I spent much of this past week trying to work on the book and it just wasn’t coming together. I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve accumulated enough years of experience as a working writer to know that it’s not all stardust and inspiration.
I started out with the idea that this was a certain type of book, and therefore the characters, the narrative, and the conceit had to fit a particular genre. Well, the book had other ideas. It doesn’t fit that genre and it isn’t going to. Trying to force it to fit was making me angry and frustrated. It was making my characters angry and frustrated, too. I’d written a scene where I made them behave as I wanted them to, and it fell flat. It was completely false. I should have known that the book always knows. Perhaps that sounds a bit too airy-fairy, but this has been my experience. The book always knows. It knows what it wants to be and what the story is. It knows where it’s going. My job isn’t to force it into a particular shape, but to let it reveal its shape to me in due course. This requires patience, something I’m not good at.
Writing is work. Writing is a job like any other. Yes, there are times when I honestly feel like I’m channeling something outside myself, that I’m a conduit, that I’m taking it down and not making it up, like I just have to listen on the page, as writing teacher Julia Cameron says, and it will all fall into place. I love when it’s going that way.
Then there are the times when getting the damned thing to work out is hard bloody graft, when I sit for hours and get nothing more than a handful of sentences, a paragraph or two. I hate that. That’s when all the fear and self-doubt rise to the surface, when I step back and look at what I’ve made and start thinking that this is crap, it’s no good, no one will ever want it, why am I wasting my time and all the rest of that poisonous psychological soup.
I know instinctively when something isn’t working, and that’s not a scary feeling at all. It’s a calm, measured response that says you know what this doesn’t feel right…I think I need to change that part in the first paragraph where the donkey eats the man’s straw hat…. It doesn’t scare me at all. That other feeling, the horrible fear that everything I make is rubbish? That arises when the work is harder than I expected it to be, harder than it’s been in recent memory. That alerts me that I need to step back, slow down, drop the pen and nobody gets hurt. I get to feeling that way when what I’m making is good, and somewhere deep in my subconscious I know it’s good, so I’m terrified of screwing it up.
When I was younger – a lot younger – I committed to the idea of being a writer. I had a notion that ‘being a writer’ meant sitting in dingy cafes on long, rainy nights, with pen and paper, surrounded by cigarette smoke and a low babble of voices, writing my fingers to the bone and creating a masterpiece, before going home to my rat-infested garret apartment and starving to death. With wine.
In those days I didn’t live in a garret exactly, but I lived in a pretty crummy apartment building and I was so poor I existed mostly on potatoes and couldn’t afford to put the heat on. I sat at my kitchen table wearing all my clothes and with a blanket wrapped around me for good measure and wrote longhand wearing gloves. But it was all good, because I was writing. I think such privations are easier to endure when you’re twenty years old.