In the lead up to the publication of my first novel, I’ve attempted to keep sane by easing myself every now and again into the murky waters of a new writing project. It hasn’t been easy, in the midst of a tight editing and publicity schedule, to find the necessary mental space to contemplate, let alone begin, the obsessive process of coaxing a new work to life.
I’m a slow writer. Fast, when I have the idea sorted out, be it the outline, the chapter, the character sketch, but in the lead up to these flurried bursts of keyboard tapping, there are months, weeks, years – Toni Morrison calls it ‘playing in the dark’ – of uncertainty and unease. The requirement of much patience, of inventive healthy (and no-so much), antidotes to that humming motor of anxiety. What surprises me, over and over, are the number of possibilities for the next big project that need to be sifted through before I can settle upon the one that has all of the required parts.
Because I’m a stickler for research, it takes me at least six months of immersion in a subject before I’m even ready to contemplate plot. Before I start writing, I feel a strong need to take an indefinite holiday or go on wild shopping sprees (I hate shopping). And, once I have completed a draft, I need nine months’ or so of a break – teaching, catching up on contemporary novels, daydreaming, being a mum and friend – before building the confidence to return to the raw file.
I have to keep other pieces of writing on the go, to stop losing confidence, to stop mourning the months of scant production. Will I ever write again? Have I forgotten how? I write essays, short stories, once upon a time I wrote poems, but no more, as I pan and filter for the next big project.
Writing’s a funny old beast in that you continually relearn, or is it re-experience? – how it actually works. It’s tricky and slippery, there’s no forcing a chapter or scene when it’s not quite ready, but when that little firefly of readiness appears, all must be put aside to follow its jagged flight.
To arrive at a point of confidence in committing to a new project I need to be utterly sure I can sit with the themes, story, setting and characters for several years. In the last four years I’ve contemplated writing a memoir, which I have fully outlined and made copious notes for, an on-the-road contemporary novel about a woman fleeing her life, which I wrote 60,000 words of a draft before deciding not to resuscitate. And, a historical novel I thought about researching before I began the novel I have recently finished. The setting is late 17th century France. The characters are a group of aristocratic women who contributed to the development of the novel, the memoir, the travel narrative, and the literary fairy tale. They were best-sellers in their day, their books translated into other languages, and published in many editions. But in the Enlightenment these women’s extraordinary texts were slowly erased from the canon. Which of course only makes their histories more tantalising, their adventures and narratives more compelling. I’m looking forward finding their pearls and fountains and ogres and spells and oranges and towers and rubies and fairies.
I do think the memoir project is a keeper, though not for now. The on-the-road jag is dead to me. But the novel of the Sun King and the Old Regime, keeps flashing in the peripherals of my daily life; as I fall asleep, as I drive, drinking a glass or wine (or two), reading my students’ drafts, such that I’m going to give it a chance. I’m saying yes to its long courtship. For it has everything and more to keep me occupied, entertained. After a long wait, I’m thrilled to be back to my desk, the agony (I do not exaggerate) of midwifing my first novel forgotten, eager to fill in some new blanks.