Writing A Novel: A Horse Race. Driving Cattle. In the Dark.

Published by Linda Richards on

For me, writing a novel is like a horse race while driving a herd of cattle in the dark.

Photo by Andrea Ferrario/Unsplash

Many years ago, before Negotiating With the Dead came out, I interviewed Margaret Atwood. When I asked her to tell me one thing about the book, she said:

I went around asking writers the following question — and these were mostly novelists. What is it like when you go into a novel? And nobody said: What do you mean, go into a novel? They all said: It’s dark. It’s like a dark room. It’s like a dark room full of furniture I can’t see. It’s like a tunnel. It’s like a cave. It’s like going downstairs into a dark place. It’s like wading through a river. It’s like entering a labyrinth. Isn’t that interesting? … Nobody said: It’s like skippity-hopping around on the clouds. Nobody said that.

When I did that interview, I had not finished a novel. But in the process of writing the books I’ve worked on since I can remember moments when I thought about what she said: moments when I felt, indeed, as though I were flailing around in a dark room. Though in my own case, I feel as though I’m in a dark room with a flashlight in my hand and the room gradually becomes more light as the book progresses.

Writing a book is different for everyone. It’s funny (and not ha ha) but some days I sit down and everything I write smells like I have something stuck to my shoe. And everything I’ve written has the same smell. I mean, I read it and say: “Yuck! What am I doing? I should get a job as a plumber or something.”

The very next day, I can sit down and read the same stuff and think it’s all just brilliant. Sublime, even. I can bring myself to tears at having created such masterly prose.

From both of these views of the same writing — mine — I have gleaned a very important thing or three: I am not the best judge of my work while it’s in progress. More: my subconscious is a bitch. She will take the smallest insecurity and hoist it up into something glaring and ugly. She will taunt me. Tell me I’m not worthy. Tell me I’d be better off spending my time canning peaches or scrubbing the toilet. My subconscious is not nice and does not play fair. (And I don’t even like peaches very much.)

So my version of the AOC (ass on chair) method of writing is to just plunk myself down and careen on through even when my subconscious is being especially nasty and whipping up all my insecurities. I ignore those ridiculous voices and just keep on telling my story. And even if, as sometimes happens, while I’m sitting there writing, the voices are saying: “This is crap! Why are you even wasting your time? You couldn’t tell a good sentence from a mud pie!“ I just keep on going. I tell myself that if it is crap, I’ll junk it all tomorrow or the next day but, for now, I need the motion. Moving forward, whatever the cost.

After a while, I get caught up in the world I’m creating and the voices recede. And I very, very seldom have to go back and junk anything I’ve written while in this state. (Editing, sure. But that’s another blog post.) It‘s just a matter of beating down my own insecurities. It turns out I have a lot of them. And, after all this time, it doesn’t seem like they’re ever going to go completely away.

I just wish I could get that skippity-hopping thing down to an art. ◊

Categories: Writing Life