Though it has to be said, not all authors are as humble or encouraging as Denise Mina.
“Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay” is a slightly less encouraging quote, and has yet to be reliably attributed to anyone, but is perhaps best paraphrased by the late Christopher Hitchens, in typically sardonic fashion. It’s a playful, if not dispiriting, warning to those of us toying with the notion of trying to write a book, that we might do ourselves – and everyone else – a favour by not bothering. It feeds the idea that writing is the exclusive preserve of a specialist class, into which most will never ascend. Of course, the paradox here is that you’ll never truly know whether you’ve got a book in you until you try to write it.
After all, how bad could it be? Worse than being residentially challenged? More stressful than financial ruin or emotionally punishing than alcohol withdrawal? More hopeless than 12 hours, hungover, in a police cell with no idea why you’re there? Well, no. But there were certainly points, throughout the process, where I found myself nostalgically pining for a simpler, more familiar form of torture.
Being the glutton for punishment that I am, I decided to attempt this feat in the first year of fatherhood. Not through choice, of course, because I’m not crazy, but simply because I knew that if I wanted to try and become a professional writer, then I had better give it everything I’ve got while I still retain a sufficient level of testicular fortitude.
Not that it wouldn’t be possible in middle age, but with a young family to raise, the whole question of a stable career becomes far more urgent. Having imbued a great many consciousnesses-altering substances in my time, in a search for creative focus, I’ve yet to find something that concentrates the mind more singularly than the top of a baby’s lungs. In truth, despite the constant sense that the sands of time were slipping hopelessly between my fingers, I can barely recall a period in my life when I was more energetically efficient.
That said, the sleep deprivation, the precarious freelance work that punctuated every writing session, the annual exhaustive Twitter backlash, the unnerving weight gain, the fact there is nowhere quiet you can go to write without having to spend money, the debilitating imposter syndrome, exacerbated by the fact almost everyone I now deal with speaks in a Radio Four register, left me feeling emotionally strained and psychosocially disorientated.
As well as the decimated libido, insatiable appetite and the rapidly declining mental health, came a long and drawn out house move which, somehow, perhaps because life wasn’t absurd enough, mapped itself on to the same week the book was due to be finished. And underscoring all of this constant movement was the nagging, deeply inhibiting, feeling that people like me don’t write books. That’s what my head kept telling me. By “people like me’ I simply mean those of us who haven’t been to university. Those of us who couldn’t confidently recite a stanza of poetry or recall the precise moment a passage of prose ignited a passion for reading. I mean those of us that struggle with books, who speak in the sort of lowland Scots dialect that is regarded, in certain cultural spheres, as a form of low-level violence.
As I sat there, on a train to God-knows-where, or the top deck of a bus from wherever, or half asleep in the back of a taxi, utterly lost in a thick wood of self-doubt, trying desperately to get a few hundred words down before the next job, household task, nappy change or row with my partner, I’d think to myself: I can’t do this. By June, I was happy to get it over with. Of course, what I soon learned was that when you think you’re done, you really aren’t. Not even close. They just keep sending it back. Thankfully, in that seemingly endless back-and-forth, the book really started to take shape and with every email exchange, telephone call or cup of coffee, I began to feel more confident that I had, perhaps, written a book worth reading.
Now it’s finished and will be published shortly. Already, I’m thinking about the next one.
For me, it was not a university education or a deep grasp of literature that spurred me on but the sheer power of belief. A belief so counterintuitive as to be borderline delusional. The belief that people like me do write books. That we’ve always written books. And not just any old books, but great books worth reading. What got me through was the belief that I could, like so many working class writers before me, steer a course through the choppy sea of self-loathing, late invoices and dirty nappies and stubbornly, in spite of it all, just write my f****** book.
Come and say hello this Thursday at the Bosco Theatre in Edinburgh, where I’ll be discussing Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass as part of the International Book Festival.
Darren McGarvey is also known as Loki, a Scottish rapper and social commentator @lokiscottishrap