How to stay the course – Lesia Daria
In her second post for We Heart Writing, author Lesia Daria explores how to keep the faith during a difficult writing project. ♥
Sometimes when I look back at the experience of creating my debut novel Forty One, I wonder how I survived. The process took six years, from an initial rush of inspiration, to nine months of stream-of-consciousness writing, through another five gruelling years of re-writing and editing.
In hindsight I’m grateful that I didn’t know how long the journey would take when I began. It’s dispiriting to ponder half a decade going to craft a single work (although recently I was reassured it’s not uncommon, especially for a first novel or literary fiction.) The project was undoubtedly a learning curve, which should help me to avoid pitfalls in the future.
But at the start – and I would argue now it’s true for any writing project, not just mine – a certain degree of ignorance is bliss. Not knowing allows the spirit to surge. Not thinking too much about the end gives one freedom to wander. To take risks, to make mistakes, to reckon with one’s own writing self, is to be forced to learn how to solve a myriad of problems.
And with Forty One I had plenty of problems – in no small part because I’d set myself quite a few lofty goals. I wanted to reflect ‘real life,’ but apart from the initial setting and pointed dialogue, I had no idea what concrete form my novel should take. I was interested in ideas and characters rather than plot, so I experimented with style and themes, not worrying too much about where the novel was going. This created a magical quality that I wanted to retain in the final product: not knowing where ‘the story’ is going (any more than anyone can know in real life where it’s going), the reader unaware but having to trust the author, who, at the end of the project, must be in the position to know the outcome and control the flow.
I knew that balancing this author-reader dialogue (metafiction, if you like) with the storyline would be tricky. And because I’d left plot to last place, I also had to wrestle copious amounts of raw material into a readable, coherent story. Even with ‘most of it down’, there was so much left to do: organise pacing and story, weave in my themes without being heavy-handed, add detail to cast the perfect backdrop of society, family and personal history for the characters. It was a Tolstoyan task. Unsurprisingly, a few years in, the project of Forty One threatened to overwhelm me. So why didn’t I give up? How did I convince myself to keep going?
Quite simply, I drew on a deep well of self-belief. I was the one who had dug it, set this particular challenge, so I reminded myself frequently that I’d be the only one truly disappointed if I gave up. Like an athlete setting sights on the Olympics, and hopefully gold, no one forced me into this. If I’d somehow believed at the outset that I did have the talent and intelligence to see this project through, then I had to prove it. Prove myself equal to the task, only for myself. Nothing less than physical and mental toughness would be required, and I had to be ready to work hard, long hours and shoulder the inevitable pain.
And it was painful, at times, very much so. Especially when after so many years, the story and sentences refused to coalesce. I began to look elsewhere for inspiration. Other great writers – always a good place to start, and of course I was always reading – began to sneak onto my desk in a more tangible fashion. I decorated the ancient typewriter on my desk (itself a reminder of how good we have it) with bookmarks spouting dogged truths. On a daily basis Sylvia Plath reminded me: ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ Ernest Hemingway simultaneously chided: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ These two somewhat contradictory statements actually stood together, worked hand-in-hand. My work was worthwhile and good, but equally it could use improvement. Slog on.
When times got tougher, I’d turn to Gillian Slovo: ‘there is no such thing as writing – only rewriting.’ Why had I assumed it’d be over quickly? Had anyone ever said writing was easy or glorious? There is no writing, only re-writing. No stipulation as to when it’ll be over; expect endless, painful drafts. This is the nature of the job. You don’t have to do it.
But I did. So when I got really stuck, Richard Skinner’s prescient advice carried the day: ‘All writers know where they’ve gone wrong, really. Deep down. Reroute yourself.’
Deep down, really, you know what’s wrong with your text. Even if it isn’t clear at the moment, you feel it, so you know it. That perpetually gave me a nugget of hope: the fact that I could identify that I was failing. It was a reminder that perhaps I was good enough. It urged me to go back and stake everything on that inner voice, that inner ear, the driving factor. The thing that says: stop being delusional, you can do better. Even in the deepest downturns of what I fondly call the Writer’s Rollercoaster (you know what I mean here, the hellish ride of I-am-genius -I-am-shit- I-am-genius- I-am-shit- I am-never-going-to-get-there -ahhhh!) but still eventually, you have to get off, step aside and remember to be brutally honest with yourself. Because whether you are genius or shit momentarily doesn’t matter. All writers get stuck. You must know how to make your work better. And you must try. Reroute yourself.
At times that meant taking a break. For me that happened literally (and too dramatically) when I suffered an accident that shattered my right hand in five places. For six months I couldn’t type or focus on books or screens (painkillers being what they are, a nice fuzzy place; and rehab the opposite, more pain). But afterward, I was thankful for the time out. Kept away from my work I was not only eager to get back to it, I could see clearly where my ‘genius’ was overwritten clap-trap and where I could cut or add. I’m certainly not advocating painful dislocations or long cures for writer’s trouble, but any time and distance – a short walk, a day’s break, a week or two away – can be fruitful. As Skinner inferred, the solution is there in the brain. But it can’t always be forced out. It may require time and a different path to work its way to the surface.
Of course, sometimes what’s required is being proactive: seeking outside advice, involving others. About two years into the project, feeling quite lost, I attended a Writers Workshop conference for my first feedback from agents and authors. I learned valuable stuff about genre and pacing, as well as information on how I might eventually get published. It didn’t solve all of my problems, and later, staying the course meant enrolling in a much tougher course.
In the third year of my project, again at wits end, beleaguered by rejections, I enrolled in an intensive ten-week course with the National Academy of Writing. Our group of six writers met weekly to share work and submit to a public edit by Academy director, author Richard Beard. It was a frightening and humbling but ultimately heartening experience. Criticism, targeted not only at me but also others, highlighted common failures. Insights from the group helped me solve specific problems like my opening scene or passages that fell flat. And the course nudged me to seek further advice. For a year afterwards I worked closely with a beta-reader, then submitted to a detailed manuscript assessment by The Literary Consultancy. Maybe Skinner is correct that you have answers within. But when you don’t, or can’t find them, or can’t wait any longer, others can help. No one has ever published good work without an editor.
In a long writing project there is clearly no one way of ‘staying the course;’ every writer’s journey is unique. But there are infallible guidelines: write better, fail better, write better again. Contain that debilitating self doubt. Believe. Keep going. You’re probably not done yet. Take time out. Seek advice. Then write better, fail better, write better again . . .
Or maybe there is a simple one word answer. Persevere.
Lesia Daria’s debut novel Forty-One was released earlier this year.