Reading my own work has always made me cringe. Oh, I like the look of my published books. I can turn them this way and that, stroke the covers and read the shout quotes. But open the first page? You’ve got to be kidding.
As I think I’ve previously mentioned, I have been trying to complete a PhD in Creative Writing, which consists of a creative work, The Imagined Child, and a dissertation.
I didn’t expect to enjoy the dissertation. I am used to a different style of writing and the whole idea made me nervous. But oddly enough, I have loved every minute of it, even though I’ve been rushed and pressured to get it done. I found the readings stimulating and I enjoyed exploring other people’s works in depth.
But now I’ve reached the chapter that involves discussing my own work and I simply can’t bear it. I go hot and cold and feel my gut curling. My first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken was lucky. It came out in a time, just post-liberation, when I think people were hungry for South African stories. Anyway, for whatever reason, it did incredibly well. But when I read it now, I want to die.
I am being forced to look at it dispassionately, and explore its least accomplished aspects. It’s a form of hell.
I also have to consider the criticisms that have been levelled at it. This threw me back into a time when my life changed utterly. It was a magical time, as I launched at South Africa House in London and embarked on a book tour in the UK and Europe.
Although I was fortunate to receive generally good reviews, I still remember one particularly vicious criticism which left me weeping in the bath for two weeks. (I topped it up occasionally, but stayed there more or less permanently.) One can learn to give book talks and make public appearances, but I’m not sure one ever learns to cope with that level of critique, particularly if it is personally denigrating or cruel.
Reading it again now still made my knees weak. I eyed the bath longingly, but managed to pull myself together. Only just.
Even my latest book, which forms part of my thesis, has not escaped my scathing eye. The book was published last year, but I am still tweaking and finding room for improvement before I submit it for degree purposes. Which just goes to show that you can go on improving a creative work forever. It is never perfect.
In one way it’s a curse that a writer is unable to enjoy her creative work once it’s out in the world. All those years of work, and you can’t look at it. But perhaps it’s a necessary imperative.
If you’re never truly satisfied, you’re always driven to try to produce something better than the last. Perhaps that’s the true nature of creativity.