Writers are like farmers. We’re always complaining. I have a brother-in- law who’s a farmer. I once said to him, ‘John, don’t you ever stop grumbling?’ And he said, very proudly, ‘No, never, because I’m a farmer, and we have to be allowed to grumble.’ Well, writers have to be allowed to grumble, too. So far as farmers go, it’s too wet, or it’s too dry; too hot, or too cold; too soon or too late. Well, writers are just the same. The novel’s too short, or it’s too long. There are too many characters; or, wait, no, there aren’t enough characters. The plot’s too obvious, or it’s too tenuous. The deadline’s always too soon. And, whatever you do, don’t get us started on reviews.
At one stage of my life I was having great difficulty with all of these issues and writers’ block as well. I complained about this difficulty and stress to a friend. She said, briskly, ‘Well, don’t do it, then.’ Incredulously, I said ‘What?’ She said (rather as if she were talking to a five-year- old), ‘If it’s causing you such grief, don’t do it. Don’t write. There’s no law that says you have to write anything. The only reason for writing is if you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.’
And, while I could see that there was some sense in this, it seemed inconceivable to me that I could stop writing. So that started me thinking, Why do I write? In the face of all this anguish and self- doubt and misery, why do I write?
At about the same time I sent a despairing email to my cousin, Penny Matthews. Penny worked at the time as an editor for Penguin, but she is also a writer and produces terrific novels for young adults. So she has a good understanding of both sides of the publishing fence. I said to Penny that I was depressed about the novel I was working on and it seemed to me it was going to need a hell of a lot of rewriting. And she replied like this:
Writing is a process of building – you don’t begin with a mansion, but with a lot of earth moving and some very messy footings and some iced coffee cartons chucked about.
This seemed to me both wise and true, and it started me thinking about in what ways writing was similar to building, and what other activities writing might resemble. And that train of thought dovetailed with the train of thought about wondering why I wrote at all.
First, when you’re building a house, you need to plan it. You need to know where you’re going to put it, how big it’s going to be, and how many people are going to live in it; you need to know what sort of bricks you’re going to use, how many storeys you want, where you want the kitchen, what the roof will be made of. Everything you decide affects everything else. You can’t just jump in and start laying bricks without knowing which wall the bricks are going to be part of. You have to make your mind up pretty early about the plumbing and the electrics. It’s a question of constructing from the bottom up, foundations first. And the further you go, the more important are the big questions of construction. Which are the load-bearing walls? How many bedrooms? Where are the windows? All of this needs thought and judgment and analysis. Before you start building.
And my cousin’s so right. Writing is like building. What sort of a novel are you thinking about? How many characters? What genre, roughly? Where will the novel be located? What kind of plot will you have? are you going to divide it into chapters? whose voice are you going to tell it in? These are questions you need to address before you jump in and start writing seriously. If you put a house on the wrong block, or facing the wrong way, you’ll need to tear it down and start again. Same with a novel.
Though, of course (and it’s this that saves us), it’s always possible to effect a minor renovation when the rest is all built. A bedroom can be turned into a study; an attic can be fashioned. A window might be added. Or a corridor.
Something else that writing resembles is cooking. Think of a cake. Bake it for too short a time and it’s wet and floppy; bake it for too long and it burns. Beat it too much – or not enough – and it won’t rise. Get the proportions wrong – too many raisins, not enough eggs, and it’s a disaster. You’ve got to spice it and sweeten it enough – but not too much. And you don’t know how it’s going to turn out: the moment of truth is when you slice it. And then it’s too late to change it. And – this bit’s important – you can ice it and decorate it as much as you like, but if the cake itself isn’t any good, what you put on top of it won’t save it. When you come to cut that cake up and eat it, no amount of pink icing and silver balls and candles and sparklers will make that cake anything but the cake it is.
The uncertainty at the heart of cooking also bedevils writing. Will I pause here and put in – what? – a dollop of sour cream? a bit of chilli? glass of claret? all of the above? Perhaps some parsley – that’s usually safe. Potatoes, for bulk? Maybe I’ll throw in some strawberries, just because I do love strawberries, and they worked ok in a different recipe. And I’m in a hell of a hurry, so I’ll give it twenty minutes at 200° rather than waiting the full forty minutes at 180°.
Ah, the traps that lie in wait for the inexperienced cook!
