There are some universal truths: One is that everyone wants to write a book. (Which, OK, is less a universal truth, and more a sweeping generalization.)
But a lot of people do. Tell people you have written a book, or two books, or fourteen books, and they will say, "I have a book I'm going to write one day, when I get some free time."
When people tell me that they want to write a book, they have an idea, an amazing idea, I smile. There used to be a time when I was prickly about it, where I wanted to say, "It's not a game, it's a job." Or "If you want to, then do it. Maybe you'll stop wanting to after you've tried, maybe not, but stop making it sound like a lark." But it's a great job, so in a way, it is a game. It is a lark.
I can't and won't pretend I don't love it, because I do.
If you were to come with me, while I start my next book, I would show you something.
I would take you to Africa.
We would go on a safari, just you and me, in one of those open jeeps, dust everywhere and green so rich and impenetrable on all sides, we'd feel like we were wrapped in something sacred, cushioned from the real world of highrises and late-for-meetings and Starbucks and noise and kids' demands and hurrying.
We would drive for a while and we would see amazing things, lions and zebras and gazelles and giraffes. It would be so beautiful, we would be in awe. We would drive and talk about our books, the novels we were about to begin. The sun would rise and set in such a way that our breath would catch, it would be surreal and amazing. All of it. The thing we were about to embark upon would be nothing short of magical, a place where only the imaginative can go.
A secret clubhouse.
After a time, we would get to a clearing.
In the clearing would be some elephants, one for each of us, plus some extras, just in case.
I would say, "There is your idea."
You would look at the elephants. Probably you wouldn't understand, so I would try to explain. "Your idea? Is an elephant. That elephant. Or any elephant. Your idea is a better elephant than that elephant, it is encrusted with gorgeous and original jewels. Your elephant shines in the sunlight in a way that no elephant before it has ever shone in the sunlight. When you look over there at that plain, grey elephant, try seeing instead YOUR magnificent elephant, in all its glory."
"Oh," you would say. We would sit in the jeep and admire the elephants, you seeing yours the way you see it and me seeing mine in my way. Both of us would start with an elephant, our own.
We would take some time and decorate our elephants. We would turn our elephants into art, painting here, gluing things there. We would call people and tell them about our elephants. We would take photos. We would be very much in love with our elephants. Our glorious ideas.
We would stick at this step, the decorating of the elephants for a long time, until we were ready.
"Now," I would say. "You must make your elephant fly."
"What?" you would say.
"This," I would say. "Is just the idea. An idea is only an idea. Now to make our idea into a book, the elephants have to fly."
"What will we use?" you will say, looking around the clearing.
"Nothing," I explain. "It all comes from you. There is nothing else. You must do it alone."
You know, from reading other books, that other writers have made their elephants fly and it looks to you to be a relatively simple thing. It must be. Right? The bookstores are full of flying elephants.
At first blush, the most important thing to you is the elephant itself, how glorious it is and how unique. But in order for anyone to see the elephant, you now understand, it must fly. Of course. No one is going to come to the clearing and admire your elephant. Your elephant must fly to them.
Others have done it and now you will do it. It must be easy. There are a lot of ways to do it, obviously, and everyone might have a different way, but yours will work because you want it to. And that's all there is to it.
Or you don't.
If you don't, maybe you will leave. You will go and read books about how to make an elephant fly. Maybe you will go home and take a class. But eventually you will come back to the clearing, to your glittery elephant, who will wait.
Finally, you approach.
At first, when you try to lift the elephant, the elephant is patient. It stands and it waits. You strain under the impossible weight, which of course doesn't shift. You try first this and first that. You are energized by the beauty of your elephant and you know you can attain flight, if only by sheer force of will. You lift a limb, a tail, a trunk.
But the elephant is vast and unmanageable. It doesn't co-operate. Rather, it waits. You aren't the first to try to lift it. You won't be the last. Sometimes it sighs and looks bored. Other times it lies down and appears to sleep. The truth is that the elephant is huge. It is much bigger than you are. It is not going to shrink, to become something you can lift and simply throw into the air, where it will find its wings.
Elephants do not have wings.
You have to find another way.
A day will pass and then two and then some nights, one after the other, a series of darknesses lit by stars. Your elephant will still be firmly, heavily, resoundingly on the ground. There are other things around you that you might rather be looking at: the other animals, the sparkling clean river below, a hut in a tree, fruit, monkeys playing. You will wonder how long you can keep trying to lift it for, how long. And as you try to lift it, you will start to think that you are not the problem. Your elephant is the problem.
Maybe after a while, a day or a month, you will think, "This elephant is simply the wrong one, an impossible one. But I will obviously be able to lift that elephant over there."
You switch elephants.
Meanwhile, back at home, everyone is getting on with their lives. They are going to school and work, coming home, going out again, laughing with friends, watching TV, sleeping. And there you are. In Africa. With another elephant that refuses to rise.
The green will start to close in on you and the dust. You will begin to miss things, like sleep and socializing. But you know that your elephant CAN fly and WILL fly. Or you know that it won't. You either get back into the jeep and return the way you came and give up, keeping the elephant only as a memory of something you thought about once, a long time ago.
Or you stay.
You move on to a third elephant. You are beginning to forget how to interact like a normal person, with a normal job, and normal hobbies. You are lifting elephants now and there is nothing more to it. You will do nothing else. You will lift your elephant.
The elephant stays grounded.
You might, at some point, look over at me, and maybe you will see that my elephant is beginning to rise into the air. Yours is not. You will either give up or you still won't. You might be buoyed by my success or flattened by it. These things are all choices. Just as it is a choice whether you write or whether you simply want to write, whether you actually work to lift an elephant or you like the idea that at some point in the future, with no effort on your part, you will make elephants fly and audiences will roar their approval.
Maybe you think only of the elephant and the audience and not the part in the middle, where you have to do the heavy lifting. Where you have to find, somewhere inside you, the power to raise this beast.
Maybe the elephant will get tired of all this and leave.
Or maybe, just maybe, you will lift the elephant, after all. You will do it. I know you can do it. Other people have done it, why shouldn't you?
Your elephant is astonishing, flying up there in the rays of the African sun.
I applaud you. You did it.
And afterwards, when you are done lifting your elephant and people have clapped (or booed because they judge it to be a poor job, after all, and now it is out there for them to judge, judge they will, having never lifted an elephant themselves), when someone says to you, "I'm going to lift a few elephants myself when I have a few minutes," you will smile. You will say, "Come with me, I want to show you something."
And you'll take them to where the elephants are, waiting to fly.
If I had an office I actually used, I would buy this print and hang it over my desk. As it is, my office is my couch (or more often, my bed), so I will buy this to stick on my laptop or my iPhone (it comes as a print or a laptop sticky thing or an iPhone case). I will think of it when I lift elephants. Click through and buy one!
(This isn't endorsed or sponsored or whatnot, I just love the image of the elephants, lifted.)