I often think about a guide to puberty (one of many) I read as a teenager. There was a chapter that aimed to utterly destroy any fantasy that your celebrity crush would ever return your feelings.
The case study was a young girl with a raging crush on Andre Agassi. "Even though Alice has feelings for Andre Agassi, she must accept that he will never know of her existence," I remember reading. "And even if she does meet Andre Agassi, the probability of him falling in love with Alice is very small, probably zero." There was a photo of Agassi, beady-eyed on the court, his hair like a tornado inhaling a bandana; and a photo of Alice – blind fool! – swooning alone in her bedroom.
I think of Andre Agassi whenever I need to regain some perspective on a situation. And I think of the devastatingly cool poet Eileen Myles, who, when asked, "Do you think your books will be read in the distant future?" said, "What do I care? I'll be dead."
I'm thinking of these things because I have written a new book, and I'm not sure that it was the right thing to do, because now I am having hopes and fears for the book. The poet James Brown advised me, "You need to have the book there in your flat like a new pet or flatmate – someone you have to learn to live with."
So I've had the book just lying around the place and each time I see it there – doing the exact same thing it's been doing its whole short life, which is nothing – I feel a small thrill and a deep unease. The thrill is simply the thrill of finishing something, although realistically I would have continued to write the book forever, literally stopping only for death, if my publisher hadn't given me a date of publication.
I'm not sure what the nature of the unease is. I think I am afraid someone will read the book. And I am afraid that no one will. And I am afraid that someone will ask me what it is about.
There are a lot of bad questions to ask writers such as, "Written anything I would've heard of?" and "Sold many copies?" and "I've got an idea for a book, how about you write it and we'll split the profits?" But "what is it about?" is the hardest to answer.
It feels as though your book is being head-butted. The question goes directly to the writer's fear that they have written a book about nothing. It also makes them feel self-conscious about not being very good at marketing themselves. Finally, it reminds them of their small, secret hope that they have written something so mysterious and so good that it can never be adequately described. Notice that I am using my special writerly technique of describing these feelings in the third person, so that the reader will understand them to be universal feelings rather than just my own personal ones.
There are other secret hopes. The writer hopes that a minor parade will be held when their book is published. One Christmas morning when I was 9 or 10, there was a knock at the door and when I opened it a brass band was standing there. It was the town band. They launched into When the Saints Come Marching In while my family and I stood there in our pyjamas. It was both wonderful and awkward. Something like this would encapsulate the spirit of publishing a book, especially a book of poetry. What I am saying is that there should be a travelling brass band that turns up on a writer's doorstep on the morning of their book's publication.
Apart from that, writers shouldn't expect the world to change when they publish a book. Keeping your expectations low means you will be surprised and glad if something does happen. But most writers I know really do want to be read, want to be deemed special and remarkable. This is hard to admit to; it seems a bit childish, like you haven't given up on your dreams of marrying Andre Agassi.
Ashleigh Young: will I ever get to the top of the hill?
In some ways, publishing a book is a dream – and, like all dreams, it can take you away from yourself. The hopes and fears that come with publishing a book can distract you from the reasons you write in the first place – reasons which, perhaps, are so mysterious that they can never be adequately described – and from the feeling you get when you write. I love the way the novelist Sigrid Nunez puts it: "How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible, to be removed from the world, and to be a part of the world at the same time."