This is the end, my only friend…

12 years in gestation, 2 years in the writing, 98,000 words in the making… and yesterday, finally, finished.  I never had as much satisfaction writing ‘The End’ as I did on the first draft of my novel.

So why does it not feel like more of an achievement? Why is the relentless thrumming and mournful wail (perhaps even the shouty anger) of the song ‘The End’ by The Doors a more accurate reflection of my feelings?

Perhaps because I have had this novel hanging over me like a bad conscience for so long that I have fallen out of love with it.  Or because I already know that the first draft is inconsistent, the voice and tone shifting as I have grown more confident with practice (or with age). I already know there are gaping holes and inaccuracies, wonky timelines, characters that need some space to grow beyond the stereotype.  But the plan is to let this badly written (but written, yes, nevertheless written) first draft lie in its marinade for the rest of the month and then do a rapid rewrite during July.  This rewrite will give it a unified voice (hopefully), plug the gaps, be a rapid brushwork like in a fresco once the damp plaster has been put in place.

Just to give you a sense of  how much I’ve been procrastinating: the germ of the idea for the story came to me in about 1997/98.  I let it stew in my head for about 10 years, then plotted out the storyline and added some characters in 2008.  But its existence was still limited to the confines of my head and nowhere else.  At that point I was focusing on writing and submitting short stories (for which I have no talent) on all sorts of topics (most of which completely unappealing ) for competitions that terrified me, simply because I was convinced that only by winning a competition would I find a publisher for my (as yet unwritten) novel.

Enough with the parentheses!

Then in May 2010 I attended the Faber Academy course on getting published. I was a bit cheeky attending it really, since I had not written a single word of my novel yet. One of the requirements for attending was that we bring along the opening chapter or the first three pages of the novel.  So, the night before the workshop, I hammered out 3-4 pages and read them out.  The noises were encouraging.  Much better than I deserved. The editor who ran the course, the cooly realistic yet very inspiring Hannah Griffiths, gave me the best advice I’d ever had up to that point: ‘If you want to write a novel, why are you writing short stories?  Write the novel! Don’t waste your time on competitions if you don’t want to be doing that: in the end, none of these awards count as much as the quality of the work you are submitting to an agent or a publisher.’

It sounds obvious, but it took a while for the penny to drop.  I still dithered, I still hid behind my a million other professional and family obligations.  But I did unofficially join NaNoWriMo in November 2010. Unofficially, because, well, I did tell you I don’t like publicly committing to challenges, didn’t I?  Somehow, don’t ask me how, I successfully wrote 50,000 words of my novel that month.  I continued some sporadic writing over the next couple of months, but then in February 2011 or so it ground to a halt again.  Another Faber Academy course in May 2011 reignited my fire, despite the huge personal changes I was going through at the time.  And no, honestly, I am not paid to advertise for Faber, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the fantastic Gillian Slovo and Sarah Dunant as tutors: they really make a good team, with their contrasting styles but equal passion for words and stories.  However, NaNoWriMo in 2011 was a bit of a failure, with me only managing to churn out about 20,000 words and the novel still nowhere near completion.

February 2012, however, was a turning point.  Yes, I know I keep saying that, and I know that I shouldn’t depend on external events so much to motivate myself.  A true writer always finds the courage and inspiration within his or her own self to keep going.  But at the time I needed a push, a small dose of encouragement liberally sprinkled with reality.  And I found that at the Geneva Writers’ Group conference, particularly in the words of Bret Lott, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Tiberghien and Dinah Lee Küng.  Since then I have left fear and procrastination, busy-ness and conflicting priorities behind.  I have written every day, set up this blog, started sharing my work with others, learnt to accept critique.  But still, still, still, no progress with my novel, even though I was so close to the finishing line.

End sign

And now, in a slow, steady trickle over days and weeks, this past weekend my world (of anxiety, procrastination and invention) and my novel ended.  Not with bang, but a whimper.  Or a long-drawn out breathy wail from Jim Morrison.

Take your pick!

 

Developing the Creative Habit

The Creative HabitI am currently reading Twyla Tharp’s ‘The Creative Habit’ and I think of it as my own personal creativity coach.  Twyla Tharp, of course, is a dancer and choreographer, but her principles and suggested exercises are applicable across a wide range of creative disciplines.  And here we have that key word ‘discipline’, which perhaps only a dancer truly understands.  But let me use Ms. Tharp’s own words:

‘It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on  your brow that allow you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.  … I come down on the side of hard work…. Creativity is a habit and the best creativity is a result of good work habits…. In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.’

In other words, in order to reach the highest pinnacles of achievement that you are capable of, you need to do your warming up exercises.  You need to put in the practice and talent will find you (and she gives Mozart as an example, the hours and hours of practice and study that he put in as a child, the 24 symphonies that he wrote almost as a ‘draft’ before he finally wrote a good one).

For a long time, I was of the opposite school of thought.  Because I had moments in my teens when I was suddenly struck by flashes of inspiration, I thought that all I needed was a quiet place and enough time to commune with my Muse.  Inspiration would come again.  Some automatic dictation would occur.  But as I grew up and life got more complicated, the opportunities for introspection became limited, as did the time I could dedicate to creative writing.  I fell silent for far too many years, waiting for that flash of elusive inspiration.

Still, still, I stubbornly clung to the belief that an hour or ten minutes or 500 words or whatever daily routine I would try to establish could have no value.  Me?  Write without being inspired?  Good heavens and all evidence to the contrary, no!  And then I found my teen-age diaries and began to realise that my ‘moments of genius’ (as I thought of them back then, no matter how my overblown poetry makes me cringe now) were surrounded by utmost focus on literature.  I was reading huge amounts daily (and really analysing texts, too), I was writing for hours in my diary, letters, book reviews, prose and poetry.  I was learning new things every day and exploring them through my writing.  I am astonished at just how productive and hard-working the 15 year old Marina was.

So I have now converted to Twyla Tharp’s school of thought about hard work.  Yes, I now have a lot more obligations and preoccupations than a fifteen year old, but I still have to do a vast amount of practice, whether I like the results of those training sessions or not.  I have to make creativity a daily habit.

Or, as Pablo Picasso put it even more succinctly: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’