Writing ought to be a pleasure. But often it is not. I have had many professional writers among my friends over the years and meet some thirty of them over lunch monthly. Some are famous names, with the most illustrious probably having been the late P. D. James. Others are unfamiliar. They include historians, scientists, philosophers, biographers and a couple of novelists. For most, writing is a job. Once a book is started, it has to be finished, as soon as possible. So we tell each other of any props or inspirations we know to work.
A few years ago, after I’d begun a new book, I noticed that I would on some days become irritable if I were unhappy with my crop. I analysed my habits and realised I ought not to judge myself daily. A week would be a more reasonable time. But how could I see my progress without going over the writing of a whole week?
With this in mind, I decided to start a Writing Diary and to make the boring task of record-keeping as bearable as possible. Why not try to make it pleasure in itself? Thus I bought a leather-bound notebook and a fine calligraphic pen. Then, each weekend, in my slowest and best hand, like a medieval monk working on an illuminated manuscript for his abbot, wrote a short report beginning with the date and a long box inside which I gave myself a number of stars. The box was to stand out visually whenever I wanted to review the week. It worked. A box with five stars in it put a huge wind in my sail, while three stars were still encouraging. An empty box chastised me and demanded a close reading of the entry. Had I been going through the motions, merely, or were my explanations valid?
Dear fellow writer, thirteen months later I had 99,689 words winging their way to the publisher.
Looking back at the entries now, I can see that, as expected, they reveal the usual squirmings and fumblings, as well as the rarer triumphs, of the human being going back to the caves. Here’s an example:
Friday, January 17, |*_____| I thought I knew what I wanted to say about Boethius. I was going to temper my praise for him because of his neo-Platonist rubbish. But then read Russell on him and was taken aback. He forgives him and adores him and I couldn’t not follow the great man. So, after a lot more reading beside Russell, I decided to tweak the preamble and the conclusion and so got only about 200 words extra this week. Nevertheless, I think I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I avoided a big blunder.
By contrast, here’s an entry to lift anyone’s heart:
February 7th: |*****|. This is bliss. This is rare. I’ve almost finished a chapter in a single week, nearly 5000 words (on Beethoven) and know what I want to say to sum him up. And it’s a good chapter, even better than the one on Boethius. Much more emotional, of course. At this rate, I should finish in early May.
Only to be followed by a bleak sight:
May 18th: |______|. A horrible week. Managed to find only a few poems for the anthology. But the reasons were unavoidable. On Wednesday, we had to go to London for a matinee at the National which C had booked long ago. The next day I had to go to London again for the annual lunch I give Gill. On Friday, Cynthia arrived and we went to Charleston [Literary Festival] to listen to Charles. Again, I couldn’t not go. We were his guests. And yesterday and today I had to work in the vegetable garden and the greenhouse. The seedlings had grown gangly and falling over and the weather was perfect. C dragged me out.
I’m reminded of a piece of advice I was once given by the great philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer. It was May 1987 and he had just finished his biography of Thomas Paine. As my friend John Kilbracken hugged Freddy’s lovely girlfriend, Cynthia, Mrs Robert Key, poor Freddy had to sip white wine with me. He told me that all I had to do to produce a book a year was to write 500 words a day. His mercurial mind and joyous company so lifted me that later in the evening I described it in my diary in doggerel. Here’re a couplet:
Of course, now that I’m seventy-seven,
I can’t write philosophy that fast.
But Tom Paine’s life was easy;
So many have written on him in the past.
Isn’t life unpredictable? I’m myself now both 77 and writing philosophy.