Sunday, July 21, 2013

Barbed wire through the brain

Driving home on Thursday I saw a double rainbow in the sky.  I took it as a good omen even though I knew it had nothing to do with me.  I’m sick to death of this dark and gloomy winter weather and appalled with myself for feeling so.  I should appreciate all the seasons but this winter has been too cold – and too long – for me.

I don’t know how people do it.  How they write books.  After a week at it I’m exhausted.  It is such an undertaking.  There are so many different strands to tie together and all the time the editorial voice in my head is abusing me up hill and dale for my pathetic attempts. 

I’ve heard there are people out there who love the process of revising their work.  I’ve heard there are those who might struggle to get words onto the page but once the words are there they love to spend hours polishing and refining them, dragging them into shape.  

And then there are others who might enjoy the first rush of words onto the page but thereafter they want nothing to do with those words again. 

While I sat in my friend’s room in North Melbourne trying to revise my first draft, I took time off occasionally to scour the books on her bookshelf.  Most of them dealt with the art and craft of writing. 

I picked up one on revision.  It was like running a piece of barbed wire through my brain.  The writer – I did not take in his name –  talked about the importance of revision as part of our struggle towards perfection. 

He acknowledged perfection is an impossibility, but he reckons the search for it is essential, to make the book as good as we can possibly make it. 

All the time I’m tempted to flush mine down the toilet, to give up my feeble efforts as a writer and take up knitting or some other less onerous activity.

Why do we do it? my writer friend asked me when I was telling her how miserable I had been feeling. 

I had hoped to write here of a joyous week locked away writing and revising to my heart’s content, instead I am left with a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  If only a double rainbow could offer more consolation.  


Christine said...

Yep. I am going to give up the attempt to turn thesis into book, I sez to my husband, just yesterday - over coffee in Adelaide, surrounded by snow and howling winds before we cancelled the rest of the trip and drove home ahead of the snow. All the other writers in my little history writing group are just so clever, so conceptually sound and my stuff... just trash... even though one of my examiners thought I should get an award... It's too hard, I have taken on too much, etc.etc. etc
Today I am home and....

Jim Murdoch said...

The turning around of sentences. I’m glad you saw the quote in Facebook. I’ve just incorporated in an article I’m working on on the subject of self-editing. I’m one of those writers who hates the storytelling part of writing. I take years to write a book and most of that is spent thinking about writing: I ruminate, I cogitate, I ponder and then, out of the blue and usually when I’m about ready to pack the whole thing in, I write. I was never a very patient boy growing up but I’ve learned it. I’ve learned to trust my subconscious. I have no control over it and that drives me mad but as it does a large amount of the work I’ve learned to let it putter about at its own pace. When the words come—as they did a few weeks back—I write them down until I run out of them and the rest of the time I think about writing.

Editing, on the other hand, I can do every day come rain or shine. The seven months I spent working on Making Sense was wonderful because all I had to think about was how best to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t have to think about what I wanted to say because I’d said it. I just had to decide whether ‘Wait a minute’, ‘Hang on a sec’ or ‘I’ll just be a moment’ was the best way to say what I wanted to say. Of course I do that as I write. I edit constantly and I reread constantly. I will probably reread this comment a half dozen times in whole or in part before I post it, maybe more. If these paragraphs formed part of a novel I’d hate to hazard a guess how many times I’d read them over. And every time I’d weigh each word and consider its place.

I wrote Exit Interview in five weeks, 5000 words a week, so no one could accuse me of trying to bash it out and it was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve written in a long time. The reason for this was quite simple: I began with a structure and it was simply a matter of answering the questions, filling in the blanks. All I had to focus on was doing that in the most interesting way I could. The thing is, unlike you, I didn’t plan to write during a specific time period. The idea came together and I was free to respond to it there and then, to put everything else on the back burner and simply write. I would’ve thought in your case that having written a thesis all you’d have to do is adapt that into a more accessible shape. You know how the story ends. You have your structure. Now the fun bit of finding new and interesting ways of saying what you’ve already said.

It’s the difference between having sex and making love. One is a physical act. Not quite sure what the other one is but there’s a difference. When a couple are trying to get pregnant they’ll often drop everything (pun intended) and have sex and they’re doing it out of love but I don’t think either of them would describe the physical act as an act of love. By having sex they may well conceive a child. Making love as and when the mood takes them they might also result in a child but there’re no guarantees. Do you see what I’m driving at? Would the child be a better child if created during an act of love I doubt although there would be those who might argue that. A book is not a child though.

Of course I’m talking about fiction here. I find nonfiction writing a bit soulless. Okay every now and then I turn a clever phrase—like the one about dropping everything—and that makes it a bit more pleasurable for me. But that’s me.

Dissatisfaction, for me, is a big part of the writing process normally. It’s disheartening slogging away at something for months, not knowing where it going or if it’s worthwhile, terrified whatever’s feeding this creative spurt is going to dry up and knowing that a major player in this process is a part of you you can’t access or influence.

Why do we do it? Because it’s a need. Defecation isn’t always the most pleasant of processes but we always feel better when the job’s done.

I saw a triple rainbow once driving from Glasgow to Greenock arched over the Firth of Clyde. Quite lovely. No idea what I was doing driving that way—that’s gone—but the rainbow remains.

PhilipH said...

"It was like running a piece of barbed wire through my brain"

That's such a powerful sentence. Can revision improve it? I don't know. One could go on and on trying to make it more dramatic, e.g. by trying different verbs for 'running' - such as 'dragging' or 'pulling' or 'twisting' ... but the words 'barbed wire' and 'brain' makes one wince at the thought, so your sentence was just right.

I wonder if Shakespeare did much revision? One would think so; his work is staggeringly brilliant. So much so that I wonder if he had time to revise! He was just genius personified and revision was a definite 'no-no' and needless.

Maybe the wintry is causing you to feel somewhat depressed? Now is the winter of our discontent ... now who said that?

Anthony Duce said...

The frustration you note is somehow reassuring, though also too revealing of my own inabilities in my writing life story so far. I know it’s why the drawing and painting has almost buried the many first drafts and outlines of stories I say I’m going to hide away in a corner and finish someday.

R.H. said...


Don't flush it down the toilet, you might block the pipes. Put a match to it instead.

-Really, why is becoming a GREAT WRITER so important to you, you're on the verge of mental illness.

River said...

Your editorial voice is abusing you? Tell it to take a hike now and then. If you aim for perfection you may never publish a book.

Anonymous said...

A double rainbow is a marvellous omen - don't be so hard on yourself re the writing. Gem

M said...

why do we have dissatisfaction at ripping through our inner most thoughts on the page? Oh I don't know... hehe. It's a tough thing to do.

Mary LA said...

I do understand this so well.