Two days ago something bad happened. My husband got to say ‘I told you so’. These four words form perhaps the single most irritating phrase known to marriage, irrelative of whether that marriage is happy, unhappy or indifferent. It carries a trite smugness about it, designed to make you want to drive a butter knife into your beloved’s heart. So what prompted the heinous utterance? The computer died. It blew up. Literally. Except it didn’t blow up, rather it ppfftted, pathetically, into permanent dormancy, its demise made all the more tragic when I realised I couldn’t remember when I last saved my work.
Cue husband: "I told you so".
Nearly ten thousand words were lost in that wishy-washy ppfftt. Ten thousand words equates to about three weeks work. Not months or years, admittedly, but traumatic nonetheless. Mustering the energy to rewrite those words is strenuous. Even if managed, there’s always that nagging suspicion that these new words aren’t as good as the vanished ones. That somehow the literary genius (oh, how we dream) will never be recaptured, that the one canny observation that might lift my prose above the others has gone for good, in a ppfftt of computer smoke. Losing words feels like walking to the summit of a sizeable hill and rather than finding the view-to-die-for, you find a sign that says Keep walking another ten miles, then do a jig and forty press-ups. View will appear on left. I’m not sure I can be arsed. Sadly, unless I want to curtail my fledgling career at this point, I have to. And this is where that smug I-told-you-so bites hard. He must have told-me-so a hundred times: “Have you backed up your work? Why don't you email it to yourself each night? Here, I’ve bought you a memory stick just for you to save your work.” The more he told me to save my work, the more I thought, bloody hell, stop telling me what to do the whole time, and didn’t. And then, presumably sick of hearing me ignore him, my obviously-male computer, in the spirit of brotherhood, decided to teach me lesson in common sense and pegged it. My word count slipped from 30 something thousand to 20 something thousand. Electronic, suicidal git.
Now, word counts are to some writers (like me) what calories are to some dieters (like me). It can get obsessive. I can live by my word count: 1000 words to lunchtime, 250 before I leave for the school run, 150 while the kids are watching the Simpsons, if you don’t hit x words by 7pm you’re not having any wine. (Shudder at the thought). My ideal would be 1500 words a day. That's quite punchy, but on those days when words spill out of me like water from a tap, when I’m immersed in the book, with my characters sitting in the room beside me, it’s not hard. I’ve been known to laugh out loud or cry real tears when I’m in this place; it’s a glorious place to be, when I write for the joy of writing and the words clock up without me noticing. But then there are the dark days. The blood-from-the-proverbial-stone days. Days when I’ll write ten words then make a cup of tea, march myself back to my desk, write another fifteen, check my emails, force out another twenty, check Twitter, tweet two or three times, tell myself off, close Twitter, stare at the page, start to reread the page, then, evil of all evils, begin to edit, and then discover I’ve reduced the damn word count by a hundred words.
To keep me on track on days like this, I have a few inspiring quotes stuck to the walls around my study. One of these reads: When asked the secret to finishing his 500 page masterpiece, The Power of One, author Bryce Courtney growled, ‘Bum Glue’. I love this. Firstly, I love the ‘growl’. Writing can be a battle, drawing out sentences, bending them into shape, searching for the ideal turn of phrase, avoiding clichés, killing unnecessary words. And though I’m not proud of this, most of the time the growl is how I address anyone who speaks to me while I’m writing. “Mummy, where’s my history book?” In your room, I growl. “Would you like me to lay the table for supper?” Yes, I growl. Of course I would; I’m writing. Phone rings. For crying out loud, what do you want? I growl. You get the picture. The second thing I like about Courtney’s line is the bum glue. I need bum glue. I love the imagery. I love the thought of not being able to stand up to put the kettle on for the fifth time in an hour because I’m stuck to the chair with bum glue. Please, someone, invent bum glue!
Another scrap of paper stuck to my wall is advice from Leonard Bernstein: You can sit there all tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something. It doesn’t matter what. In five or ten minutes the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade and a certain spirit of rhythm will take over.
In other words ‘just get on with it’.
This advice, of course, can apply to most things. Staring at the sea, wanting to swim, but worried it looks cold and grey? Come on, man up, jump in. You’ll feel great. Want to get fit? Stop moaning, put your trainers on, and get out there. You’ll probably be signed up for a marathon before the week is out. (Not me, obviously...I’m glued to a chair). The long and short of it is, if you want to finish a book you need to write some words. Then don’t lose those words. So from now on I will be saving my work every day. I advise you to do the same thing. But if you don’t, I promise that when your computer goes ppfftt, I will try very hard not to say those shameful words.
I told you so.