I have quit writing 783 times, most recently at nine minutes past eleven, yesterday morning. I have so far managed to start writing again an equal number of times, most recently at one minute into yesterday afternoon. Every one of those 783 times has felt like the last.
In the intervening fifty-two minutes yesterday I played guitar and had a shower. Played, to be precise, “Laugh At Me” by Sonny Bono: after my fashion, I should say. And for the removal of any doubt I should also say that the ‘and’ before ‘had a shower’ should be read as ‘and subsequently’ rather than ‘and simultaneously’, just to dispel that image from your head, though in truth I am sorry for any shower-related images I might have put there. Truly.
I have four guitars in my study—in order of acquisition: an Ashton acoustic, a Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck, an Epiphone sunburst semi acoustic and a black Les Paul copy, which a friend built (and painted) purely to see if he could in fact build (and paint) a guitar and—satisfied that he could—at once gave it away. The Telecaster with the Stratocaster neck (although I suppose there is a fifty-fifty chance it’s a Stratocaster with a Telecaster body) is also a self-build—somebody else’s self, that is—bought on eBay when I was still too embarrassed to go into an actual guitar shop, because I was a very late starter and a very slow learner. The Ashton—the first bought—came, eight or nine years ago now, from my wife who had grown tired of hearing me say that one of these days I was going to get myself a guitar—I really, really was—just as soon as I had done a bit of investigation into which guitar I ought to buy. I am the sort of person who will not even buy a Which? guide until he has read up on which Which? is best, though I am also the sort of person who falls in love with things at first sight, which (I interrupt this sentence to apologise for all the whiches; it’s the kind of thing that normally makes me want to quit), which, as I say (and apologise again for doing so) is where I went wrong with the first guitar I ever had, back when I was eleven.
My Gran had sent me $20 from Canada for my birthday. I gave a dollar to each of my three older brothers—that was the family convention—which left me with seventeen, or something in the region of £8.50. Somewhere there is a graph with a long list of years up one side and the price of an acoustic guitar across the other on which you could precisely pinpoint the year I turned eleven. But your lives being as short as mine and your interest (on which I already presume much) possibly a good deal shorter, I will save you the bother: it was 1972.
I don’t remember the shop—it was probably in Lisburn, where my dad was from, rather than Belfast, which by 1972 more resembled a collection of bomb sites loosely held together by buildings—but I do remember the guitar: pale, pale blond wood body and matching neck. To 1972-me it was perfect: that might have been the same birthday I bought a cream-coloured tank top. I was already working on my singer-songwriter stage costume.
In the way of ‘love at first sight’, I didn’t see the sticker on the inside of the guitar that said ‘Made in Hong Kong’. I didn’t look too closely either at the red plastic tuning pegs. And it played all right, or sounded as though it would have played all right if I had had the first idea how to do more than strum the open strings, or had known anyone who could show me.
A year later I started secondary school. The school had its own music department—was well known for it—and offered after-school lessons in a whole range of instruments, including guitar. A couple of people in my class signed up for them, my parents couldn’t understand why I didn’t. Because I couldn’t reach in through the strings to pick off the ‘Made in Hong Kong’ sticker, which was now the only thing I could see when I looked at the guitar, that and the red plastic tuning pegs, which I couldn’t change either.
So I told them I had lost interest.
I stopped talking about being a singer-songwriter.
I started talking about being a poet.
Then about being a playwright.
Then I stopped talking and actually wrote something, a short story.
I wrote a couple more.
Eventually I wrote a novel.
Shortly after that I started quitting writing and starting again.
And then it was 2008 or 2009 and I was in my late forties and talking about wanting to play guitar again—about needing to have something else to do than sit in my study and (guitar pun alert!) fret when I wasn’t writing, and then the Ashton arrived.
And the others followed.
And now here I am one day on from the 783rd quitting trying to hold at bay thoughts of the 784th.
Here is the thing about quitting writing: it’s absolutely real.
Occasionally, it’s true, I have thought it might be a symptom of age or of a stage in a writing life that has never brought much in the way of commercial success and that shows little prospect of changing. Recently, though, I found a copy of a letter I had written to my agent in 1995—on one of my first computers, it must have been—in which, a month after the publication of my third novel, seven years after my first, and still in my early thirties, I said I didn’t think I wanted to go on writing. I’d lost heart.
