Pleased as punch to come 2nd in Writing Magazine’s single-character story competition. The judges said it ‘neatly nails the pretensions of a wannabe writer’.
So rest assured that it is heavily autobiographical (or, as they put it, ‘written with warmth and affection’).
John staggered inside, a large parcel across both arms, elbowing the front door shut behind him. Lugging it all the way from the Post Office had left him breathless – and a little behind schedule – but he knew it had been worth it.
It was a real vintage coffee machine, with a big round glass jug. Just like his favourite authors spoke about in interviews – I need a big pot of coffee on my desk, can’t work without it… A morning’s online research had paid off. Now he could drink from a pot of black coffee like a real writer.
It looked the part, he thought, at his desk beside his laptop and immaculate notebooks. A pity no-one else could see it.
He loved his wife for taking their daughter to her parents for a month – longer than he’d dared to ask for – so he could have their small flat to himself. And to his novel. But he missed her at such moments.
Still, there were those he liked to think of as fans. Quick photo for them.
#writerslife #writersgonnawrite #authoratwork #novelistsgonnanovel
Then back to to work. Check the comments in an hour.
Checking the comments was his treat.
John was pleased with his progress.
Every morning he was there, nine sharp, at his desk in the tiny upstairs room that served as an office. His desk adjacent to a window and facing a wall dominated by a landscape-oriented mirror, around the edge of which John stuck black-and-white postcards that were portraits of famous writers, living and dead.
JFWI, he thought, admiring his display. That had been his English teacher’s default response whenever he sent a new synopsis. Just f***ing write it indeed.
There was one small concern. The writing itself. It was going slower than he’d expected.
It was moving, daily. In a sort of tidal motion.
A week of ebb and flow, with less of the flow.
But he put the hours in. All day he worked feverishly, took only brief breaks to fetch caffeine, and wrote late into the evening. It drained him of all his mental strength but it was worth it.
That evening, he gazed with blissful exhaustion upon a blank screen. The rubbish was gone. The rot expunged.
Now the real writing could begin.
Something terrible had happened. He had awoken to a white death shroud where, twelve hours before, had stood a bountiful blank canvas.
Like a hungover man flees the aftermath of a debauched night, he gazed upwards. The many faces were unmoved. Even kindly Mr. Vonnegut looked half-asleep.
What did Hemingway used to say?
‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’
Easier said than done.
He poured a coffee from the huge, steaming depths, and stared out the window at the unkempt communal lawn. What did he know, really, that was true?
He loved his wife and daughter. He’d missed out on university but got smart by reading. He was too smart for what he did and under qualified for everything else. He wanted to be a writer. He wanted to be able to afford nice things for his daughter.
But none of this had anything to do with a futuristic Western set on the Isle of Wight, did it, Hemingway?
He had decided that enough was enough. Seeing was believing. If he could see himself as a writer, he could live that reality.
First, he would need props. He had deduced that no self-respecting writer would be seen dead brooding on a postcard without at least one of the following: a beard; some form of tobacco; a French newspaper; alcohol; a handkerchief; an impenetrable wall of books; and/or half of their face hidden by suggestive darkness.
He decided to purchase as much of the above as was available and take several pictures, yielding the following portraits:
Wearing fedora, staring at floor, with cigar;
Head resting on hands, palms down, on desk, with overflowing ashtray;
Cross-legged at desk, book-print wrapping paper behind, reading Le Monde through tobacco smoke, eye patch, with coffee, wine and whiskey.
The best he shared on social media. It would have been rude not to.
He had a growing audience now. Growing and waiting.
Coffee pot broken. Awaiting replacement. Tried writing with instant but it’s not the same.
Two weeks gone, two remaining. John noted the symmetry on the calendar in the kitchen with disdain.
He carried his coffee and toast up to the study and summoned the last thousand words to the screen. Between slurping and munching, he managed a few weak smiles. It was eminently readable.
Too readable, in fact. He felt like a spectator thrown on stage after an electrifying warm-up act.
It was all Hemingway’s fault, of course.
‘Always stop when you know what is going to happen next. That way you’ll be sure of going on the next day.’
But what he’d known yesterday he didn’t know today. No two days are the same, and neither are we. He felt, wretchedly, there was no chance of him carrying over such a high standard. Reluctantly, glaring at Hemingway, he opened a new document.
What was needed was a grand, dramatic gesture. So that morning he woke before sunrise and bought a blowtorch on eBay.
The transaction itself was worryingly straightforward. No background checks, nothing. He immediately Tweeted his concern at eBay: What if I had been a lunatic?
He would incinerate his first ten thousand words, as soon as he reached that milestone. There was precedent for this: Kafka burned ninety percent of his output, and that had worked wonders.
That whatever he wrote, however artful or trashy, would end up in flames: this, he felt, might be liberation.
It wasn’t, though he made a creme brûlée and imagined himself eating in a Left Bank cafe in the sixties.
Google search: How to sit still.
First result: Who wants to sit still where there are walks to take?
Still no reply from eBay.
With one week left, John stood in his kitchen eating a bowl of Crunchy Nut in only his dressing-gown, taking stock. What I need, he thought, half-seriously, is a personal tragedy or, failing that, a debilitating injury.
You all had them. He turned and jabbed an accusing milky spoon at the mirror of faces.
Orwell? TB. Milton? Blind. Joyce? Gonorrhoea. (Ahem.)
And Hemingway. I’ve not forgotten your embarrassment of riches. Ribs, knuckles, tonsils, knee caps, the lot.
But how could he…?
Trip on the stairs, perhaps? Fall through the loft?
The absence of anyone to rush to his aid, however, was enough of an inhibiting factor for him to leave such thoughts. At least until they returned, like stalking mosquitoes, at the end of the day. Finishing his third glass of celebratory wine (word-count wine) on their uncomfortable sofa, he remembered. It was time for a life-changing injury.
The living room window opened stiffly. He sat on the window ledge. Surely two floors was Goldilocks territory for a serious but not life-threatening fall? He stood on the ledge to check the coast was clear.
A cool breeze sharpened his senses. Doubts blew in. His pocket vibrated with a message from the wife.
A kiss emoji.
It was as if she was there in the room. He felt foolish. Wondering whether to reply, he jumped inwards, landed on a shard of his recently retired coffee jug, hopped onto the other foot, lost his balance, and fell backwards out of the window.
Nine stitches. That was just his head.
Four days in a hospital bed awaiting the results of various tests. All in all, he had suffered concussion, internal bleeding, and a smattering of hairline fractures.
If only he hadn’t landed on his right hand…
Typing left-handed is impossible. By the time I’ve typed it, I’ve invariably thought of something better.
With a felt-tip, John crossed out the final day. The month was done, its thirty red crosses stacked like ill-concealed corpses.
He’d considered Tippexing over the daily word counts, which marched ever upwards, a thousand each day, like steel production in a failed socialist state. But he felt it was better to leave them for show. So what if the revolution had failed?
He bought spaghetti – Murakami’s favourite brand – to make dinner for Frida and Rosie.
Morning flowed relentlessly into afternoon, buffeted between whirlpools of creativity – Anything must be better than nothing! – and eddies of despair – Did I really just say that anything is better than nothing?
Evening and another blank screen. The mirror caught the sun’s sinking rays. He looked up. They were shining on Hemingway.
‘All you have to do is to write one true sentence.’
His eyes flitted around the room.
‘Write the truest sentence you know.’
The wall was white.
His laptop was on.
His bum was sore.
One true sentence…one true sentence…
And there it was: the truest sentence he knew.
They were back.