Friday, April 11, 2008

writing is hard, let's go drinking

From: Kelley (

Seems like long ago, we were on a board together--an book discussion board, where I was embarrassed to discover that one of my favorite writers was a participant (you!) right after Ammonite came out. You said at the time that you had a health issue that made writing a slower process for you than for some. But I've been amazed at the quality of your work over the years--are you feeling better these days? Loved The Blue Place and Stay.

Just thinking about writing, how gut-hard it is, and what a miracle that anybody can do it!

Yep, writing is a miracle. Every time I begin a new novel I wonder, Can I do it again? Except that I know I can. I just don't know how. Art is a black box: life goes in, art comes out; the mechanism is a mystery. The most I've learnt over the years is to gauge the timing. I now know when to push, when to sit back and wait, how long things will take. But that's it: a black box with a dial on the side indicating how Close to Done a thing is.

The art might be a mystery but he craft isn't. I remember every step of my learning. I remember pulling books off the shelf in my twenties and consciously studying them to see how to put dialogue together (literally, trying to figure out where the punctuation went--because US and UK punctuation and quote marks are quite different). I remember reading the opening of three favourite books (Lord of the Rings, The Dispossessed, and Dune) to work out how to begin Ammonite. I remember years of learning how to shave off the top layer of a work, then shave again, and again and again, until there wasn't a single unnecessary word.

But the art... No. I don't know how that works. An artist is a shaman. We map uncharted territory so that others don't have to. But we don't do it for you, we do it for ourselves. We can't help it. At least I can't help it. And so I have an idea for a novel--and somehow I always know when it's a novel, when it's a story, when it's an essay--and I begin with blind faith that I'll find my way through to the end, that I'll spend two years of my life on something I can't quite see but that when I've finished it will all make sense. And it does. Yes, writing is a miracle.

But it's not hard. Writing is easy. It's like diving: terrifying if you think about it too long, but once you've leapt, once you've sprung and left earth behind, it's easy; it's just falling.

When I teach writing, I give beginners lots and lots of nifty rules and exercises, because beginners like that sort of thing. But the most precious advice I give is something most beginners are simply not ready to hear: Just Do It. Just run, jump, fall. You can fix it all later.

When I started my memoir, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I had three months (mid-November to Valentine's Day) to create the whole thing, soup to nuts. I knew that if I sat and thought about it too long, I would realise it couldn't be done. So I just sat down and began. After three days, I knew I'd basically be writing a series of connected essays, and that they had to be almost brutally blunt. Wholly naked. No dithering. But I couldn't have discovered this without beginning. I also would have taken much longer to figure it out without Kelley's help. She kept tapping my subtitle, 'Liner Notes to a Writer's Early Life', and saying, Focus on that, forget all the other stuff. And so with blind faith in my art, with beer (oh, lots of beer--how do writers who don't drink manage to turn the machine off at night?), and with Kelley's help, I created my box of Nicola. I'm proud of it. But I have no idea how I did it.

I've also no idea how Jacob, the designer, did his part. Perhaps he doesn't, either. All I know is that we both worked very, very fast. There were no false starts, no hesitations. I can't speak for Jacob, but I know I worked with the sureness of long experience. I didn't have to understand how I was going to do it, I just knew I could. I relied on my expertise. But I wouldn't be an expert if I hadn't spent a lot of time just leaping off the fucking cliff; I didn't learn how to write by worrying about it, I learnt by doing.

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