I've always been better at achievement than pleasure. I'm addicted to the cold, tinny peaks of accomplishment - the little deaths of things repeatedly finished, perfected and acclaimed. I find it much harder to surrender to simple enjoyment. You don't get any points for enjoyment. In fact, I've always suspected that you get points taken off.
This can fuel a competitive, hard-brained sort of reading, and has increasingly been influencing the way I write. Ever since I admitted that I want to be a Published Novelist rather than a part-time scribbler, happy tossing off half-finished stories in the privacy of my own amateurism, writing has become another exam.
No wonder I keep doing everything but.
Every sentence has turned into a marathon, with the shades of Carey and Kermode hovering over my shoulder pointing out tired clichés. What was once an intuitive and joyful sprint becomes a halting, doubtful crawl. Sure, self-conscious crafting is essential for writing you expect others to pay for. But can't work (and life) also be fun?
When I was younger, writing was as much of a compulsion as reading is for me now. And when I look back, I see that the stories that inspired me were just that - amazing stories. Alan Garner, Robin Jarvis, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Ursula le Guinn: their narrative urgency acted like a shot of creative insulin to the eyeballs.
And the same applies today. As much as I admire and enjoy the sophisticated stylists - I've just finished Adam Mars-Jones' Pilcrow and Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs - I stall in a dither of envious despair. When I instead reach for Rowling, Pullman, the new CJ Sansom, I can't get to the keyboard quick enough.
All this time I've been trying to love DeLilo, when all I really want to read is Dickens. Stephen King's brilliantly unpretentious On Writing has helped me feel OK about that.
I can sometimes sense, when I read a book, whether a writer enjoyed themselves, or whether they were mired in an impressive but worthy slog. Having fun doesn't make the process of writing a novel much easier, but it does make it something you want to do, every day. Anyway, I'm wondering what my real aim as an author is. Is it to matter as an writer?
Or is it to make my readers miss their trains?