Sometimes people, including poets, ask me how my writing is going.
The difference between a poet and a non-poet asking this question is that a poet will ask this straight out, before anything else, as though nothing, my health, the health of my wife and children, mattered. There is often a weird intense soul-searching look in their eyes when they ask it, as though hoping for a mysterious ‘right answer’.
This is not scientific.
I am never sure what to say. If I say ‘Brilliant, thanks’ there is sometimes a look of wounded disappointment. Conversely, if I say ‘Really crap, actually, I have not written anything in six months’ there can arise a not very well disguised look of triumph.
Sometimes, with really good poet-friends, these responses and reactions are reversed.
If a non-writer friend asks how my writing is going I have to make a quick judgement, as when they say ‘How are you?’, whether they are really interested in knowing the answer. Usually they aren’t. It has taken me years of staring into eyes glazing over as I begin to qualify my response with a hilarious anecdote or illustration to realise this.
Now, whoever is doing the asking, I just say ‘Fine, thanks’.
I do not say that I had a breakthrough doodling in a notebook on a train, or watching a man arguing in a cafe. I do not say that the recommendation of a poet by a friend has opened up for me a whole new previously unimagined territory. Neither do I say I have completely lost my confidence and will probably never write another word such is my self-loathing for everything I have ever written. Nor do I say the recent book of X and the poem of Y in the journal Z have conspired to make me want to give up.
I say none of these things. I say It’s going fine, thanks.
It’s not that any of these things may be untrue, just that, once out in the open, they become a kind of fact by which my work in progress (or absence of such)can become judged, previewed, gossiped about, anticipated and of course ignored. Further, who am I to say how my writing is actually going? I only think of it as ‘writing’ once I’m done with it, a million drafts later, by which time I have either forgotten the impulse that got me into it in the first place, or I loathe it so much I never want to see it again.
I’m not being evasive, just practical. Seriously, I am the last person to make a judgement, especially of myself. It’s fine, I say. I might be lying. It might be going badly. It might be going well. In a sense these things are irrelevant. Both states are to be expected, as norms and occupational hazards. That it happens at all is what counts.
But I never seem to be asked about that.