Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Buddy movies and the writer's journey

In a way, writing a novel is like being one half of a buddy movie. At the start there is the sheer incompatibility/unfeasibility factor. You, with your crowded, aching, gadfly brain, half-remembered micro-inspirations and unfulfilled desires. The book, currently a void, not even a pile of paper yet, as there is nothing to print out, not even some electronic symbols on a white electric background because you actually have no idea what the hell it is even about.  This is a relationship that is never going to work.

As you progress, it actually gets slightly worse. After any amount of time, but certainly after producing 30,000 of words, your self-belief undergoes a necessary adjustment. You hit a wall. You nosedive. The words are shit. The idea might be shit, but as yet, you are not even sure it is one. Innocence has been lost, and you and the draft – a mean, truncated, ugly thing – stare at each other balefully.

Maybe you stop at this point and the buddy movie reaches a premature end. Thelma and Louise get a puncture when they are barely out of town, Louise hasn’t shot anyone, Thelma hasn’t had the benefit of Brad Pitt, everything just fizzles. The two women think ‘oh fuck it’ and go home, stuck in their frustrating lives.

Or maybe you carry on. The novel and you patch it up, decide to make a go of things on the basis that neither of you are much good, certainly nothing special, probably a lot worse than the other unwritten novels and their disappointing authors. You grind away, tapping out the terrible stuff. The novel looks on, sceptical. Sometimes you hack bits off the novel, the intolerably irrelevant, the magisterially over-written. The novel shrinks and winces. But you carry on.

This, sometimes, is when it starts to go quite well. You haven’t finished yet, there are a thousand problems still to overcome, but you have reached the part where Thelma and Louise are in their shades, and have just blown up an oil tanker.

Emotional self-management doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I grew up with the idea – based on Hollywood movies - that writing itself was photogenic and intense, the demented author swigging bourbon while sitting at the sweaty Remington, writing into the small hours. By dawn, the novel would be born, a work of genius, a book to change the world. One would expect no less after such a harrowing engagement with the muse. 

But actually, over the years, I have come to accept that not only is writing itself a long game; the production of each individual book or story is itself a multifaceted, time-hungry challenge, and that one of the most difficult aspects of this is staying sane during the peculiar period during which something that does not exist takes shape. Moods swing between mania and zombie-like dejection. Wine tempts. Cake beckons. Twitter glitters.  Self-control is essential at such times, tedious strategies must be adopted: eating your greens, getting fresh air, not reading rave reviews of recently published authors.

My most effective mental strategy is treating the novel like my wrong buddy, the person I am least likely to get on with, my irritating flatmate. Each day we take our places and we carry on. There are goodish days, there are bad days, and eventually, there is a thing. The novel exists. What was once a tiny shimmer of possibility is something else now, usually much less pure and perfect in execution than in imagination, but actually a thing. By managing expectations and checking in each day, it is possible to reach this extraordinary place. If you are lucky, it is the edge of the Grand Canyon and you have found the ending that is the perfect exit for you and your now beloved buddy, your newly finished book.