Ian McMillan: Reality? It’s not a leather patch on fantasy

I’m sitting in my dressing gown and a pair of slippers from Wombwell Market. I’m gazing out of the window at a white cat walking slowly across the lawn. I think to myself that it looks like a snowball rolling over a bowl of pea soup; I make an effort to remember that image because it might come in handy later, perhaps when I’m writing an article about cats or a recipe for pea soup. I’m slurping tea and the teabag bobs in the mug like a brown iceberg. The theme tune from Bonanza is running through my head like a stream in spate. Oh, and I’m working. I’m working really hard because I’m writing this column. Oh, I’m working so hard. Time for a break. Let’s get the kettle on. Careful, don’t trip over the dressing-gown belt!

When I was a boy I wanted to be a writer and I had a specific vision, based on very little concrete evidence, of what a writer should look like and what they should do. In my fantasy, as a writer I would rise late after a midnight shift redrafting my latest novel and put on a silk dressing gown that most definitely didn’t come from Wombwell Market. I would brew strong coffee and quaff it black, because all the writers I’d read about would fortify themselves with what they always called ‘endless’ black coffee. I thought it was a brand and asked my Mam if she could get me some instead of Camp.

I would put on the clothes that I always imagined writers should wear: a white shirt, a cravat, and a green corduroy suit with a matching waistcoat. I knew I would look like a hipster even though I didn’t know (and I’m still not sure) what a hipster was.

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The most important parts of the ensemble, as far as I was concerned, were the leather patches on the elbows of the jacket. I can’t emphasise enough how much gravitas and dignity and intellectual superiority these small items conveyed; as far as I was concerned, leather patches on the elbows made you clever, really clever.

Once dressed, I would walk into to my study and begin to pound out the next chapter of the book that would not only sell at least a million copies but which would push me to the front of the race to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Back in the place that some call The Real World I’m still in my dressing gown. I’ve made more tea. The cat has gone. I’m staring at the screen of my laptop. I sip tea. I’ve realised over thirty-odd years that writing isn’t about leather patches and foaming cravats, it’s about the beautiful, almost sacred, moment when you sit in front of the blank screen or the blank page and you begin to make marks on it, like footprints in snow or daubs on a cave wall.

The column is forming itself in my head; it’s getting ready, like a kid on a first date, to make itself presentable before it makes an appearance. And then suddenly there it is: I’ve written the first sentence. And the second. And the third. I’m off and running. And now I’ve stopped again, stalled by the side of the writing road. I’ll wait. Something will happen.

There’s somebody at the door: I hope it’s the postman with my Nobel Prize.