Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The Journey of 100,000 words begins with “Chapter One” – one word at a time.

When I first thought about signing up for a PhD, I was going to do it in Literature, looking at Sandra Cisneros and her use of bilingualism in her texts, but I also knew that if I did a PhD in literature, I’d never get my own novel written. So I opted for Creative Writing instead, for 2 reasons:

1. I wanted to write a novel and figured doing it for a PhD would mean I had someone pushing me forward, i.e. my supervisors.
2. I figured the best way to learn how to write a novel would be to write one.

I also secretly thought that it would be a slightly easier route. It never ceases to amaze me just how wrong I can be - not to mention naive!

I get the impression that a lot of people think a PhD in writing is easier, after all, you just have to write a novel don’t you? And how difficult can that be? Well, in his book, On Writing: A memoir, Stephen King says, “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic in a bath tub.”(i) And that’s from one of the lucky ones who write because they actually enjoy it (as opposed to writers like me, who write because of some seemingly masochistic need).

King advises the would-be novelist to find a room without any distractions, like computer games (does Solitaire count?), or telephones etc. My office is full of distractions, but even if it wasn’t, I’d still find something to do. How can you sit down and write when the hallway needs hovering, or the dishes need doing, and so on and so on. And then there’s listen again on Radio 4 to catch up on…

When I realised I was in trouble I started this blog. I figured at the very least it would encourage me to write stuff – stuff that wasn’t a lecture, or a seminar plan. I called myself the Hesitant Scribe because when it comes to fiction I must have the worst working method going. While the non-fiction stuff is fine, the fiction is a killer. I end up hating every word I write, and when I read that some writers find writing ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyable’ – you know who you are – I have to ask myself why I’m putting myself through this. I hate writing fiction, and worse, I hate everything I write. That’s not a statement designed to get the sympathy vote, or evoke cries of but your stuff’s really good, it’s a genuine response. I write a paragraph and then re-write it until I’ve lost of sense of why I started it in the first place. I edit everything to death and then wonder why it takes me so long to get anything written! Luckily, I’m in good company when it comes to hating writing. When asked if she found any of her books especially easy to write, Rebecca West replied, “No, it’s a nauseating process. They’re none of them easy.”(ii)

Anyway, I tell my writing students to just write, worry about the editing later, and then fail to take my own advice. Well, no more! I’m giving myself permission to write utter crap – I’ll worry about the quality later when I start the second draft. I’m following the progress of the novel racers at Wordgirl’s Work in Progress, and hoping they’ll let me join them. Stephen King reckons on a 1,000 words a day and says that’s being magnanimous, and when asked by a radio talk-show host how he wrote, he replied “One word at a time.”(iii)

So that’s what I’m going to do. Wish me luck!

Refs for the interested!
(i) King, S. 2000 On Writing: A Memoir Hodder & Stoughton, p.167
(ii) West, W. in The Paris Review Interviews Vol 1 2007 Canongate. p.257
(iii) King, S. 2000 On Writing: A Memoir Hodder & Stoughton, p.121


JJ said...

Hello Lisa

I'm a fellow novel racer, and I was really interested in your comments about not enjoying writing. I love it, BUT for me at the moment it's not about potentially publishing, it's just about the pleasure of doing it.

You have the same idea with your 'one word at a time' but one thing that helped me was Julia Cameron's idea in 'The Right to Write' that it's like laying tracks of a railway line. It's one track at a time. She says she used to polish as she went but giving herself permission to write 'rough' one track at a time freed her up and made her process smoother.

Anyway, it's good to hear you've joined too. Keep writing.


hesitant scribe said...

Hi JJ,

Your comments are really useful - thank you! It does help to think of it as a track. I think I need to find a way to overcome the internal censor, and the race seems like a good idea. I'm not sure I've so much as joined, as tacked myself on the end!

As for the enjoyment side of it, I write because I feel an inexplicable need, and always have done. I'm miserable when I write, but ten times worse when I don't - and I think the misery comes from the incessant nagging of self doubt. Publishing is only ever a bonus!

I will keep going and thank you for your words of support.

Novel Girl said...

Hi Lisa

Welcome to the Novel Race. I know what you mean - sometimes its quite painful to write and you wonder why your putting yourself through it - but when you come out the other side with a chapter or even a paragraph that you love, and other people seem to love too then its all been worth it!Keep going and hopefully we'll all get published at the same time. Good Luck!

hesitant scribe said...

Hi Novel Girl,

It's also reassuring to know that we're not alone - writing in the garret! And yes, one good sentence even, and it starts to feel worthwile.

Good luck with yours too!

La Gringa said...

I'm hesitant (no pun intended) to get into this conversation among professional writers, but I think your advice to your students is very good. After all, what makes a great writer great? I think it has to be the ideas, not the polishing, even though that is important, too.

Living in a country with undependable power supply, I sometimes find myself drafting blog articles by hand, sometimes even by candlelight! I've noticed that my ideas seem to flow better when I'm not constantly backing up to change a word or put in a comma.

I've also noticed that some days I'm in the mood for writing and draft several articles or at least get some ideas down in writing. Other days I don't feel the least bit creative, and I enjoy 'fixing' the mechanics of the drafts much more than I would enjoy trying to come up with something new to write about.

And, since I'm not a professional, some days I just say "The hell with it, it's only a blog!" ;D

Just a few thoughts from a decidedly unprofessional but prolific blog writer.

Jen said...

Hello! Ooh, another racer, how excellent!!

The best advice I've been given is to 'write for the bin'. Like you, I tend to hate what I write - there's a lot to be said for laying the words aside to ferment and coming back to them afresh. I love that (rare!) feeling of 'cor, that's quite good, did I REALLY write that?'.

A novel AND a PhD in one swoop sounds most impressive :)

Caroline said...

I'm in my second year of an MA in Creative Writing at MMU (also one of the novel racers). For the MA I have to produce a novel ... as well as all the other assignments etc. It's hard work, but it can be great fun.

hesitant scribe said...

Hi All – thank you for sharing your thoughts with me – it’s really helpful to talk about the writing process I think.

Firstly, to Jen – yeah – write for the bin is a good one and the only way I’ve managed to get the first few thousand words typed up! As for PhD – it’s a novel + thesis together, so just the one project. I couldn’t cope with the two separately!

La Gringa – it’s interesting that you draft your blog stuff – that’ll be why your blog is so successful! I tend to use my blog to just keep my ‘writing muscles’ well-oiled, and so I write straight on to the pc for that – but the fiction, and academic stuff, I have to do by hand and then type it up. I’ve discovered this week, that writing late at night means I’m too tired to be critical, so I manage to get past the first paragraph without editing it! As for professional writer – I too, am in awe of the rest of the novel racers! (And will get the marbling stuff to you pronto!)

Caroline – Do you know Robert Graham at MMU? He taught me on my MA (I did a short story collection). Good luck with it all!