I think I need the Other Writer much more than they need me. Off the top of my head I haven’t seen him (or her) for years. And yet I feel their presence next to me, over my shoulder, inside my head, every time I sit down to write. Sometimes as rebuke, often with encouragement, sometimes a frowsty silence, arms folded, eyebrows tensing to arch as they peer at my messy pages. This isn’t a high-fiving relationship. But I do need it. I need it, as Robert Pinksy once said, in order to have someone ‘to answer’. Whether they asked for let alone approve of it is another matter entirely. It sounds monologic, my replies to their imagined questions disappearing into the darkness, but it is anything but. Without this stone wall of silence, which is really a simulacrum of the assumptions I have made over the years about their tastes, their foibles, their mannerisms, their reading, their habits, their friendships, their choice of pen even, I have nothing to work on, no one to show my working to, no one to act as the radar of what counts, what lasts, what is the best version of myself I can be. In a sense, to go on saying things I need them to go on saying nothing.
Which is not always easy, especially if real life intervenes, for then there will be the possibility of actual conversation taking place, its hesitations, pauses and evasions somehow trying not to circle round the dreaded questions What are you working on? or Are you writing? The setting can range from upmarket deli counter to an out-of-the-way festival where we will miss the opportunity to listen to each to other because we are on at the same time. Which may or may not be a stroke of luck. Much easier by far is the silent, near-gnomic version of the Other Writer that I carry on my shoulder, looking down, always down, at my work with a sigh. Which is not to say that I abjure the conversational niceties -I would like to think I can natter about anything with the best of them at the drop of a hat, from politics to cricket to economics to sailing, things I know something and nothing about, things on account of my friend I am now very keen to know more of but which I will probably file away under ‘Useful for later’ as soon as our conversation ends- just that there is an immutable part of me, and, I suspect, her (or him) which is doing exactly the same.
One day we may reach the stage where all of this can be exchanged with a mere nod. (Maybe we already have.) I hope not. I am always up for a natter, but like most writers I suspect I want these bumpings-into to occur on my terms, only when I am ready. Logically speaking it’s preposterous. And yet this causes me to look back at the snatched encounters over the years -they will always seem snatched, however well in advance I may have known about them- as moments with weight and solidity, just as a Henry Moore on a hillside has solidity, but also nooks, crannies, holes through which you can look at the view and gain a different perspective, not that I always do this. Just knowing that the Other Writer is there, like a remote and monumental sculpture, is enough. Sometimes I become forgetful, daring to continue writing without monitoring any of this territory, a kind of process by instinct, like those alleged sheep who graze in the shadow of art without knowing what it is they are standing next to.
It has never been about competition, organised or personal. I’m not organised enough for one thing. And don’t have the energy for another. Plus I’m not good enough. The Other Writer has always been, and needs to remain, the top mammal, chief dog, pack leader. Others may want to usurp their position, but not me. More essential is that they stay writing. I don’t much care what they write, so long as they commit to continue doing it. It doesn’t even need to be any good (though I know it will always be better). The act of their committing, the words they produce, is spur enough. And that is why I do this. To provide an answer, not expecting one in return, as Pinsky says, more in hope than expectation that the act of the answer is adequate satisfaction, not a reward exactly, but something close to it, though I know it will never be enough, no matter how often I say it, even though I say it with love.