What I'm about to write might be obvious if you've ever published a book; if you haven't, and have no intention of doing so, you can stop reading now. If you think you might write a book, or are in the process of writing your first with a view to publication, it might be of passing interest. But even that's not guaranteed. You can duck out here. I don't mind. I really don't.
It’s about being naked, chiefly, about being exposed.
Someone who intends to write a book asked me recently if I felt exposed, having published my first.
“In what way?” I said.
“Um, like you’re naked,” she said. “In public. And everyone’s looking at you.”
“Well, no,” I said. “Not really.”
I’ve been naked in public as an adult and had people look at me and remember pretty clearly what it felt like.
I was writing a feature on life models and had decided to go full gonzo, to do some life modelling myself.
That wasn’t an easy decision for me. Since post-pubescence, if not earlier, I’ve had what I can only imagine is a form of body dysmorphia. I dislike my body in its naked state, and am disgusted – to be honest – with certain aspects of it. I should be kinder to myself. I’m not.
Being naked in front of a group of strangers was one of the worst things I could have ever imagined. I actually did imagine it from time to time and it was horrible.
I had to psyche myself up to go through with it. And, because of that, I was in a state of relative calm on the day itself – relative only to the unmanageable state I’d have been in otherwise. I stood behind a screen, listening to four adult artists talking, getting my kit off, placing it on a stool.
I looked at my crumpled T-shirt, my jeans, my socks, folded them, refolded them, thought about edging out from behind the screen, didn’t. Could I have misheard them? Maybe I was meant to keep my boxers on. What if I walked out and they shouted, in unison: "We didn’t mean ALL your clothes, dumb-ass, get back in there, Jesus, what the …"
When I did emerge, the attention was instant: eyes all over my body, hungry and human. I kept my shoulders back, tried to look cool, not naked; I sat for three hours, in varying poses, internally reciting incantations to quell my fear that, for no reason other than self sabotage, I might pop a boner and have to run away.
The actual attention, when I got used to it, was fine: the worst part, by far, was the waiting to be seen, to be judged.
The last bit of hands-on writerly input before publishing my book was like being behind the life-modelling screen except that, instead of refolding clothes, I was reworking sentences, again, and again, and again. Because it was going out into the world. Because it needed to be perfect. Because I needed to be perfect. Because people would be looking at it. Because fuck.
But actually – and I write this with a sense of calm that hasn’t always been there in recent weeks – that’s not what happens at all. Unless you get lucky and fall into the industrial candy floss machine of praise and counter praise that some books, even some good books, receive, what happens is this:
You come out from behind the screen, braced for the potential onslaught of people pointing out that you're naked, and feeling more or less OK with that because you’ve psyched yourself up for public scrutiny.
And some people do notice. Hey, some people even love your work. You’ve done a good thing. You feel gratified. It was all worth it. Go you! You’re amazing!
But plenty of people don't notice. In fact, most people don’t. Virtually everyone in the world who could be reading your book isn’t.
As that sinks in, all the psyching yourself up you’ve been doing feels kind of stupid – because yes, you’re naked, in public, but most people aren't looking at you, and they never will, because in the meantime other people, quite sexy people, have got their kit off and most people are looking at them instead – even you, god damn it, as you pull your socks and undies back on and run over for a closer look, because fuck, why wouldn’t you? Just look at them!
How does it feel to be so naked, you guys? Please, sign my bum cheek! Woo-hoo!