When she said, “I’m working on my fourth novel,” I felt a stab of envy that made me squirm uncomfortably in my seat.Up to that point I had been enjoying the calm atmosphere of the workshop and the author’s guided free writes that had us paying attention to our bodies rather than our minds. I was relaxed and happy. But, my inner critic, always ready to chime in at the wrong time, jumped to attention with the “fourth novel” remark.
“Haaa, you are so far behind. You’ll be lucky to write one novel, let alone four. And if you don’t get moving, you won’t even accomplish that.”
A sucker punch right to my gut. I swallowed hard, and wondered if I was the only one feeling queasy. This wasn’t about the workshop leader. She had set a “playful” tone from the beginning, one that discouraged competition and encouraged writing together for our mutual benefit. And she didn’t boast about her writing successes. This was about me. I feel pressure to build a repertoire of published material. I want to prove something to myself. And I admit that I think about my age; I’m starting late.
Envy is based on a dubious assumption; that there is a limited supply of good fortune, satisfaction, happiness, in the world and therefore we must compete with each other for our share. I don’t believe that. What I do believe is that everyone is on their own personal journey and because we can’t be sure where we will end up, we have to enjoy the trip. It has taken me a long time to get on the writing path. Do I want to waste any of that precious time being envious?
A new session of Sister Writes has just begun and I am as excited as I was the first time. There are new readings and new ideas to absorb about the craft of writing. I recommend the piece by American author, Gary Lutz, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”, a lecture he delivered to students of Columbia University’s writing program; made me think about my writing from a different perspective. Working on my craft, makes me happy. Yes, I would like to tackle a novel, but I’m not ready yet. There is more groundwork that needs to be laid.
I have learned over the last few years that to write well, I need to listen to my body as well as my mind. It’s ironic that “writing from the body” was one of the techniques we were discussing in that envy-producing workshop. My body was engaged and content that evening, it was my mind that took me off course. Thoughts are wonderful things, and they fuel our writing, but if you are like me, sometimes you wish you could turn the volume down on the constant mind chatter that goes on in your head. Sitting and settling into your chair with eyes closed, relaxing every muscle, turning away from your thoughts and going deep inside to a place of calm-this is the place from which your best writing will flow. Try it.
When I go to this deep inside place, and picture my path, it becomes clear that I am on the right road. It is a meandering trail that twists and turns, some parts overgrown with tangled vines that need clearing, other sections strewn with sweet-smelling flowers that carry me along in an easy flow. What I know is that I need only keep going forward and I will find my way. Sometimes I feel impatient and want to move faster because I am not young, I’m at the mid-point of my life. But then I read about other writers who have had tremendous late-career success.
Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my favourite authors – you must read The Bookshop– wrote nine novels in the last twenty years of her life. She waited out a difficult marriage to an alcoholic husband, who couldn’t earn a decent living and did a stint in jail, to finally emerge as a writer in her sixties.
Even if you do begin writing when you are young, there is no guarantee that success will visit you right away. Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, stored this rejected manuscript in a drawer for ten years, sure that it was a story worthy of publication. She says, “…I always thought the book was right. It told itself the way it wanted to be told….” She had written it quickly, because she and her husband agreed that she could write full-time only as long as they could manage on one income, about six months. When publishers rejected the novel, she went back to office work and didn’t write anything for two years. But she didn’t forget about the manuscript lying in the drawer and one day her husband told someone in an independent bookstore about the novel, and it made its way to a small Irish press that published the book in 2013. It went on to win a number of prizes.
McBride says that she has been lauded for her perseverence and fortitude but her assessment is, “it’s a story of years and years of things going wrong, and one year of things going right.” Now she is trying to finish her second novel. The writing continues, that is the journey. There are always going to be authors who land an incredible publishing deal for their first manuscript and go on to write six bestellers in a row and others who labour their entire lives to complete one book of short stories. Find your own path, follow it and when the twinges of envy take you off course, get back to that deep place, turn off the mind chatter, and go on.
Til next time, keep writing.