The Alphabet

A few weeks ago, during a Christmas TV marathon, I mooted the idea that writing was like cookery, or alchemy, or magic, or all three. My point was there are 26 letters in the alphabet, and all you need to do is mix them up, over and over again, to create a bestselling masterpiece. You already have all the tools – you’ve been familiar with them since you were very small. It’s your job to pick them out of the sorting hat, again and again and again, and fashion them into some kind of sense.

“Well, no,” said M. “Do you think that way about music? Do you think that just because there are 12 notes, you could create a symphony? Do you think that way about painting, just because you could buy a painting set and an easel?”

This threw me as I had to confess that no, I don’t believe I could write a symphony (if I tried, the results would probably be unique but quite hopeless). I also don’t feel that way about art, even though my earlier argument suggests that as I’d be able to acquire the tools, there’s nothing stopping me winning the next Turner Prize. I don’t believe that most of us are secret musical or artistic time bombs. I do, however, believe most people are storytellers – secret writers who would be mindblowing if they’d take the time to record their thoughts. We spend most of our day communicating; talking to friends, texting people, abusing others on Whatsapp, writing emails, jotting down notes, sending letters. Writing and talking are inbuilt behaviours we practice every day without thinking. If we all rolled out of bed and started sculpting and communicated with our bosses via complicated flute ditties (‘This is a piece called ‘Thameslink Failed Me’), I might feel differently.

In September, during the week’s fourth Thameslink crisis, I started a short story in the notes section on my phone. It was called ‘Tabby in the Office’ and it was about a man whose house was being renovated so his cat had to live in the office for a week. I hadn’t quite worked out the reasons for the cat having to move to the office or the legal and health and safety ramifications; all I knew is that it would provide some kind of emotional healing. Rifts would mend, an office romance would blossom, the HR department would suddenly understand the meaning of their jobs. I typed furiously on the train. The other commuters must have thought I was dealing with a troublesome ex or maybe editing a longer-than-usual suicide note. I truly believed I was writing pure gold and feared for my phone as I left the train. If somebody stole it, I reasoned, that was it. They’d be the new, fake, JK Rowling, and I would have to watch them forever take the credit. Even though I had only written one chapter. I raced home and read it to M.

After he pointed out several flaws with the story’s tone, length and content (the office wasn’t actually mentioned at all during chapter one and the tabby was still a mewling kitten), I deleted the story in a fit of rage. I regret that now, as I regret throwing away a diary I wrote from the ages of 10 – 13.

Maybe we are all writers and all of those people tapping away on their phones are writing embryonic biographies, thrillers, crime stories and tales of terror. Maybe we’re all at it. And maybe being a successful writer is magic, in the sense that you need to be a wizard of patience to listen to criticism, take edits on board and rework your precious, world-shattering vision until you don’t see any of yourself left in it at all. It’s not so much about plucking the letters out of the alphabet soup until they make sense to you. It’s patiently tipping them back into the pot, accepting they weren’t perfect, and spooning them out again and again until they make sense to everyone else.

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