What Matters: Writing and Life
By Paul E. Hardisty
Paul’s debut novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, published by Orenda Books in the UK, has just been shortlisted for the CWA Creasy New Dagger award for best thriller/crime novel written in English in 2015. The sequel, The Evolution of Fear, will be published by Orenda later this year.
I’ve always reckoned that if you’re going to write, then you should have something important to say. The message can be simple, but it should matter. And defining what matters, I figure, is the writer’s essential job. That’s what literature is for. To help us learn, in the very short time we have on this planet, of the things that are truly important. Without literature, we’d certainly never have enough time to even come close to figuring it out on our own.
So when I started writing, a couple of decades ago, it was for no one but me. It wasn’t to try to get published. It was a personal exploration, an attempt to try to figure out what the hell this life was all about, and what was my place in this maelstrom. Scattered thoughts and wanderings stacked up in dozens of handwritten journals, leading to a realisation in my early twenties that I hadn’t lived nearly enough to even begin to write anything sensible about life. So I decided to go out there and live. I worked outside, took jobs in faraway places. I slept with a notebook and a glass of water beside my bed, waking from what has always felt like another life, so real are my dreams, writing down everything I could remember in that short sunset of clarity you sometimes get. So the journals kept stacking up, and I travelled the world, tried to do work that I felt mattered, thought hard about what it all meant, wondered at the turnings of the universe and my own insignificance.
Everyone is different. It was one of the earliest realisations. So different you can never hope to understand the nature and extent of all the divergences. Like the universe itself. Seriously. The impulsion to write, for me, came from there, from a realisation that I had as much right as anyone to define importance, to search for it, and to attempt to record it in prose. If I care about it, then it matters. To allow yourself such a permission. And there it was.
My first novel started with a single vision, a picture in my head, born of experiences I’d had working over several years in the wilds of Yemen, one of the most isolated, violent, and heart achingly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. A picture of a soul, alone, in a foreign place, faced with a choice between action and inaction, between walking away from something he knows is wrong, or standing to face it and expose it for the wrong it is. Knowing there will be consequences if he stays. And then it started coming like a photon storm, and I had to work hard to keep up.
A draft emerged, longer and more formed than anything I’d done before, something raw. And I was so close to it that I couldn’t see all the flaws. I needed help. Lots of it. I had no idea at first how to get that help. I’m an engineer. I’d never taken a creative writing course in my life. I searched. Paid a couple of experienced authors to review my manuscript, lived some of the hardest days of my life reading their reports, going back and smashing what I’d done into bits so I could start again, throwing a lot of it away.
At this stage, upon reflection, I started to realise that perhaps writing is a metaphor for life, or at least a damn good approximation of it. If you don’t work at it, if you give up, you’re dead, or on the way to dead. And of course, there are always the temptations: to quit and do something else, something easier, more comfortable, more within your self-defined capabilities; to then rationalise your choice; to go the easy route, self-publish whatever you’ve got, even if you know truly that it’s not as good as you can make it. And I found that the very point of writing was the discipline of creating something that mattered, and, if I worked hard enough, and had some luck, maybe something good, something that had some sliver of originality to it. Not just a copy of what others have done. That’s so hard. Just like it’s hard to live your life truly, not giving up on yourself, not taking the short cuts, backing yourself to find that thing inside you that is unique, that contribution, that spark that only you can light. It’s a hell of a hard thing. But it could be the only thing that actually defines what it means to be alive, to be human.
So I kept going, five years, seven, ten, twenty. Working whenever I could. Learning. Searching. And then one day, it happened. I got an agent, Broo Doherty of DHH Literary Agency. Someone who was willing to help me, who believed in what I was trying to do, and wanted to help me get there. And then, multiple rejections later, a first real book deal. I’d published a couple of technical books before (non-fiction), but it’s not the same. Fiction is much harder to write (for me anyway). Months later, that amazing feeling of my first novel in my hand, with a cover and jacket quotes and everything. Realizing you don’t do anything worthwhile without help from others, but still the most amazing validation. And the whole time I was thinking that there is so much in the book that I could’ve done better. Things I would have changed, subtracted, integrated, differentiated.
And in the end, I guess that’s point. The things that really are important, that truly matter, in writing and in life, are not things that can be compromised, faked. Nor, in truth, are they ever likely to be perfectly attained. Maybe that’s the essential timeless attraction. It’s not something you ever reach, no matter how hard you try. Because the trying is everything. That’s what matters.
So go try.