If I only had time
Imagine a patient saying to a doctor at the end of a consultation, 'I could have been a doctor you know, I've often thought about that, but somehow I never got round to it. I've never really had the time to do it.' Unlikely, yet substitute one profession for another - writer for doctor - and you'll find it happens a lot, or it does in my experience.
Time, apparently, is the only essential requirement for writing a book. Oh, and ideas, but they're no real obstacle. 'I've got a headful. The life I've had... The stories I could tell... If I only had the time to put them down I could have a best-seller. You should come round sometime, I'll give you plenty of ideas for your next book. You can pay me commission.'
I've perfected the strained smile on hearing these words - I'm sure every writer has - and I've learned the futility of counter-argument, though I'm often tempted to quote the late journalist and author Gene Fowler: 'Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.'
I guess for most people most professions - doctor, lawyer, banker - are a mystery, but writing is something we all do to a certain extent, if only to update our status on Facebook. And of course we've all done creative writing - the faded pages of the school exercise books still stacked somewhere in the loft are testament to a talent shown from an early age - so there's no mystery to it, and no anatomy to learn, or jurisprudence, or how to make sense of a balance sheet. Plus, you can read a book in a couple of days so how hard can it be to write one?
My urge to rage is sometimes strong: a sublimation of my inner demand to be given due credit for all the time (yes), ingenuity, craftsmanship and sheer bloody hard work (bordering on agony) that I've put into producing a book. I want to take the hapless reader through every page, every line, to deconstruct and forensically analyse, disinter the learning beneath, reveal the artist at work (how he plays with tone, colour, variation; how brilliantly he achieves balance and synthesis from thesis and antithesis); to hold my jewel to the light and have my reader marvel at its distilled beauty. Sorry, am I gripping your arm too tight?
Perhaps the real reason I do talks is not to sell my books (another oft-crushed hope) but to offer myself up for such examination, to lay myself open to questions that might begin: 'I was intrigued by the way you revealed motive without needing to express it directly in the words and thoughts of the lead characters - could you say more about how you achieved such a feat?' Unfortunately questions like that never occur. 'Where do you write?' 'How do you find a publisher?' Questions like that occur. And during the post-talk tea ritual, as I wait in shy expectation behind the pile of books that always turns out to be too optimistically high, people sidle up to tell me of their own frustrated literary ambitions. My excruciating chart-topper is the WI stalwart who said in all seriousness: 'I have a fantastic idea for a novel; all I'm missing is the words. Do you do ghost-writing?'
I am anticipating sympathetic tuts and nods from fellow writers, but as we close in our group hug maybe we are turning our backs on an essential truth, that the only real difference between us and the literary wannabes is that we actually have a book or two with our names on the cover. So what? What do any of us have a right to expect beyond a cursory nod of acknowledgement for the production of a new work, the equivalent of a pat on the head for the boy who has done his homework. Less perhaps, for at least the boy was given the homework by someone who demanded it. Whoever asked us to sit down at a desk and open a vein to write copiously in our own blood? Why should we complain about how difficult it is to write a book when many might prefer we found it impossible.
Has there ever been a banner headline that announced The world needs a new book? Of course not; there are millions on offer already, far more than the world could ever hope to read. In fact what my experience shows is that there may be more people out there with the vague ambition to write a book than those with any desire to read one. Or maybe they just don't have the time.
No. I can't let the cynic in me close this argument. I must reach for a reason, a justification for all those hours spent on squeezing out the words and shaping something meaningful from them. Maybe I shouldn't dismiss as unimportant the simple fact that so many others have thought about writing a book for themselves but have never done it. Their very number suggests there is a perceived status to being an author even if it's somewhat below being a professional footballer or appearing on The X Factor, among other favourites of the wishful thinker. And I should comfort myself with the notion that if people did not spend half their time wallowing in daydreams they might actually get around to producing something. So I'll continue smiling as I listen to another would-be-should-be-could-have-been, I'll even nod my head in a show of empathy while, in my mind only, I will say to my new friend: Keep dreaming the dream, but for pity's sake don't pick up the pen. We have quite enough competition as it is.