I recently rediscovered a short story I used to love. It’s by Graham Greene, and it’s called ‘The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen.’
In the story, the narrator eavesdrops on a young couple having dinner in a restaurant. The woman is bragging to her fiancé about the advance on her first novel ‘The Chelsea Set,’ due to be published. She boasts, among other things, that her publisher has admired her ‘powers of observation.’
The eavesdropping narrator, an older and rather jaded novelist himself, is worried about the blinkered enthusiasm with which the young woman is entering his profession.
‘She couldn’t have been more than twenty,’ he says. ‘She deserved better of life.’
The story is a meditation on the reality of the writing life versus the one many new writers imagine when they set out.
The narrator has become cynical over the years, but his message, that a writer’s life isn’t the glamorous one aspiring novelists might dream of, is salutary. The story serves as a reminder that unless you have unusual determination and a thick skin, there are more reliable, less exposing and sometimes even soul-destroying ways to earn a living.
‘As the years pass the writing will not become any easier,’ Greene’s narrator wishes he could tell the girl, ‘the daily effort will grow harder to endure.’
(If this sounds a bit doom and gloom, bear with me, there is a positive point to this!)
The story shows us that novelists need a paradox of attributes to survive. They need a thick skin in order to take criticism and judgement, and a thin skin in order to be sensitive to the nuances of human experience and to their surroundings.
They need the resilience to endure set back and failure, and at the same time, they need humility in order to realise they are only ever as good as their last book.
They need the determination to continue when the going gets tough, but must stay receptive, and attuned to their readership.
They need to be both extrovert when they are required to read or speak in public, and introvert enough to endure the solitude required to write alone for hours.
These characteristics are in such acute conflict it is surprising anyone has ever stayed the course of being a writer at all. And today this is truer than ever. Novelists can no longer enjoy the relative anonymity authors did in the past, since we are required to attend festivals, talk on panels, appear at readings, turn up at literary events, however vulnerable, overworked, or fragile we may be feeling. Writers today need public speaking skills, confidence, and the ability to promote themselves. Skills which clash with the fact we often write because we feel socially awkward or shy and prefer to work on our own.
On-line reviews require an even thicker skin. Every writer I know pays far more heed to a one star Amazon or Good Reads review, than any number of four or five stars. One star reviews niggle away at our already delicate self-esteem. Social media, where we’re told self-promotion is a prerequisite for success, is a double-edged sword. An abusive tweet or unpleasant comment on a conversation thread can destroy a writer’s self-belief in seconds and rattle the hardest of virtual armours. We may be driven to bin whole manuscripts as a negative comment means we are consumed by self-doubt and loss of faith in what we’re trying to do.
Yet to write we do have to feel things keenly. The thick skin we need when we go out and face our public, or receive these knocks and blows, has to be shed when we pick up our pens or keyboards.
Inevitably sometimes the two requirements crash head-on.
Two summers ago I delivered a novel I felt pretty proud of. I knew it needed work still, but a few tweaks to the plot, and another edit, and I thought it would be in the bag. Instead of the appreciation I expected, I was told the book was beyond repair in time for the publication date. I needed a thick skin at that moment, but I was in thin-skinned mode, my head still in the novel. And so instead of taking it on the chin, I went home on the train in tears, the kind stranger in the seat opposite (who had no idea why I was sobbing my guts out) handing me, silently, a tissue, and a sympathetic smile. (I mention this because even in the depths of despair often something uplifting happens—something that reminds us of the fundamental goodness of our fellow human beings.) I had put my heart and soul into that book, and what I thought was to be a sure-fire best-seller was ditched. It felt as though my world had ended. I’d been outed as the fraud I’d always believed, deep down, I was. It was humiliating, and it was soul destroying and I thought I would never write again.
It took me over a year to recover from that blow to my confidence. But what finally helped, was to remember that every failure is a learning experience. A message I knew in theory but had never put to good use.
I had to put it to good use now. I had to don a thick skin and think carefully about how I could turn this setback into something useful.
The experience taught me some practical lessons; that I need to stick to my gut instinct about what I want to write rather than being blown by the wind and changing my mind at every comment or criticism or bad review. That I need to trust my own voice and not attempt to emulate other writers — which meant I’d lost focus on the way. I needed to develop my own writing process, using a loose outline and knowing my ending, writing in scenes and redrafting, because I’m not a plotter.
It was, I realized, also time to take a rain-check.
Did I want to keep trying to write domestic psychological thrillers in what was becoming a market crowded with extremely talented writers, mainly other women?
What was it I loved about writing in the first place?
I had to go back to basics and think again about what I wanted to express when I first fell in love with writing.
And it was good to define this.
The things I identified were; getting inside the hearts and minds of ordinary people placed in difficult circumstances, creating atmosphere, unearthing our subconscious desires, untangling impossible-seeming conflicts within relationships. I’m intrigued by what drives people to do unwise things, their blind spots, their passions and their obsessive behaviours. Those are the things I love to write about, those are the subjects that fire my imagination.
For anyone who has reached a point where their confidence has faltered I hope some of these strategies, — looking at what you can learn from your mistakes, redefining why you want to write in the first place, pin-pointing your unique strengths, might help you too.
It’s vital that as writers, we can be thick skinned enough to take failures as opportunities to learn. When we are told what we have produced is not good enough, there is a danger that in thin-skinned-mode we might go under. In a worst case scenario a writer might not surface again. I suspect there are those—probably brilliant writers—who have stopped writing, undermined by a bad review or criticism at a time when they might have been about to produce their best work. But we couldn’t be writers if we always wore a thick skin.
When the young woman novelist in Graham Greene’s story gets up to leave at the end of the meal, her fiancé wonders aloud what the eight Japanese gentlemen are talking about at the table next to them.
She asks, surprised, ‘What Japanese gentlemen darling?’
This young novelist’s powers of observation are, Greene’s narrator wants us to understand, not as astute as she has told us. She is an example of someone who has been judged so far on ‘promise’ rather than on ‘performance.’ Her enviable thick skin, revealed by her oblivion both to the world around her, and to her own failings, might, it is implied, serve her better in another profession. After all, no one can ‘show the glint of light off broken glass’ (as Checkov bid writers do) or evoke empathy for characters whilst wearing a bullet proof vest, crash helmet and ear plugs to fend off detractors.
But writers are always going to have to endure knocks and blows. We have to learn, as Greene’s narrator laments, that
‘as the years pass, writing will not become any easier,’ and that we are judged as we get older or more experienced ‘by performance and not by promise.’
At his most jaded, Greene’s narrator describes his life as a writer as ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well.’
Which sounds depressing, but given Greene’s legacy, is at the same time reassuring to those of us who feel our work is never good enough. Because even after expressing this pessimistic view of a writing life through the narrator in his story, Greene would go on to write a further eight novels—including some of his best.
Ultimately most writers do summon the strength to spring back after setbacks, to attempt to do something well again. To write out the more rocky moments in our careers—getting back to the keyboard after being knocked off course. We accept criticism, or rejection, we tolerate judgement, and we endure the daily grind, because writing is a passion.
A challenging, and sometimes grueling passion but one few of us who love it would give up lightly, however thin our skin feels at times.