Having written one novel – No Season But The Summer, a radical revisioning of the Persephone myth – and discovered how hard it is, I am astonished and humbled by how many novels there are in the world – by how many others have undertaken and completed this Herculean feat of creative endeavour. But given how many of these works line the shelves, it also astonishes me how little I know about how other writers write them. Meanwhile, there are plenty of ‘how to’ manuals out there – books – courses too – that claim to tell me exactly how to write a blockbuster, a gripping yarn, a perfectly structured narrative, but an instruction is very different to a description. I know several writers, have attended many writing workshops, have even completed a Creative Writing MFA, but I still don’t know that much about how other writers do it.
I have been wondering why this is. Whether it is because it is considered a private activity and that there is therefore something indecent, almost unseemly, about the idea of revealing what each of us get up to, alone, in our writing quarters. Or whether the reticence to reveal stems from a superstition – as if in sharing all, a writer might, at the same time, inadvertently, give it away – hand over the means, and the muse. Ultimately, both the impulse to leave the creative process shrouded in mystery, and the wish to dissect and sell it, feed off each other: the more wonderfully mysterious the process is, the more we will pay good money to have someone tell us its secrets.
So, I want to counter this trend. Now that I have crossed that famed, elusive line, managed to get published, and therefore, apparently, become ‘a writer’ as opposed to simply someone who writes, mostly sat on the children’s bedroom floor, I want to use my newly acquired status to be shockingly immodest, risk revealing all, and expose myself entirely.
Here goes – here’s how I wrote my novel:
I had to separate out, or to play at separating, the creative and the critical stages of the process, just as in the myth, Persephone’s life is separated into time above ground and time under it. My first training was an essay-writing, text-deconstructing, literary academic one. My second was in dance, aerial circus skills, physical theatre, improvisation and motherhood (being a mother is a training – believe me). When I started writing I associated words with the first training, movement with the second, and I got nowhere fast. I was like Penelope – to cite another Greek myth – undoing my work the moment it was done. It took me a while to realise that writing is also a physical activity, and that I could apply the creative practice I had learnt in a collaborative rehearsal room, to myself, sitting alone with a notebook and pen. Two books, in particular, helped me apply my performance practice to the page, and to put space between the creative and the critical: Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind and Lynda Barry’s What It Is,
These books are both, in their way, instruction manuals, but not of the ‘how to’ genre. They don’t tell you how to write a book – (Goldberg even says, in effect, of novel-writing: ‘good luck, you’re on your own if you want to go on that long-distance trip’). They tell you how to turn up, sit down, pick up a pen, and keep your hand moving, even when you have no idea of how to write a book, or even what you want to say. They teach the fundamentals, which I surmise, from learning rope-climbing in a circus, or standing on a stage without a script, contain everything you need to know. All the fancy literary stuff – the point of view, characterisation, sentence structure, pace – still come down to something much more humble in the end: sitting, holding a pencil, making shapes across a page.
There is one exercise in Barry’s book which lays out the structure of a writing practice session: take a word; write down ten images that come from it; choose one; make notes on it; start drawing a spiral. And while spiralling, she suggests, you might recite a poem by the Sufi mystic, Rumi:
You are sitting here with us,
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.
You are yourself the animal we hunt
when you come with us on the hunt.
You are in your body(trans Coleman Barks)
like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind….
And then GO – write for ten minutes (or more) without stopping. Anytime you get stuck go back and work on your spiral so that your hand is in motion the whole time. Afterwards do not read back what you have written. Put a stone on top of your notebook. Look at it in a week. Or a month. Perhaps.
That is how I wrote my novel. I did that one single exercise – including the reciting of the poem – everyday. Every day, that is, except on copying days.
On copying days, I took the stone off the notebook and read back what I had written. At this point (and these are still Barry’s guidelines) I did not edit. I copied the lot out again. If I hadn’t felt in such a rush (such a terrible rush it took 12 years), I would have written it out again by hand, but I skipped that stage and copied my notebooks straight into type.
And when, and only when, I had written a complete draft by hand, and then again in type, did I let my critical editor near the text. This meant that the editing phase of things was never only cosmetic. Not a simple tweaking of sentences or rearranging of words. The editing was much more transformational – a shedding of great swathes of text, a radical re-ordering, to the point that it involved a new story-boarding, or reimagining of the narrative. A changed landscape. And once I had done this, it was back to the beginning: out came my notebook and the Rumi poem once again.
Following this practice has resulted in a compositional process that echoes Barry’s spirals. My novel has grown like a tree- in rings. It began life as a skinny seedling. By year four, it had become a novella, sapling-like. Only in the last ring of writing did it begin to swell into a story with a thick trunk. Such a process is thoroughly uneconomical. But I like it. And I also have no idea how else to do it. I don’t see any shortcuts – there is, as we sadly know, no speedy way of growing a tree. It just takes the time it takes.
But it’s the cyclical, seasonal nature of the process that I like – not so much the lengthy timescale. That’s cyclical rather than oppositional – not the polarised, division of the seasons represented in the original Persephone myth, of a joyful summer versus a cruel and grievous winter. That’s cyclical rather than the see-sawing judgemental, competitive structures that surround us. One moment our culture reveres the creative and gives the critic a bad press (the very thing He is meant to deal out to others) and then does the reverse: devalues the ineffable and lauds the shrewd and cutting. This batting back and forth is exhausting. And it means there is no refuge, as a writer or any other kind of maker. ‘No refuge’ is what it says on the side of railway tracks, when there is no safe place to stand- only the relentless lines, going forwards. I first spotted it with my son, back in the early days when railway signs were the only thing he read, and thought at first it was a comment on our times – it seemed so apposite.
In the context of this polarisation and competition, giving each role its breathing space, its own slow season, has supported me. However, the truth, I think, is that they circle each other, not only in a tree-like way, through the years, but tightly turning on each other through each moment, more like in the Rumi poem, where you are invited to be hunter and hunted, plant and wind, both at the same time.
And I think this both/ and-ness is ultimately a more helpful way to navigate the creative process, and life, than to divide and conquer it. I began this post, reflecting on how the writer’s process is often kept secret, making it seem mystical. Stephen King famously reverses this: “To write is human, to edit is divine,” he says. I think part of the appeal of the Greek myths is that the version of the divine that they present is so flawed – the gods are neither perfect editors, nor seamless creators, but are full of human foibles. In an era when we have procured terrifyingly god-like powers to destroy, or save, I think we need to understand all aspects of the creative process – the generative and the critical – and to take on board the human-ness of the lot, to provide refuge for all the roles along the way, to move consciously through every season.
‘Human’ comes from the same etymological root as ‘humble’ – ‘humus’ – meaning ground, earth. And earth is the element of my novel – it’s how it starts and ends. Crouched near the ground is how I wrote it. And that’s what I suppose I hope to achieve in naming my process – I want to ground it. Drawing spirals, squatting on the floor, I wrote a myth of being human, here, now, on this earth that will keep turning, come what may.
You can order a copy of No Season but the Summer here.