Please allow me to explain yesterday’s cryptic closing line. Catherine is a Darkling, and has become our principal reader in the time we’ve all known each other. As well as a writer, Catherine is a natural editor, and we’ve all benefited from her gift. In On Writing, Stephen King talks about his wife Tabitha as his Ideal Reader, and he urges writers to have an Ideal Reader in mind when writing that all-important first draft. What will the IR find amusing? What shortcut won’t fool them? What will make IR’s nose crinkle in confusion? When might IR’s attention wander? It’s a really good idea, but I didn’t have an IR fixed in my mind. I’ve had excellent readers – friends whose contributions to the MS that now exists were vital to its progress and improvement – but I couldn’t visualise an IR in the manner that King suggests. That’s changed as time has gone on, and I guess it was the swearing that did it.
Months ago now, Catherine (henceforth C) gave some feedback to one of the other Darklings, JB. She called JB’s writing “fucking brilliant” – which it is. I stared dolefully at those words on the screen and compared this verdict to the one C had given me not long before. “I do like it,” she’d said of my own manuscript, “I do really, really like it…” – and you can guess the next word without my writing it. I brooded over this, even as I was obviously thrilled for JB, because that spontaneous assessment from C is about as good as it gets. Wow, I thought, now that’s something to aim for. Because C is a very measured and self-contained soul. She’s a very calm person, not sensible in any sort of boring sense, but someone who is always and notably together. She doesn’t explode, and yet there was an explosive joy is those two words: fucking brilliant.
I sulked alone in my office. I scowled at my manuscript. I felt very sorry for myself. My writing, by implication, was not fucking brilliant. I had failed to move C to the same degree. And it became, somehow, and perhaps a little absurdly, my new benchmark: I wanted to make C swear.
“Why?” I pressed her over lunch the next time the Sydney Darklings met. “What doesn’t my writing have?”
C very sensibly refused to be drawn into my grotesque neediness.
“I can’t answer that,” she said. “But I know it when I see it.”
Ouch – I felt the limitations of my manuscript more keenly at that moment than ever before or since. This was mainly because I knew she was right. We can’t always explain our feelings for a particular work, but we implicitly understand when a connection has been made or a truth communicated or an idea brought magically to life. A life in words: we know when we believe, and we know when we are moved. I had simply failed to take C to that place – and I could sit across the table glowering at her for as long and as hard as I liked, it wasn’t going to change things.
I had to change things.
I want to make C swear, I want to make C swear – you’d be surprised how motivating this mantra proved to be. Now when I try to conjure King’s Ideal Reader, it’s not Catherine I see so much as one word. One swear word. And I suppose it makes sense that I seized upon this word, as I am an inveterate swearer myself, and find a literary value in a well-placed expletive that many folks deny. If C swears, it means something. And so it came to mean something to me.
After deliberating on what to do with the latest draft – I still want fresh eyes, and I’m still weighing up how to manage that – I decided I did want C to read it too, just to tell me if it was working or not. I just needed her to confirm the changes are good. C had already read the MS twice, so she was well acquainted with its previous incarnations, and in a good position to comment on the major restructure and rewrite. I felt a good deal of anxiety waiting for C’s verdict, and I wonder if it’s not responsible for the weird peeling scales that have overtaken the skin beneath my left eye. A nervous reaction. And I was nervous because I didn’t know what I’d do if C didn’t like the new manuscript. It has changed a great deal – I’ve worked very hard and made significant changes in what by any strictly temporal measure is a brief span of time, but things gestate mentally, and I’ve been writing it for two and a third years, so, you know, time’s a tricky thing – and I finally feel like I have found it. I’ve excavated it. I didn’t even know quite what I was looking for until it flashed and gleamed before me: the story. Finally I have it, I know what my book is, and if C didn’t like the story, I’d be crushed.
But she does like it. And in the early hours of yesterday morning, she sent me a text that, among other things, answered my one question:
Does it work? Yes. Fuck yes.
Thank you, C.