Keep writing, they said by Christopher Branson

(published 20th May 2019)

George was a pretty good writer. At least, he definitely wasn’t a bad writer. Two separate agents had told him they liked the start of his novel. Keep writing, they said. And the editor of a magazine had once written that he liked the idea of one of his stories, even if the story itself wasn’t quite right for the magazine.

He’d always been a good writer. When he was eight or nine he won a prize for an essay about the fields where they used to walk with his uncle’s dog, and after that he always knew he’d be a writer. He stopped writing for a while when he was a teenager and then through university – he was too busy studying and fooling around! – and for a while after he left university he still didn’t write, but then at some point he felt the need to start again and now he knew he’d never stop. It was the one thing he was good at and it was all he wanted to do. His whole life was organised around writing, and in particular around finishing his novel.

When he first had the idea for his novel he thought it was a short story but when he started writing it he realised it was going to be really long and that it was actually a novel. Writing that first draft was the best time of his life. He felt like he was creating something important, something that would change people’s lives.

He finished it in nine months, like the creation of life itself, which can’t be a coincidence, can it? He tidied it up and sent it off straight away. He knew that it wasn’t in perfect shape, but once it got accepted his agent and editor would want to go through all that with him. He saw no point in duplicating the process. A few problems with the plot and the occasional bit of lazy writing weren’t going to matter when on the whole it was a work of genius.

When the first rejection came the despair he felt was overwhelming. For a long time afterwards he wanted to die. But after a while he figured that people make mistakes and that in any case the book probably hadn’t even been read by the agent, just by some unpaid intern who’d only just graduated. They probably didn’t realise what they had in their hands. So he sent it off to another agency, and when they rejected it he sent it to another and then another and another.

Nine and a half years had now passed since he started his novel, and he was on the seventh draft. He’d re-edited it after every wave of rejection. Not rewritten it, exactly, but each time he’d gone over every single line, looking for the clue as to where he’d gone wrong.

After the last few knock backs he hadn’t felt all that depressed. He was disappointed, of course, but increasingly he’d found himself agreeing with the agents’ comments. They were right, the plot was stupid. Some of the characters’ behaviour really didn’t make sense. The last time he sent it out he didn’t even hear back from anyone, and eventually he came to the conclusion that the only way he could make it right was to scrap it all and re-write it from scratch.

Five months later and it was nearly there. The book he’d meant to write all along. All of the bad writing, all of the things that deep down he’d always known didn’t work, all of that was gone. He felt that it might be a masterpiece.

By now he realised that it probably wouldn’t sell many copies, that it might not even bring him fame, but he knew that it would at least win the respect of the critics. In time it would find a small, devoted audience.

He just had to finish the last few pages. He’d been stuck on them for a while, ever since a sunny evening a couple of months earlier when he’d been sitting bare-chested at his desk, typing furiously. The window had been open, there was a breeze on his back, and he was racing towards the end of the last chapter, his fingers barely able to keep up with the words. He was thinking to himself that this was the day he’d complete his novel, the day that this great work would finally be born, but then he stopped. The words, they just stopped.

They just wouldn’t come any more.

He knew exactly what he wanted to say on those last few pages, or if not exactly what he wanted to say, then how they should feel at least. How they had to feel, in fact, because he owed it to his characters to get them right. He had to give them the ending they deserved, especially the heroine, Anna. He couldn’t bear to think that he might fail her. Only the thing was, he couldn’t write a word of it. He couldn’t bring himself to begin that final sequence that would conclude the novel, tie it up.

He found himself wondering how he could possibly write an ending that would do justice to the rest of the book. He knew that somewhere out there was a certain combination of two or three thousand words that would bring the novel to its fulfilment. One faultless sequence. But that meant there must be countless millions of other combinations of words that wouldn’t be quite right or would just be plain wrong, and if he didn’t get them right then the book would be ruined. Everything had been building towards those last few pages. They had to be perfect.

