A few weeks before the final, absolute, we-really-mean-it-this-time deadline for my first book, my editor sent me an email that nearly ruined me.
‘I hate to say it,’ she said. ‘But I think you’re going to need another chapter.’
This may not have been a problem for a writer whose only source of material didn’t happen to be their own career failings. And it certainly would have been better dealt with by one who had not already had a number of serious discussions with publishers about how a ‘breezy text design’ and the possible inclusion of drawings might just give them a book whose spine was thick enough to fit a title on.
It is the job of a copy editor, I discovered, to finish off what the editor has started. ‘Have you considered writing a chapter about trying to be an author?’ mine suggested helpfully.
This was not the first time it had occurred to me that writing a memoir at the age of twenty-two may not have been the greatest of ideas.
In fairness, the idea was not my own. During the summer after I finished university, I sat down to write a short essay about the only thing I believed to be more useless than my creative writing degree: the seven months I had spent working for the Liberal Party. There are things that test each of us, and for me it was discovering that my boss had ‘two things to say about climate change’ and that both things were located between his thumb and ring finger. And so, on that not very special Sunday afternoon, I wrote quickly and without pause, seated on my father’s verandah with half a bottle of Tanqueray gin.
Monday yielded enough surprises that on Thursday afternoon I found myself tidying my bedroom in a frenzied, failed attempt to calm myself down: a publisher was about to call me to discuss my ‘work’. I said before that this was not my idea, and while this is true, it was certainly my idea to go along with it. Who ever heard of anyone saying no to a publisher who has asked if you might like to write a book?
I have been asked to write this piece, too, and tell you about the pleasures and the pitfalls of my ‘job’ as ‘a writer.’ Those quotation marks are there because these words still don’t feel as if they belong to me, and I am hesitant to speak with any authority on either one of them. But there are some things I can share – and perhaps unsurprisingly they are various instances best grouped under the umbrella of ‘getting it wrong’.
A comment to the person who designed my book cover: It makes me want to stick sharp things in my eyes.
A statement to the publicist who suggested that a particular writer launch my book: That launch is going to have to be posthumous.
The only sentence ever written in the journal I began as a means of documenting how much writing work I got done each day: Alister said that if I’m good today then we can bake a lemon cake.
A line in the proposal for a book I wondered why never got contracted: This is probably one of the many things that you aren’t meant to tell publishers.
And the very worst, an early email to my publisher: I do have one question that I forgot to ask last week. In regards to style, what tone do you imagine would work best for the book? What does everyone prefer?
The thing that I was really after when I wrote those terrible words, I think, is familiar to all first-time writers and, I suppose, to anyone who has ever been so young. How, I wanted to know, could I possibly put into my book every thought, feeling, truth and beautiful word that I had ever known or learnt? Twenty-two! My God. I was twenty-two.
I could also tell you the things editors have said that have nearly broken me, but I cannot tell you if the effect of these were worse on me because of my age or sheer bloody-mindedness. Things like being informed, in all seriousness, that my writing was ‘too, too cool (for school)’. Or that the work was good, generally, but that my voice was ‘too smug and too sexual’ for a piece about bicycles. And, more times than I can bear to recount, I have been told that above all else, my writing needed to be ‘young, fun and very Melbourne’. The argument that I was boring and from Brisbane did not once get me out of this.
It might be worth mentioning that this ‘job’ of mine as ‘a writer’ is managed quite badly around the forty-five hours or so I spend each week pretending to be a paralegal. Both jobs involve long, odd hours and I almost always wish that I was watching an episode of The Office instead.
There are moments, though – the ones in between all the 3am starts, tracked changes, false beginnings and bad endings – that are, as they say, ‘worth it’. Twice now have I had the pleasure of excusing myself from whatever office I happened to be working in at the time to go run wild, silly loops around the city blocks listening to LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Daft Punk Are Playing at My House’ on my headphones because someone wanted me – me! – to write a book. You learn to watch for these moments and to guard them carefully, because they are often all that is needed to carry you to the next. Gradually, the horrors of 3am will fall away until one day you find yourself standing in the kitchen, wondering if it has always been possible to smell the parsley that grows out from underneath the garden shed. And when a housemate finally asks what the hell you are doing, you’ll be able to tell them: ‘It’s finished.’
I have also been fortunate enough to work with an editor who understands how hard it is for me to swallow praise, in any measure, directed at my ‘work’, when all I feel is blessed, somewhat charmed and just plain lucky.
If you are ever blessed, charmed or lucky enough to find one of these smart strangers – one who recognises that you lean on self-deprecation like a crutch, can pre-empt your hot flushes, and knows that the surest method to dispatch your sass is to trump it with Vonnegut – realise that this is worth not getting your way with covers or breezy text design.