.
The other thing that happens when you’re first published is that you notice other writers in a new way. For the first time, these strange creatures are objects of immediate interest. And my word, they don’t half talk about themselves a lot.
They talk about their writing process. They retweet praise from their books. There are a great number of them who call themselves ‘writers’ who seem to have published no actual ‘writing’ at all. They discuss their inadequacies at great length. They do Q&As and blog tours and Reddit AMAs and place endless About Me articles on their websites and are always asking me to Like their Facebook pages or to follow them on Twitter.
In short, they generally behave like people craving attention and affirmation. Not all of them do all of these things. But most of them do some of them.
And by ‘them’ I of course mean ‘me’.
Why is this, I thought. What’s wrong with these people? Why are they making such a meal of something as natural as writing?
Because, you see, up until then writing had been natural for me. I had done it as a kind of hobby. I worked full-time, and I had no expectations of being published. Which isn’t to say I didn’t desperately want to be published. But I didn’t expect to be.
And then, my first book came out. Then, I was in the game. Because now, a lot was riding on the second book. And suddenly, I didn’t know if I could do it anymore.
It was, in other words, a crisis of self-confidence.
So I looked at all these writers blah-blah-blahing about themselves, and I felt my own crisis of confidence, and then I read something by Neil Gaiman. Now, Neil Gaiman is someone who talks about himself a lot online, and I have had my bitter moments when I’ve wanted him to shut up, because he is of course quite brilliant and utterly successful and married to a rock star and generally very, very cool. So it’s easy to pastiche him sometimes, to characterise his somewhat glib assertions about the creative process as being… well, somewhat glib.
At least, that’s how I tended to characterise him.
But then he said this, in a commencement speech at some American college or another:
Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.
He said a bunch of other things in that speech (including admitting that he, like me, had suffered from imposter syndrome, or what his wife Amanda called the Fraud Police). But that really stuck with me.
Pretend you’re a writer. Pretend you’re a good writer. And perhaps that will increase your chances of being one.
This is insane, right? But what if this was why all these people were so fiercely calling themselves writers? Were they seeking to convince themselves? Were they acting out a role?
I think they were. I’ve even found an academic paper on this.
It’s called ‘Confidence and Competence in Writing: The Role of Self-Efficacy, Outcome Expectancy, and Apprehension’. It was authored by Frank Pajares and Margaret T Johnson and published by the National Council of Teachers of English in October 1994 – so at a time when ‘social media’ meant sharing your newspaper.
Now, this study is interesting in all sorts of ways, and is also full of some pretty dry academic prose (which is code for ‘stuff I didn’t fully understand’).
But the results of the test seem clear, and there are two parts to it:
1 – There is a clear correlation between a person’s self-confidence in general, their specific confidence in their writing, and the quality of their written work. As a side note to this, it’s one’s general confidence in writing that has the strongest correlation with writing outcomes; specific confidence in individual writing tasks (yes, I can use a comma correctly) does not have the same correlation.
2 – That as people practise certain writing skills, their writing improves – but their confidence in their writing does not improve in the same way.
In other words, if you’re confident in what you do, you’re likely to be better at doing it.
But the flip side is, you won’t get more confident by doing it.
I find this disturbing, because of this: I have moved from being a very self-confident writer in short form arenas such as journalism and reviewing, to being a very unconfident writer in novels. I have a very bad dose of imposter syndrome when it comes to what I do.
But even that is not quite right. Because, when it comes down to it, I have written three novels which have been published (well, nearly). I can, clearly, write.
So perhaps I should just say the words “I can, clearly, write” to myself. Over and over and over again.
That seems to explain a lot of how writers behave online. Their retweeting of positive reviews. Their blog posts about their writing process. Their hurt reaction to criticism. Their self-description as ‘writers’ in Twitter profiles and website headlines, as if to write the words ‘I am a writer’ in as many places as possible somehow makes that more true, even if they’ve never had a book published or even a review or a magazine article. This behaviour which I have, in recent years and in my customarily judgemental way, found occasionally risible, occasionally even contemptible, is neither of those things. It’s actually perfectly sensible. Here, for me, is the killer line from that study:
Students who lack confidence in skills they possess are not likely to engage in tasks where those skills are required.
To extrapolate from that in a most unacademic way: I’m never going to write the novel I’m capable of writing if I don’t convince myself I’m capable of writing it.
And the first step to doing that is pretending I’m capable of it.
So: here I am, standing before you today.
I am a writer.
And some of the things I have written have been…. have been…. have been…. pretty good.