For three years I never knew if what I wrote was any good. I couldn’t trust anyone’s opinion, least of all my own. So I had to just keep going, filling notebook after notebook, writing and rewriting the same chapters a dozen different ways until I couldn’t see straight.
I wrote first drafts on cafe tables in Berlin; I wrote in tents camped out in the wilderness or pitched secretly behind bushes in city parks. I wrote in churches, libraries, bus stations, airports; on the Paris metro and on a rusting Chinese ship called the Yanjing that ran from Kobe to Tianjin in three long days.
I wrote in unruled black notebooks lying in bed at night in east London, and on the bunk of a sleeper train climbing the Tibetan plateau.
I had quit my job, moved thousands of miles from my friends and spent all my time working on a crazy book that I was not sure was even readable, much less printable. There was no limit to the sacrifices I would make to finish the book. I put everything into it and still it took forever. If the word ‘novelist’ had not already been coined, I should otherwise have been diagnosed as insane. Was I an ambitious and talented writer, or a lunatic making elaborate castles in the sky? It was impossible to know.
When I had finally printed out the manuscript I could not believe how thick it was. Considering the storyline, it was not a long novel—120,000 words—but on regular paper it was heavy to carry around and if you dropped the sheets it would take hours to put them back in order.
I spent my last summer in Berlin marking up the manuscript by hand, sitting on the grass beside the lake in the Weinbergspark. It took hours to do a few pages. Every sentence had to be perfect, but it was only perfect until you wrote it down. I went on revising anyway. Finally I typed in all the corrections, printed out the manuscript again and started over. I did this again and again until I had rewritten the whole book perhaps seven times. That took another year.
I finished the last chapter sitting on the straw-mat floor of my grandfather’s house in Tokyo. I did not feel happy. By then I had no opinion about the stories except that they existed and I was sick of looking at them.
Maybe that meant I was done.
But had all of this meant anything? If the book is a wild success, it might make for a decent story. And maybe it is a good story even as a failure, but I am sick of only having good stories to tell.
My life now is a few duffel bags of clothes and camping gear, and cardboard boxes full of old books stored somewhere where I cannot read them. At thirty I do not own an item of furniture: not a chair, not a television, not a single china plate. I do not have a steady job or an apartment, not even a rented room of my own. But all this was what I had wanted. It was the life I had chosen.
The manuscript is in a yellow envelope somewhere, its pages strung together with rubber bands. I will send it away soon. For now it is still a secret. For now, it is the same as if I never wrote it.
If you’ve read this far, maybe you’d like to find me ELSEWHERE.