On Picking Up Where You Left Off (and Other Minor Mountains To Be Conquered)

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So far, this week, I’ve only been a writer. I have been following a strict schedule for my writering, loosely based on years of observing other “just” writers in their natural state.

I have arisen before the hour of 9am, drank coffee, eaten pastries, walked into town whilst thinking about character development, written for three hours in the Central Library or the Linenhall Library, (though less so, the Linenhall, where the “members only” desks and the infernal Americans chittering around the births/deaths/marriages section was not proving to be much of an inspiration), nipped out for a quick lunch, relocated to one of Belfast’s many coffee-dispensing emporiums, written for a further two hours, walked out of town whilst thinking about plot development, eaten a quick dinner, met some fellow artistic types for drinks, (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and stimulating conversation, returned home, read Faulkner in bed for an hour, (this part isn’t true, though I have seriously considered giving Mr Faulkner another whirl), and dreamt rich dreams populated by characters and story lines soon to be written, (also a bizarre recurring dream about middle-aged Garth Brooks fans). My first week as a full-time writer has been self-indulgent and for the most part, glorious, though not without its challenges.

ITV3 is a constant temptress, offering round-the-clock and terribly distracting episodes of Murder She Wrote and Inspector Morse, every time I linger too long in the general vicinity of the living room couch. I am drinking too much coffee and consequently staying up too late and putting my carefully planned, arise before 9, schedule at risk. I am missing my Ipod like an actual hole in the head. It is almost impossible to block out the coffee-drinkers’ background chatter without a pair of headphones and a moderately loud serving of Bob Dylan. I am only having writerly conversations and forgetting how to talk about normal things; for example, recent apocalyptic trends in the weather/the Great British Bake Off. (Just this afternoon I even managed to have a writerly conversation with my six year old nephew. Instigated by the nephew it began with him asking, “why are artists always grumpy?” and ended up with me explaining the purpose of the play within a play structure in Hamlet. To his credit, the six year old seemed genuinely interested and possibly exhibiting early signs of a pending MacArthur genius grant). Mostly, however, I have struggled with getting over my own insecurities and getting back into the new novel.

I’ve just finished reading Northern Irish short story writer, Anne Devlin’s beautiful collection, The Way Paver. There’s a section in a story called “Life Lines” which really resonated with my current situation.

“We resent the best things in us. When I play, I think I’ll never be that good again. And then I hate my music. I have to compete against my own talent all the time. You’re a bit like that. You always seem to be at war.”

I’ve managed just over 3,000 words of Roundabouts in the last three days. Every single one of those words has felt like a small war and it was only this afternoon, on my third consecutive day of head down, focused writing that I actually felt myself sliding back into my characters and the voice I’d established in the preceding 50,000 words. Over the last three months so many people have said nice things about Malcolm Orange Disappears, and I’ve spent so much time with the book, watching and enjoying other people’s reactions, that I’ve actually begun to believe that it is rather good. In fact, I like Malcolm and his friends and enemies,( particularly the long-suffering Cunningham Holt), so much I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything this good ever again. Picking up Roundabouts after a three month hiatus was a tremendously grounding experience. Initially I couldn’t see any merit in  a novel I’d been quietly satisfied with just a few short months ago. I wanted to throw it out and start again as it just didn’t feel like Malcolm. I felt, as Anne Devlin so succinctly puts it, in competition with myself.

I’ve often heard artists talk about this phenomenon but never experienced it, quite so severely with my own work. It’s been a long and arduous three days trying to fall back in love with what now feels like my inferior second-born, yet I’m beginning to make progress. I’ve quit comparing one novel with the other; they’re different books in almost every detail and so there seems little logical sense in holding one accountable to the other. I’ve begun to reconcile myself to the possibility of edits and drafts, (many, reasonably substantial drafts). I didn’t draft much with Malcolm but then again I took my time over his creation, lingering for three and a half years so every sentence was almost ready to print by the time I handed it in to my editor. This novel, is heading towards a first 100, 000 word draft in just 9 months and I’m starting to accept that there will be many redrafts to come. I think I’m ok with this, though occasionally I still slip into late night anxiety, just thinking about letting someone read an incomplete manuscript. I’m a recovering perfectionist at heart. Finally, I’m remembering why I bother writing at all. I didn’t start writing to sell books or posture like a writer or compete for publication in the right journals. I began writing because I felt compelled to, and in the words of my six year old nephew, because I grew increasingly grumpy and difficult to live with when I didn’t write. Somewhere up the food chain, someone’s allocated me some money so I can do the thing I can’t live without for three months, guilt and worry free. I am a very fortunate young writer. Much as the last few days have felt like a war, this realisation has been enough to push me over the mountain of that first blank page and get me excited about Roundabouts again.


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