Another activity that speaks to writing is painting. Think of the novel as a canvas. It starts off huge and white and very, very blank. Let’s say you want to paint a jungle. And you have some notions about colours, and outlines, and shapes, and depth, and proportions, and as you start to experiment with filling in the shapes, at first perhaps just in pencil or charcoal, the notions become more solid. But at the beginning your sketching on the white blank canvas is a bit wild, a bit all over the place. And some of the plants don’t look quite right, so you need to do a bit of research on them, make sure the leaves and stems look ok. But gradually the picture starts to build up before you, something like the way you’ve imagined it, and then you start actually to paint it. First one small section, then another, nearby. You choose these areas to start off with because they’re the areas you can imagine most clearly, so you think they’ll be the easiest to paint. The top right corner’s still a bit of a mess, but as you dab hopefully around it you can start to see what that bit of the picture might look like. And then you think, okay, but if I’ve got that image up there, I need to balance it over there – and the colour is all too sombre, too dark: let’s put a few jewel colours in – a bit of sapphire here; a bit of ruby there. Hell, let’s have a humming bird. Let’s have a snake in the grass. There’s some room for inspiration here.
And then you realise that the painting is missing something, and all of a sudden it dawns on you – it’s a tiger, that’s what it needs – a tiger! Wow! In he goes. Hello, tiger! His whiskers aren’t quite right – how do a tiger’s whiskers go? – and the left paw’s a bit strange, but eventually you get all that sorted. And then you realise that the tiger and the snake in the grass have to have a relationship, and the picture has to make this clear. And then you realise that that bit, up at the top of the picture, has to have more sunlight. And so on, and so on, until your jungle’s finished – and you’re the only person who’ll know when it really is finished. Just like a book. A friend of mine carves wooden sculptures. Exquisite things, quite small, beautifully shaped and polished, fluid, intricate. I was admiring his latest one day and he confessed that he thoroughly disliked it. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘It’s wonderful.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s so far from what I had in mind when I started.’ I asked if this was a common occurrence for him and he said ‘Good heavens, yes, always: when I start a piece I have it in my mind’s eye, and I draw it from different angles, and I think about it a lot, and I imagine it over and again, and each time I re-imagine it, it seems to me stupendously lovely and satisfying – until I start to carve it.’
I was stunned by how similar this was to my own experience of writing. When you kick off on a new work, it’s really exciting, because sometimes you can see it so clearly. And it’s so beautiful, so real. It’s going to be the most moving, profound, tragic, intelligent, insightful, dramatic, multi-faceted, glorious piece of writing since War and Peace. It’s going to be a work of sheer genius, and it’s all there in your head. All you need to do is write it.
It won’t surprise you to know that by the middle of the first chapter things have started to go badly wrong with the realisation of this vision of genius. My woodcarving friend says that he actively wrestles with the piece of wood, because he can see the shape within the wood, and that’s what he’s striving for. He reaches into the wood for it, and somehow he can never quite grasp it. So like writing. The further into the wood you get, the further away you are from your vision. It’s this, I think, that is the central torment of the writer.
The person who has put this better than anyone I know is Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, among other novels. This extract comes from The Getaway Car.
For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head…. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend. Omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversize butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book, of which I have not yet written one word, is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do, even though I dread it. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin…. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, And poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book. . . .
The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.
So there you have it. The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies. If I have been making the writing process sound rather folksy and domesticated, with metaphors of cooking and knitting and so on, this is an image that comes as something of a shock, but it’s just as valid. In fact, more so. Of course, domestic activities can be pretty agonising too, but you don’t actually think of corpses accompanying them – not routinely, anyway.
And yet, with all that anguish and uncertainty and frustration, still the satisfactions of writing can, at their best, be like the satisfaction of turning out a brilliant cake, or building a house, or painting a picture. The thing that sustains and delights you is that you, yourself, have made something that might be of interest or pleasure to others, something that has a life of its own, however small, something that can make its way in the world. I agree with Ann Patchett that the happiest time in a writer’s life is when that big butterfly is making a breeze around your head. But the other great moment is when finally you hold the book in your hands. The feel of the book, the weight and size of that physical object that is the book – the design of the cover, the texture and smell and newness of the pages – these things bring a miraculous sense of fulfilment. At that moment, when the book is so shiningly new, before reviews come in, before people so unfairly misunderstand or criticise what you have created, before the book has gone out into the world, it’s like opening the front door, cutting the cake, unveiling the painting. That’s why I write.