A few years ago a presenter at the Emerging Writers Festival said that one of the most important things a writer could do was to start calling themselves a writer. Not when they first placed in a short story competition, not when they got their first publication, but right now. Because if not, the point for measuring this would always seem just out of reach.
I always assumed that if I ever got a book contract this would be that moment of acceptance. That a sense of calm self-assurance would envelope me and the consuming writerly self-doubt would dissolve into nothing. Turns out, no.
- The first thought – after the explosion of tears and relief and the falling away of a 28-year anxiety – was ‘they are going to take this away’. No clear articulation of who, how, why or when, but an absolute certainty that someone – some malevolent shadow creature in an office chair – was going to take this all away. Pan Macmillan offering a two book deal? Fark orf. Obviously the work experience kid was playing god at a typewriter. Or else someone with a closet hard drug issue had, in a powder-infused haze, confused me with someone else and would soon enough realise the error of their ways. ‘I thought I was signing Clare Valley, the wine region. For a book about wine…’
- Therefore, my strategy on achieving my life’s goal was to not tell anyone. Those I did tell – my mother, my boyfriend and a few close friends – were sworn to secrecy, verbally slapped across the face for daring to enjoy my good fortune. I carried it around like my own personal albatross for weeks, oscillating between joy and despair, sullen and ecstatic.
- ‘I told Lynne about your book deal,’ my mother proudly said one day, as she scrolled through JK Rowling’s Wikipedia page, convinced I too would one day own a castle in the Scottish highlands.‘Who is Lynne?’ I asked coldly. ‘From work. One of the substitute teachers,’ she replied, and in my head, two decades down the track, I mentally put her into a nursing home.
- Within weeks I had signed both the finalised book contract and with an agent. ‘Should I tell people about the book’ I sullenly asked my agent. ‘It would be silly not to, from a sales point of view,’ she gently pointed out.
- ‘Can I tell people?’ my brother’s girlfriend asked, and I looked at her like she’d just requested future access to my firstborn child so as to sacrifice it on a pagan alter by impaling it through the heart with a sharpened pool cue. ‘Can I at least buy you a drink to celebrate?’ she insisted, and I acquiesced to a sullen, demoralising tipple that probably, to outside observers, looked more like a wake.
- Driving to work each morning I counselled myself aloud: ‘Someone wants to publish your book,’ I whispered in disbelief, overjoyed tears flooding my eyes. ‘They’re going to take it all away,’ I countered in a raspy bitter hiss, enacting my very own Gollum/Sméagol act for the enjoyment of fellow motorists on the M80.
- ‘What did you expect when you submitted it to a publisher?’ a friend asked over drinks one night. ‘I certainly didn’t expect them to publish it,’ I replied indignantly.
- My manuscript came back with suggestions from the commissioning editor for structural improvements. As I worked through both the manuscript and a block of comfort cheese, I came across sections that I reread with genuine pleasure, laughing at my own jokes and impressed by my prose. But this merriment was swiftly dampened by the realisation that writers are often taken with their own work in the same way that it is said that people prefer the smell of their own farts over others (or so I hear. I don’t fart. Ever.) Obviously, I alone enjoyed my fart of a manuscript.
- My boyfriend, too, was very understanding, patting me on the head soothingly as my face switched back and forth between the comedy/tragedy masks. I explained that on publication the book would prove to be tripe and the world would then know me capable of writing only tripe, and I was locked into a contract that demanded I produce another tome of tripe, and I would ultimately bring great dishonour to myself, my family, my country and any future descendants. He suggested a mug of warm milk might help with this.
- Work became my saving grace because it’s hard to go completely fruit loops when you have to turn up at the office each day and chip in with the kitchen roster. I kept the news from my colleagues, attempting to keep my work life and writing life separate, quietly celebrating contract milestones with silent victory dances in the toilet cubicle and constantly checking my personal email on breaks for updates, eyes flicking from computer to mobile and back like the Howard Hughes of correspondence.
Now, a few months away from publication, I would love to say that this feeling of self-doubt has gone away but it hasn’t really. Instead, as the publication date looms and it seems less and less likely the publishers will ‘change their minds’, it is like being at the crest of a rollercoaster. There’s no option but to ride the rollercoaster, hoping that you make it through safely and don’t careen off the tracks or embarrass yourself by cry-vomiting. And I guess that is what it feels like to be a writer.