A few weeks ago, at the Oxford Literature Festival, I saw Orhan Pamuk - and, in the middle of all his words of wisdom, came this gem (roughly, I didn't take it down verbatim):
It's not the books that make the writer, but the hours spent writing. The writer is the man or woman at his or her desk, working with words, playing and teasing and rearranging until they say what they are meant to say. The books are an afterthought.
It took me up short - for I'd spent the whole day listening to people talking about books, and here was someone saying that a writer has to forget about the books and concentrate on the writing.
I see what he was getting at - the razzmatazz of literature festivals is writings' window dressing. It bears little relation to the hours spent arguing with a blank screen on a computer.
Far be it from me to argue with Pamuk, but I'm not sure it's as clear cut at that. To be fair, I don't think he does, either, for his books have such a strong political content that they are much more than the musings of an individual in his room. He wants to communicate, and that implies a reader or listening.
But I wonder if the whole writing thing can be thought of as a process, a continuum, if you like - beginning with those solitary days of fighting with ideas and sentences - days when you have to ignore any thought of an end product because it feels as if you'll be ninety before you get the bloody thing written. Then, slowly, and sometimes magically, it takes a shape and you dare allow someone to read it. The writing is no long simply something between you and the computer, but it involves readers. And if the writer is to think about readers, the work is constructed anew - for the reader must be accommodated. It is a different entity from the one that lived between writer and screen, for now it has a life of its own - in the mind of a reader.
Eventually, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and countless cups of coffee, it has a its own shape - and often that is a book-shape.
Even so, Pamuk's premise was a wonderful reminder, in the middle of the love-in that is a literature festival, that no amount of backslapping and calling each other 'darling' is going to make anyone a better writer. It's biting our nails over our computers that is the real work.
But we ignore our readers at our peril.
And if you fancy reading more of my words - you can find some here.