That—not confidence—is the word. Confidence is in the mind, heart is physical. You can actually feel it go out of you. A void opens up between your throat and your stomach. You—I—slump.
None of this that you are struggling to write, your body seems to be saying, is in any real sense necessary. Let it go.
In the past I have gone around my study gathering up everything associated with whatever it is I have been working on and packed it away in boxes.
Yesterday I simply turned my chair around and picked up the guitar and played “Laugh At Me”, not out of self-pity, but because “Laugh At Me” is the closing song in a stage adaptation I have written with Colin Carberry of our film Good Vibrations, which has been in rehearsals these past several weeks in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. I have been watching actor-musicians at close quarters, with just enough knowledge that I can work out most of the time the chords they are playing: C, F, A-sharp and G, in the case of “Laugh At Me”.
With writing there is always the feeling of falling short: surely, surely after thirty-odd years I ought to be able to do it better than this? With the guitar I already know I’m never going to improve, not really. I was too late starting, getting over my embarrassment. Everything that I manage to stumble through therefore feels like a small victory.
There is a wonderful passage in Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square (subtitle A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court) in which the central character, Bone, whose life is beginning to unravel, plays a game of golf for the first time in years. It comes back to him as he goes round the course, alone, that this is something he can do, that he enjoys.
“His face shone, his eyes gleamed, and he felt, deep in his being, that he was not a bad man as he had thought he was a few hours ago, but a good one. And because he was a good man, he was a happy man, and if he could only break seventy he would never be unhappy again.”
And he does break seventy, he shoots sixty-eight—on borrowed clubs (I have not the first idea about or interest in golf, but Patrick Hamilton, as all good writers should, gives the reader all that is needed to feel it as his character does)—and his happiness doesn’t survive beyond the next four pages.
But, oh, while it does! The relief.
I wasn’t playing guitar in the shower yesterday, but I was singing—starting at ‘Laugh At Me’ and working back through the Good Vibrations songbook—more distance put between my 11:09 slump and me, though I would still characterise it as a practical, rather than tactical, shower.
A couple of years back I was working on the libretto for an opera called Long Story Short. The composer told me that the first draft was fine, or at least the narrative—the recitative—was. ‘You still need a big aria, though,’ he told me, late on the night we had met to discuss it: ‘by tomorrow, if possible.’ After three hours—three hungover hours (the more he talked about the need for an aria the more I drank)—I had written two words, “you” and “may”. I went and stood under the shower for half an hour—a tactical retreat—and when I came out, wherever my mind had gone while I was standing there, face turned to the water, I still had two words, only now I could see how ‘you may’, repeated and riffed on, would form the core of the aria. It’s called “Seven Seconds” and totals one hundred and twenty words. But it’s still “You May” to me; still the shower aria.
When I walked back into my study at just after noon yesterday the first thing I noticed were the guitars, lined up not in the order that they had been bought, but in the order that they had last been played. Usually this would mean the acoustic—the Ashton—in the corner furthest from my desk, in the corner by the bookshelves. The truth is: acoustics are always harder to play for novices like me than electric guitars—more pressure required to hold down the strings, more force to strike a clear chord. And for all that I loved the gift of that first guitar, I have always much preferred the feel of a couple of the others. Towards the tail end of last year, though, I was writing an address for a conference at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, in the course of which I referenced both the American folk singer Woody Guthrie—who painted the legend “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his acoustic guitar—and a song, from the Wizard of Oz, that goes by the name of “Optimistic Voices”. I asked one of my daughters to paint a line from that song on my guitar so that I could bring it with me to the conference. She did it—freehand—beautifully.
And I found myself again picking it up, trying to wrench Woody’s “This Land is my Land” out of it to begin with, but carrying on from there. So that was the one closest to my chair when I had turned around to play “Laugh At Me”. The closest one when I sat back down and decided for the 783rd to give writing a go again.
“Hold on to your breath, hold on to your heart,” the line painted on my guitar runs, “hold on to your hope.”
It’s been a day, I long ago stopped holding my breath, and I’m not about to run yet to hope, but I am holding on to heart, sitting at my desk, writing this.
 Hangover Square, A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court, Penguin, 1956; 145.