Sometimes he thought he could see those final pages, could picture in his mind how they looked, but try as he might he couldn’t make out what was written on them. He knew how he’d feel as he read them, but he couldn’t hear the words in his head. Day after day he sat at his desk, staring at the blank screen of his computer like it was the bottom of a cliff and feeling like he should throw himself off.

And gradually, as the days passed and the weather changed for the worse and his screen remained blank, he began to doubt that those final words existed at all. Now he wasn’t sure that any ending could do what he needed it to. He wasn’t sure that any sequence of words could save the novel.

Since he’d got stuck he’d begun to worry that they’d been right all along and that maybe it really was a bad novel. Maybe it didn’t deserve to be finished. Not that the writing was poor – if anything, it was inspired – but that it should never have been written at all.  That it was a bad story. That the idea it was based on was a bad idea. That it was mean. He started to worry that the entire plot was just a way of getting back at his ex-girlfriend.

Though maybe it was simply that the pressure was getting to him. He was losing his nerve, that’s all. Perhaps the book was a tiny bit mean in places, but lots of great books are mean about their characters, and lots of people really are mean or awful and deserve to have awful characters based on them.

And even if the book still had one or two flaws, he couldn’t give up on it now. Say he ditched it and started another – how old would he be before he finished that? Too old to make it as a novelist, that’s for sure. And what if he wrote a second novel that was just as good but then he got stuck on the last two pages of that one, too? He didn’t think he’d be able to take that. He’d been working in the same office job for ten years now. He hadn’t had sex in eighteen months. He’d even started to think about paying for it. The novel was all he had.

There were only those last few pages to go.

That night after work he sat down at his desk and tried to compose himself. It was time, it had to be. He tried to think of the entire novel up to those last pages, to imagine the whole book in a single thought. He thought of his characters, their lives, and how he wanted their stories to end. He thought of how his readers would feel as they raced through the final third of the book, staying up past their bedtimes because they didn’t want to stop before they reached the end. How they’d go to sleep with their hearts swollen and their eyes wet and smiles on their faces with thanks for being alive.

And then he thought of seeing his novel on display in a bookshop and of winning the Booker Prize and giving a speech about all those years of toil and the rejections and setbacks and how you should never give up when you truly believe in what you’re doing. And he thought of his parents and how proud they’d be and of all those readers at agencies and publishing houses who were too ignorant to understand what they were reading, and the so-called friends and colleagues and people in writing groups who’d all doubted him, all of the people who didn’t think he had it in him to write this masterpiece.

His hands hovered over the keyboard. His heart thumped in his chest. He tried to empty his mind of distraction but found himself looking at the door. In the living room his flatmates were watching TV and through the wall he could hear its muffled sounds. He ignored the noise and focused on the computer screen. Waited for the words to come.

Somewhere in the distance a siren moaned. He swore and got up and found pair of earplugs and sat back down again. Took a sip of water and tried to calm his breathing then blocked up his ears. He closed his eyes. All he could hear now was the throb and churn of blood inside his head. It was a white noise that rose and fell like an ocean. The words he needed were in that ocean.

He waited for the words, but nothing came. The ocean’s emptiness resounded inside him.

This was some months ago now. Some days George still thinks about his novel. He believes that those words still exist somewhere, that his novel could truly have been great, if only he could have found them. A small part of him believes that it’s not too late, that he still could find them, and that perhaps he should try again, but mostly he has accepted that it’s better to draw a line under the whole thing. Sometimes he fantasises about a parallel universe where he managed to complete his novel and then became a famous author. He still doesn’t know why it couldn’t have happened in this world. Maybe he just isn’t much of a writer. Though deep down he knows it simply wasn’t the right novel. He’s sure that his new one is going to be great.

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Christopher Branson lives in London, UK.  He is working on a novel called A Fool’s Guide to Glory.

Twitter: @tarkovskysdog