“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he wept salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer.”
The quote is from Sid Waddell, legendary darts commentator (he’s actually making a point about champion Eric Bristow, but that’s by the by). Every few years I have an inkling of how Alexander (and indeed Eric) might have felt. This is in no way to compare our achievements (for one thing, I have killed far fewer people than Alexander the Great). But the feeling must be very common: on approaching the end of a long creative project, we fear it will be our last. It’s all downhill from here.
I wrote my first ‘novel’ at the age of 18. When I say novel, I mean it was a novel-length piece of writing; it wasn’t anything you’d waste time actually reading. Obviously at the time I thought it was a masterpiece. Yet as I caressed its single-spaced pages I was wracked by sadness. I knew I’d never, ever, create anything so good again. My career as a writer had peaked too soon.
A year later, the first dreadful novel now under lock and key and armed guard, I wrote another. This one was a considerable improvement (it could hardly fail to be) and at the time I thought it perfect, flawless, my ‘magnificent octopus’ as Baldrick might say. And me only 20! My joy at writing the closing words could not help but be laced with a keening note of melancholy. I’d done it, but now I had nothing left to give. There were no more good ideas in the world, no characters so alive, no plots worth getting out of bed for.
Bafflingly, this novel too failed to get published. Eventually I realised why and locked it up with the first. (The only reason both typescripts remain unburned is to remind me how deluded it’s possible to be.) But youthful hubris, amusing though it is in hindsight, isn’t the point of this post. My point is that feeling, which is real enough. That feeling of finishing, and of being finished, and fearing this is the end of it all. Really, it’s just tiredness putting on airs. But it takes distance to realise that.
And I still suffer that feeling, regular as clockwork. It came when I wrote my fourth novel, which was my first for children, ‘The Century Spies’ (never published): ‘That’s the best thing I’ll ever do.’ It came when I took a detour into screenwriting with an appalling, unfilmable script. It came after The Cat Kin (published, finally!); it came after the sequel, Cat’s Paw: ‘I’ve had my last good idea.’ Now I’m learning to get used to it.
When I finish the first draft of my latest book – which I will do, I hope, before the year turns – I know what to expect. But this time I will just have some tea, find a good book to read, and wait patiently for the next good idea to come along.