The Long Haul

- I am - what's the phrase I'm looking for? Knee-deep doesn't seem deep enough; eye-deep, perhaps, drowning in - work on this book. Things have become very strange, because I'm unable to see before or beyond this project: my world has effectively shrunk to the size of my study, even though I'm actually writing about other people most of the time, even though I'm venturing out into the world to interview and interact with them on a regular basis.

- I'm deliberately spending less time online. I did think I was immune to distraction, or that, at least, distraction wasn't really distraction, that it was ultimately constructive to let the mind wander, to click impulsively on this link which leads you to that link which leads you to that thought which leads you to write a 3,000-word essay that no one else will ever read on something you never knew you were interested in. It turns out this is not the case, this is not at all constructive when you need to concentrate on constructing one specific thing. So I try to spend at least half the day every day without accessing email or Twitter or my phone, and it really does help. Now I can feel myself getting pulled away when it happens: I recognize something I hadn't thought to notice before, something like the different levels on which I concentrate. Do you ever find this? Often I find I am doing one thing but really I'm thinking about another. And it turns out it's easier to identify this discrepancy, and to start to marry what I'm thinking with what I'm doing, when I'm not flipping through 70 tabs in my browser desperately trying to remember which one I just opened.

- I'd be lying if I said this was a particularly blissful period of my life, because underpinning everything is a sense of self-doubt quite different to any I've experienced before. I can't remember where but I once saw a quote about how the hardest thing about writing a book is coming to terms with how dumb you are. This is true. For every thousand words you write, you know there are two thousand better ones that a smarter version of yourself could pluck out of the ether and lay down, but eventually you come to the conclusion that you are not that smarter version of yourself and you never can be, and you decide it's 'good enough'. A sinking feeling, mixed with euphoria: that's basically my emotional state right now.

- But really I'm not complaining. I obviously enjoy what I do, and I'm obviously interested in what I'm writing about; what would be the point if I didn't, and I wasn't? And it's nice to be focused, if only because so much of being focused is actually making sure you do things that have nothing to do with the thing you need to do. So today, for instance, I take a walk after lunch (smoked fish and salad, which I tell myself is the sort of meal that will keep me physically and mentally alert through the long afternoon to come). Because the weather's been so nice here lately I've been walking across the Iffley Road and down into the Kidneys, which has the most unappealing name of any nature reserve I've ever known but which is generally pleasant at this time of year and, more importantly, fairly empty, especially in the middle of the afternoon, when almost everyone has something more important to do than wander through a small kidney-shaped nature reserve. I have something more important to do than wander through a small kidney-shaped nature reserve, too, but then again, these forays are actually part of doing that thing. There's a little log near the water that I like to walk to and sit on, for a few moments, before I become bored of sitting and staring at the still-bare branches of the nearby trees and get up and walk back through the field and up Bedford Street to Warwick Street, from which point you can just see the dome of the Radcliffe Camera on the horizon, next to the scaffolding-clad tower of St. Mary's. As you descend the hill, towards the basin of Chester Street, the Radcliffe Camera and St. Mary's sink like the sun behind the tops of the terraced houses.

- Later, after I've been back at the computer for a few hours, I take a bath. I am allowed to do this, I tell myself, because it means that I don't have to take a bath later; I'm not cutting into my working day, just rearranging it a little. It also gives me an opportunity to read a bit from a book that has nothing to do with my book, because, I think, I need to come up for air every so often. I've mainly been re-reading The Great Gatsby, along with John Berger's Ways of Seeing and Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. It seems to me that, as I'm re-reading these books, I don't need to give them the attention I might give something on first reading; I'm just dipping my toes into familiar waters for fun (although of course Dyer has a bit about re-reading: "I could read the letters again because I had read them so badly the first time around," he writes. "In fact, I realised with a sinking heart, I was practically obliged to re-read the Lawrence letters which I had longed to go on reading but which, now that I had to go on reading them, I wished to God I was shot of").

- I also tell myself I'm re-reading lots of things that have nothing to do with what I'm writing about because I want to balance out the heavy, sometimes oppressive influence of music - by which I mean music as a topic, not music itself. I want to make sure that my world does not shrink to such an extent that it seems inconceivable to write about anything other than sounds and feelings and bands and the bleak business of making a living out of any of it.

- As for music itself, I'd like to tell you that I'm working mainly in silence, or listening to logical things in a logical order, but the truth is I'm mainly listening to the same playlist over and over again, skipping through tracks when I'm alert enough to realize that I'm bored by them. I'm actually bored by all of the tracks, because that is what happens when you listen to the same playlist six or seven times a day for three or four months straight, but I don't remember to be bored by some of them all of the time. When I'm particularly absorbed by what I'm working on, I'll often listen to several songs in succession without skipping over anything.

- But, really, the main thing is that it's all moving forward. At the pool one Friday night a girl asks to borrow some of my shampoo. We chat, briefly, as we stand under the industrial showers. She asks me what I do and when I tell her I'm writing a book she asks what the book is about, which is exactly the question I would ask but hate being asked. And yet I come up with an answer, an answer that fits in a few sentences. And I think about all those people who tell you how you have to have a perfectly crafted elevator pitch that you can deliver on command with eloquence and enthusiasm, and I think, really, what you should aim for is just to be able to mumble something while standing semi-naked next to a complete stranger after a long swim.

- "Yeah, I work hard but compared to what?" - Leonard Cohen