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.

the opposite problem

I’ve neglected this blog a lot recently, and I’m not quite sure why. I enjoy writing posts here and talking to all of you who comment here and on facebook and elsewhere.  I think sometimes I just don’t really want to do the things that I enjoy doing, including writing. Sometimes I just want to feel the way I feel when I don’t do those things. It’s a different way of relating to the world.

Perhaps it is simply that I have grown comfortable with being alone, not really sharing much with others. Many people I know are deathly afraid of their loneliness. But I have relaxed into it as I’ve gotten older, and I have the opposite problem these days, that I sometimes fear connection with others. For me, it is so terribly painful to be misunderstood, to not be known. I guess that is a kind of loneliness, too, now that I think about it.

Of course I like to think that my inner life is more real and full of depth and meaning than any interaction with others.  You have to think like that in order to become a writer, and being a writer, you have to talk about it as though it makes you somehow special, when perhaps any introvert will feel the same way. It becomes more comfortable to be alone, to try to contain yourself and all your worlds inside your own body.

I think that when a way of being becomes safe and comfortable, it is time to change. Perhaps even to destroy, annihilate, devastate and abandon! If not, we get stuck in a ‘safe place’ with our writing, and we fail. We are too scared to throw it all out and start again. But creativity is always yin/yanging with destruction. True artistry does not spring from balanced contentment, but is the phoenix that is born from the flames as the old world burns to ashes. I’d really love to write that sentence in a less pretentious way, but there it is, that’s exactly what I want to say right now. Change or die, people. Change or die.


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?

don’t listen to the voices

As a child, my creativity was not exactly nurtured and encouraged. Attempts at art were met with laughter (“What is it supposed to be?”) When I tried to learn the violin, I was accused of aural torture (“It sounds like you’re trying to kill a cat.”) When I showed off my ‘ballet’ dancing, it was made clear just how wrong I was about my skill level there (“As graceful as a herd of elephants!”) As a child I didn’t understand that art has to be practised before it gets better. If I was bad at something, then I needed to stop doing it right away.

Literature and art were valued by and important to my family in some ways. But it seemed that the making of art was for other people.  I grew up believing that only geniuses and special people could be painters, dancers, musicians and writers. And since I wasn’t a genius or special, any of my attempts to paint, dance, play or write would be met with laughter and a sort of nervous contempt. Who do you think you are? People are just going to laugh at you. You’re not good enough.

No wonder, then, that it took me a long time to take my writing seriously and call myself a writer. I still reel at the amount of courage needed every time I say, “I’m a writer.”

No wonder, too, that sometimes self-criticism disables or diminishes my ability to write well. It is hard to devote time and energy to writing when in your head the voices are reeling off reasons why you’re so very wrong about everything.

It helps to say to myself, as often as possible, “You are a good writer.” I don’t say it as some kind of affirmation, thinking that if I say it enough times the universe will make it come true. I say it because it IS true. Speaking the truth gives me courage. Without courage, I can’t write.

I am a good writer. I do have talent. I have the ability to move people with my words. That is not a little thing. That is not something that can be discounted or thrown away. It’s a gift, one that I should be proud of. A gift that I should protect and nurture and grow.

To say I am good doesn’t mean that I think I am great, the greatest, a genius, a wonder. Just that I am good enough. Good enough to sit down to work and try to become better. Good enough to try. Good enough to use the gifts I have in order to make the world a better place, even if it’s just a tiny little bit. Good enough to tell myself: keep going. Good enough to shout down the voices that tell me I’m an idiot for trying, that I’m hubristic for wanting to be better, that I’m making a fool of myself.

So what if I make a fool of myself? The alternative is to never risk anything. I think that’s what frightened my family – taking those risks, looking stupid to others, being vulnerable to criticism and rejection. Yes, those things are hard as hell. And sometimes (often) you do get rejected, and you do get criticised, and you do feel stupid. It hurts. But it doesn’t kill you. What kills you is never using your gift, never exploring your talent, never following your heart. What kills you is giving up. So don’t give up.

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.


i can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible

Yeah, bye 2011. Apart from the last couple of months, you were rubbish.

I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, because the truth is that I’m constantly resolving to do better and change things in my life. But this new year has fallen at an auspicious time for me, a time when I am already in the process of making big changes. So that whole ‘fresh start’ thing is a nice boost.

Amongst other things, I resolve to blog more often. I mean, at least once a week. If you don’t blog once a week, then you can’t really call it a blog, can you? So there’s a public declaration of intent… feel free to kick my butt if I fail on this one.

I’ve got a load of writing goals this year, the main ones being to finish what I start, and to get these damn novels written. I have three, in varying states of unfinishedness, and I need to whip them all into shape. Apart from that, there are various other goals, some of which will remain secret, and some which are just too pedestrian to recount here. But 2012 is going to be the year when my writing career starts kicking into gear. At least, that’s the plan.

My word for the coming year is COURAGE. I often lack it, and I need a lot of it. Sometimes it takes courage just to sit down and write something, ignoring the terrible voices that seem to have a lot invested in the idea that I can’t, or shouldn’t. It takes courage to do simple things, make big decisions, ignore petty people, stay focused. I know I will have a lot of challenges this year, and I hope I’m courageous enough to do what I need to do.

And as for you in 2012? May your neurons fire without fail; may your dendrites be stimulated; may your chemicals remain balanced; may your body support all your mind’s plans; and may the mysteries descend upon you.

writing is rewriting

So I plucked up courage and read the first draft. It was everything I expected it to be: sloppy, solipsistic, boring. But after reading it, I wrote a list of everything I liked about it, and there were FIVE WHOLE THINGS! So much of the story became clearer to me as I read, particularly towards the end. I realised that there were layers and layers to this story.

I also realised that it’s the kind of story that, if it is not done brilliantly, will be dreadful. It is difficult material and I am terrified of fucking it up.

But I’m working on the second draft, nonetheless.  Two thousand words today. Having the basic story already worked out, more or less, allows me to have a much more interesting time with the writing.

I hope that I can catch up with my short story writing soon, too. Novels are great but very time consuming.

the fear

I’ve got the fear.

It’s half-term next week, and it’s about two months since I finished the first draft of my novel. A good time to start editing and revising. That was the plan, anyway.

So this morning I printed out a paper copy, with the intention of reading it through once and taking it in. No notes, no criticism, just see what’s there and how I feel about it.  It was quite satisfying to see the big wodge of paper  sitting on top of the printer. I felt a little bit proud.

But when I went to pick it up, to take it in my hands and start reading – I couldn’t. I sat there, staring at it, trying not to read any of the words on the page. I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Part of a sentence: “…clattering out of slots…”. Awful words. Terrible. This whole thing is a mistake, I thought. Abandon ship!

At some point I am going to have to gather up my courage and actually read the damn thing. Writing is such a head-fuck sometimes.