The Writing Process Blog Tour is a great way to connect with writers around the world by responding to four questions about writing process. Today, it’s my turn to share my secrets and idiosyncrasies.
I’m just getting back to my writing after the publication of my first novel, The Lost Child. Interviews, author talks and literary festivals—it’s been a steep learning curve, exciting and challenging, but always the niggle—I want to be writing!
My second novel is set in Poland and Russia in the early twentieth century and has involved years of dreaming, reading and research. I’m at third draft stage, having blazed out the first draft two years ago in a NaNoWriMo experiment. It was an appallingly basic draft but it did put words on the page. In the way of many first novels, I let The Lost Child unravel without a lot of planning but this time I’m working within a clearer structure. Returning to my characters and their world, feels like being able to breathe again!
Although I write poetry, my first love is fiction. I work in the dark and burrow towards some understanding of my characters and their place in the world. How does it differ from others? Literary fiction is a very broad church and if I could control my direction, or define my difference, I don’t think I’d be writing fiction.
I’ve realized only recently that I write a lot about loss! A lost child, a paedophile, a woman who leaves her children to follow the teachings of Sai Baba, a dwarf daughter locked away in an asylum, a son hit by a truck on Christmas eve. Aristotle theorized that we tell ourselves stories until we arrive at a version of life, or ourselves, that gives us power over our world. I’m sure that’s true of me! I write to understand my lost characters. I write to understand myself. I write to find sanctuary from a challenging world. I write to find compassion. I write about life and love and loss because it’s the best way I can live.
‘The literary work is to the writer what a child is to his mother: it is in turns (or simultaneously) a cause for worry, for joy, for despair, a delight, a torment—an enigma.’Pierre Ryckmans, The View From The Bridge, 1996 Boyer Lectures.
This quote is pinned above my desk as a mirror of my writing process. Generally, I begin with fact—remembered, recent, or researched—then somehow, magically, the imagination takes over and works to create this joyous, worrisome, slippery beast called fiction.
When I first began writing, I tried very hard to control the process. I thought writing came from my head: it took some time to discover that it needed to come from my heart. Losing my mother and having four family deaths within eight months, taught me a lot about letting go of control. So did Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s freefall writing workshops. I now listen rather than think. On days when the critic is loud in my head, I tell myself I’ll write just one sentence and see what happens. And mostly, if I let myself trust, there’s a voice—The Unconscious? The Higher Self? God? The Muse?—who knows? And so it goes. Word by word, sentence by sentence, until I’m lost in the process.
I recently heard a sports writer describe Catherine Freeman’s preparation for winning at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She told him that prior to the race—any race—she focused on the lane where she’d shortly be running. She saw nothing but the lane. She felt her legs moving, and when she began, she was so absorbed by the act of running that she ceased to exist and became running itself. In writing, it’s this same process of total absorption that excites and attracts me, and often eludes me, but still I keep trying.
I’m not a fast writer. I rewrite and rewrite, getting closer and closer to the truth that I don’t know I know, until I have that moment of recognition. I used to be very good at chaining myself to my desk and writing a certain number of words a day. Then I met a prizewinning novelist who wrote ‘only’ three hours a day. I’m best in the mornings, the earlier the better, and now I follow his example, recognizing that dream time is just as important as desk time, and that I’m replenishing the well while I’m living.