‘Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.’
This, from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, is my favourite summary of the writing process. It encapsulates the high and low points of writing a book, I think. I might, in one day, be delighted by what I’ve done, yet by tea time it’s imposter syndrome in the writing shed. What am I thinking? I am a fool! I have no talent! My last book didn’t exactly set the world on fire, so I’ve got bad track and I’m done. But wait. Everyone has bad track! Books that are duds. Books that did not sell, or which were not edited to the best standard. Books that should have waited. Books that should not. Even the most gifted, extraordinary writers. You see how I vacillate? It goes on. But even if I have bad track, it’s different for me because I am basically a fool who shouldn’t have been doing this in the first place. Oh yes—I can add more to that, if you please. I didn’t finish a PhD which just shows what I’m made of AND my mother didn’t like me which also just shows. I am not kidding.
There is more. You might want to sit down.
Right now, I do the whole process—writing and self-doubt plus castigation—at top speed because it’s ten o’clock now, I’ve done three packed lunches, had a stab at housework, got the laundry out, done the school run with the youngest child, gone home and back a second time because I forgot a PE kit and to write on the clipboard that this kid was being picked up by someone else today, I’m teaching this afternoon, and I rose early because . . . because some idiot (in my head) convinced me it would be a really good idea to take part in NaNoWriMo 2017, so I’ve written 3,000 words already today. First, I was ever so pleased at how well they were coming out and the turn of phrase I (mostly) managed to evince; then I decided that this was a story that no-one would read but decided I had to keep going anyway; then I ended up going past my allotted word count today and realised that I’d turned my main male character into a man for whom you could have no sympathy because, although he was sex on fire, who was going to fancy him because his broodiness had edged into darker water and he was too broody, sullen and altogether objectionable? Then I felt like the story was altogether too Welsh—too geo-specific— and would, as beta readers of my last book said, put people off. (I assume they weren’t having a bash at Cymraegs, but now I think about it . . .)
While I was at it, this tremendously useful stuff, I started thinking about my punctuation. You see, I am an English teacher and I was a dinosaur about all things English language when I was 21. I love punctuation. Love it. It’s like beautiful architecture and when I read a book—and I read two or three books a week—I am ingesting the story, soaking up the tone and atmosphere of the text and (although it varies, depending on which genre you are reading) I am feeling the punctuation. It’s like music and colour to me. Because of how I feel, I love to use the full range of punctuation marks in my writing. I love to write large poly-clausal sentences because, frankly, I love to read them. I love to see a paragraph made of one beautiful sentence. I enjoy the dashes, colons and semicolons and I test them on my pulse. It pains me that my eldest lad, who is 16, is being told, in English lessons, to write in shorter sentences and to avoid semicolons altogether because ‘you never really need them’. I hear editors speak about how they like ‘cleaner’ writing, with simple punctuation and then I doubt myself again: look at me! I am not what is wanted. I was a dinosaur at 21 and have now become a fossil.
I tried to tell someone on the school run about these feelings a while back. She said, ‘Then why the fuck are you doing this?’
Here’s the answer.
Because one, it is painful, but it’s not that painful. Let’s get some perspective here. You’re not really (sorry Hemingway) sitting at your laptop (or notebook if that’s you, with a pencil there) and bleeding and it isn’t tragedy. The world will never notice, truly, if you don’t write this book. And it’s entirely possible that it won’t if you do. But you feel compelled to do it, so do it. The compulsion is a very good sign, I promise you.
Because, two, I put it off for ages because of work, lack of self esteem, raising three boys, that old imposter syndrome. And then one day a fire rose up within me and I sat down and wrote a book. With very little idea of how publishing worked. That was late summer 2014. Now I have started, I have the bug; plus I’ve spent the past few years learning, talking, writing pieces here and there and I’ve worked hard. I’d be daft to stop at this point. In my own eyes.
Because, three, it helps to clarify thought and, when I write, I am in a place where anxiety, for the moment, might be nagging just a little at my elbow, but it does not consume me. I have focus and am not bewildered by the world I have found increasingly more chaotic and difficult to navigate over the past few years (Brexit here; Trump there—but also a lot of bereavement in my family). It gives me clarity and focus. I feel the same way when I am teaching, incidentally. What the teenagers I teach give me, with fresh eyes and rebellion and humour, is far more than I give them. And I feel similarly when I am reading. It’s absorption in the task. ‘How beautiful it is’ wrote W.H. Auden in Sext of his Horae Canonicae . . . ‘You need not see what someone is doing/to know if it is his vocation,/you have only to watch his eyes:/a cook mixing a sauce,/a surgeon making a primary incision,/a clerk completing a bill of lading,/wear that same rapt expression,/forgetting themselves in a function./How beautiful it is, that eye-on-the-object look.’ And, overall, it feels beautiful too. The back roof of the house could have fallen off just now, when I was writing even this modest little text: I wouldn’t have noticed. Got my eye-on-the-object look on. As I write, I am sure my expression is rapt and it’s true: I am forgetting myself in a function.
Here’s another reason why.
Because, four, it makes me happy. In creating a new thing that didn’t exist before, I feel that I am accomplishing something. And you already saw the schedule to which I need to work. I have gaps of time, but none of it is ideal. At this point, I could write with a small child attached to my arm and chopping an onion (palm of the hand, sharp knife, like my Bengali uncle taught me to do and it’s coming in handy now, unexpectedly). I have to wrest time from my life, miss sleep and reflect on what is going right and what is going wrong. Right: I’m a quick worker and not short of ideas. Wrong: readers complain that they have to read me with a dictionary, my sentences are long (but see above) and my work needs to be more closely edited, with me in a less of a hurry. But the fact that I am able to create this discussion for myself now is commensurate with choice, autonomy and ambition. That’s empowering, isn’t it?
All in all, the four because words have produced, in three years, nearly five books. One is published, one’s out in 2018, one is out in full manuscript on submission, another being submitted later today and the fourth I am writing at the moment—this was the block of writing I got up early to do. I’ve guest blogged, had two poems and essays published, I’m co-editing an anthology at the moment and editing another next year. I have three young sons, teach and have various volunteer roles. I am not saying this because it is in any way admirable, but because it shows you I want and need to write and didn’t allow myself to be dissuaded. Not by friends or (we’re getting in deep here), scoffers who I’d thought had more faith in me; not by agent or publisher rejections, either. Along the way, I’ve discovered a true and deep joy, connected with any number of like-minded readers and writers, discovered the wealth of books I didn’t previously know about in the small presses of Great Britain and Ireland . . . the world. It’s heady stuff.
I’ll end here. But there’s a fifth because I ought to mention.
To the question, ‘Then why the fuck do you do this?’
Because I sometimes wonder (Orlando again) if I’m divinest genius or greatest fool and I’m exploring whether, actually, I might be both. Or neither. That would be fine, too—and so I’m off to find out.