big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

how to write a novel in no easy steps

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

silence: broken

The man who lives in the apartment upstairs has a wooden leg. His dog has a little cart with wheels, strapped onto his body where his hind legs used to be. In the early mornings, the man and the dog chase each other over the hard wooden floors, and fight over a bone.

I’m just speculating.

There’s no such thing as silence. Right now I hear the high chimes of glass being poured into the recycling bin, and the rumble of the council van. The river’s white noise, rain on leaves, and the birds’ whistles. Distant voices, footsteps on the stair. The click and pop of the kettle, cooling.

I read recently a beautiful essay by Kathleen Jamie, about a trip to the Far North. She says that there she came across a silence beyond silence. And within it, her mind was suddenly clamourous with thoughts, a kind of panic, rushing heart. I would like to hear that silence, just once.

The other kinds of silence I know all too well. The silence of things left unsaid, words unwritten, dances stilled, songs stopped in the throat. Those are the silences that hang from my body like a coat, a heavy coat, too heavy to do more than shuffle around in. Those are silences I would like to shrug off me, like letting a coat slip from my shoulders. It would fall to the ground and make a sound like hundreds of pieces of cutlery dropping onto a stone floor. After that, I would speak, and tell you how I really feel.

fear of music

Writers doling out writing advice sometimes say angry-sounding things about how writing isn’t therapy, and how if you’ve got problems you should go and see a counsellor rather than inflicting your shortcomings onto readers. I agree with this, but only up to a point.

The part I agree with is to do with good writing. As an ideal, or let’s say as a principle, you shouldn’t ever inflict anything on readers that isn’t well written. So, the sort of writing that I might have done in my secret diary twenty years ago, which started something along the lines of, ‘Oh dear god I am so fucking miserable, I hate myself, why am I such a dick?’ and continued in that manner for about 4000 pages, is not the sort of thing one should ever try to publish. It’s not good writing. It may have been therapeutic to write, but it isn’t pleasant, interesting, fun, revealing, or anything else that makes something worth reading. For the sake of one’s dignity, if nothing else, this sort of writing should remain securely locked away or, preferably, thrown on a fire once it has served its purpose.

But that is so obvious, it almost goes without saying. Does any serious writer really need to be told that their private, unstructured ramblings and outbursts about their personal problems are better not shared with the rest of the world? No, of course not.

That’s one of the problems with advice in general. Sometimes it’s so obvious that it’s completely useless. But this piece of advice is both obvious AND really, really wrong.

Because of course writing is therapy! It’s absolutely a way for people to discover, explore, analyse and maybe even heal the deep, dangerous parts of themselves.

Talk to any writer, ask them why they write. A few may answer that it’s fun, a hobby, a way to pass time. But the vast majority will tell you that they are driven by some unnamed and unnameable force within themselves. They don’t know exactly why they write, but they know that it fulfills a fundamental need; that if they don’t write, they are miserable; that writing keeps them sane; that they have so much to say that needs to be heard; that only when they are writing do they feel like real people.

Writing, for many writers, is a way of managing their unhappiness, their lack, their emptiness. It’s a way of making themselves heard, of being listened to and understood. It’s a way of trying to understand their damage, heal their childhood, rewrite their past or some aspect of themselves. Writers are broken people who use writing as a way of trying to mend themselves.

Now, there is probably an optimum level of fucked-up-ness for a writer to have in order to be successful. Probably just a little bit of childhood trauma is enough to create a person who is driven to write, but balanced enough to bring discipline and habit and commercialism into the mix. The rest of us may find it harder and suffer more in the process of learning how to become good people and good writers.

The more you write, of course, the more you learn about how to write, and the more you learn about that, the deeper your stories can take you. Which is why, every so often, writers find themselves completely paralysed and unable to continue. Writing is an act of faith in oneself. Writing your stories is an act of declaring one’s stories to be worth telling. And for damaged people, to act with self-worth and self-belief is something that can be very frightening. It can block you altogether. It can take time and strength to muster the courage to go on.

To say that writing isn’t therapy, especially to say it in that aggressive ‘how dare you use writing in that way!’ sort of tone, just doesn’t make any sense. It denies the fact that we are driven to write, it denies the aspects of ourselves that we are (consciously or unconsciously) trying to understand by writing. It denies the essence of what a story IS.

Stories are the way we try to know ourselves – as individuals, as societies and cultures, as people in historical and material contexts. Stories are how we create and transmit meaning, values and beliefs. Stories are what make us human. What is more therapeutic than a story? (Don’t you remember how stories saved you, taught you, gave you a way out when you needed one?) And if you don’t think stories are therapeutic, why do you even bother writing? What’s the point in being a writer, if you’re not trying to save a life?

food for writers

Recently I’ve been preoccupied with a number of things that only tangentially relate to fiction writing. Except when in full inspired flow, I am not someone who does nothing but live and breathe writing day after day,  although sometimes I feel an almost irresistable pressure to be that person, as if only a perfect dedication to writing at the exclusion of all else could enable me to produce good fiction.

Despite this self-inflicted pressure, I actually believe the opposite is true. People who do nothing but write (if there are such people) are living in a very limited kind of a way. Intense experiences, such as having a job, a relationship, travelling, learning a skill deeply, grieving, loving, playing – all these are food to the soul. Being outside in nature, being in the endlessness of a moment where you completely forget yourself – this is the kind of nourishment every being requires in order to be creative and honest in the world.

As writers, we cannot allow ourselves to sit comfortably still for long. We must agitate our inner lives, else our writing will stagnate and become rotten. It is easy to become stuck in a phase of writing which once felt fresh and new, watching as the bright phrases and lovely sentences gradually harden and hollow out, until they are empty models of something that was once real. It is easy to pretend that you are still speaking with your true voice. Maybe you can fool others, too. But if that is your voice, why is it so hard to write? Why don’t you ever feel like you are flying anymore?

It is hard to break free from that rut and dig for something deeper and truer. What if no one likes it? No one buys it? What if it is not as good as what you’ve done before? What if you uncover truths that change your life, that disrupt your peace of mind? So you carry on playing with the dead. You become blocked. You can’t rewrite the old stories, and you can’t write the new ones either. You know you can’t go back and you haven’t found the courage to go forward.

It’s a place I have been a few times, that nowhere place of being ‘blocked’. I don’t think there is any way to force a passage through it. It takes as long as it takes. It takes whatever it takes. For me, that is usually a big change. Something wrenched from my heart. Knowing something that is hard to know. Burying something I have been trying to keep alive. It takes a certain amount of forgetting about writing, of walking in the woods, of playing, of grieving, of watching the colour of the sky, feeling the sting of snow on your face, being swept up and moved by waves of music.

Whatever you do to enrich your soul will enrich your writing. Sometimes your writing practice itself will nourish your soul. But sometimes your soul needs other deep and urgent care before you can write again.