Years ago, I kept a blog about my PhD research and other, unrelated and unfashionable things like the Archers, which was on fire at the time, and the things that people wear to the school gate. I had two small children and hardly any time to think, and the time I did have was a gift that I appreciated. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing as much as I did then. I hadn’t published anything, and because the blog was hosted, badly, by a university, I had no idea how many people read it. It may have reached the tens on a particularly good day – I had a couple of hundred Twitter mutuals at the time.
I wrote because I loved to write, and if one person responded to the piece I had communicated something, and that felt a bit like magic. Then I started to have the beginnings of a career as a writer, and I stopped writing like that: instead, it was about writing what I thought people wanted me to write, and trying to be self-consciously clever. I still enjoyed it for a while, because there was lots of positive feedback, and nobody is immune to that, but when the feedback died and I tried ever harder to perform and ape whatever it was that was the thing that people were doing and wanting now, I stopped loving writing.
It was a burden and a neurosis, a need to prove myself to a world whose interest was not, in truth, much changed from my handful of Twitter mutuals, although I left Twitter because it felt increasingly like failure seeing other, more successful writers being more successful, who previously I would never have even noticed. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of really, really bad stuff. Occasionally, I wrote weird shit that almost nobody will read that I still love, and the knowledge that it was possible to do that kept me sane.
I’ve just sent off what looks like the final draft of a novel to my agent and haven’t heard back. It is incredibly bad timing to finish a book and hope to publish it. The odd thing is that I really don’t mind about this now. None of it feels important – not compared to what is happening around us in the world, not compared to the health of people I care about. But I realised this morning, texting friends across the country and the world from a child-free lie-in, and remembering how words and ideas can kindle warmth and laughter and connection, that I miss writing – the old, naive, exchange-of-imperfect-thoughts element of writing that I used to do.
I plan to do more of that. If my kids end up at home over the coming months I’m going to make them do it too. Unprofessional words, the emails and texts and phone calls that will keep our minds alive in physical isolation, are more important than the things we read in books.