We all have a book in us, right?
I’d hazard that proportionately, more of us who Read (capitalisation intended), and who write blogs, believe themselves capable of writing a book. I mean, look at The Boar’s Head – just over a quarter of a million words written since its inception in 2016.
So from about Easter onwards this year I was declaring to my older classes with increasing insouciance that this summer, of all summers, was the one that I would spend writing ‘The Book‘ …
Not just any book, either.
A text book. On Richard III. The text book, my mind insisted. All I’d need to do was sit in my new garden, stare past my laptop screen across the Menai Straits, and it would be done by September. It’d pretty much write itself.
And here I am. Less than a week until I return to school. The day has been glorious. I’ve spent nearly all of it in the ‘front’ garden, alternately distracted by and fretting about a little family of shrews I found camped out in a hole in one of the flower beds. I’ve had a couple of beers, a snooze, and now I’ve moved to catch the evening sun in the gentle snow of silver birch seeds which already carpets the grass, listening to birdsong and looking over to Beaumaris. The evening promises to be idyllic: a little more drink, a cheeky campfire and my one-man tent pitched in the furthest reaches of the garden, next to the area that has remained uncut since February, where the rabbits steal out of: destination – veg patch. I can hear the occasional sheep, and all that’s missing from the bucolic pastoral scene is Marlowe‘s Passionate Shepherd, strumming a lute and bidding Raleigh‘s Nymph to ‘come live with me and be my love‘ …
The book, of course, is unfinished.
It IS begun, I promise. Actually, I’m about 14,000 words in. Which sounds great, until you go back to the initial statistics about the blog, and look at how much I’ve posted here since mid-July: time and words that could have been spent on the big project.
On reflection then, it’s unarguable that I’ve lacked the will rather than the opportunity. This set me thinking, not just about excuses to offer the people I’d boasted to earlier in the year, but about the process of writing, and the reasons why we do it. I’m currently as far removed from Shakespeare and Marlowe as I could be – they, as I’m always telling students, wrote overwhelmingly for money. Even when writing and dedicating poems to potential patrons, their primary motivation was coin of the realm. Bums on seats, and the more well-padded and rich the bum, the better. So, one essential spur that’s been missing this summer is necessity.
Another has been faith, or self-confidence – perhaps pride or arrogance. Things I’m not usually short of. Things I clearly had when so rashly announcing my intentions. It leads me to this week’s quotation, from Thomas Wilson (I’ve modernised the spelling):
‘what greater pride can there be, than for any man to think himself to be wiser than all men living? Or what greater folly can be imagined, than for one to think that all men will like whatsoever he writes? Such are they for the most part by all likelihood that do set forth Books […] such as seek the greatest praise for writing of Books should do best in my simple mind to write foolish toys, for then the most part would best esteem them.’
In the cold light of day, that folly – the belief that it was going to be The definitive text book – evaporated, despite very pleasing exam results at GCSE and A Level. Here’s another difference between me and our dramatists. In deciding the approach and contents of my book, it felt natural to see what else was on offer. With a clear view over to Anglesey rather than the fog of war which barely allows me to see to the back row of my classroom, doubts crept in. Who am I? Why would anyone pay to read what I had to say, when there are other, established, names out there holding forth on the same topics? The last thing I want to produce is one of Wilson’s ‘foolish toys‘. People would hate it, or worse, be indifferent to it. Marlowe and Shakespeare never seem to have been mentally consumed in this way. They were both, of course, ‘upstarts’, even if Marlowe had the benefit of an intermittent University education and a degree courtesy of his patrons. Jonathan Bate writes really well on the way their brilliance spurred each other on rather than dissuaded them – neither would have been put off by names likes CGP, York notes or Arden. These would have been like a red rag to a bull. I hope to get some of that pride and folly back in September; I need to, if the project is going to move forward.
I think there’s one final reason why the book hasn’t been completed this summer. I’m too content. Writing (as well as the other creative things I enjoy) has always been a cathartic act, a way of responding to the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to‘. My exam results belie the fact that the 2018/19 school year was a horrible one, to the extent that I’m actively looking to leave a school I thought I would retire at, and not even massively bothered about whether my new direction is in or out of teaching. When I get back, I hope I can re-read this post and remember that I had a good summer.
If that’s not enough, if I continue to be professionally overlooked, and personally singled out for unfair treatment, if the job search takes longer than expected – then I think you’ll see the embers of the book flare into life and consume the long, dark evenings, so far away from where I want to be … watch this space.
Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique (1560) (ed. GH Mair), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), available online at archive.org