Sunday, February 14, 2016
I am struggling with a book. It seems I am always struggling with a book but each book is a different kind of struggle. I can divide my pile of books into easy books and difficult books and that has nothing to do with how you read them. On the easy side I have Triptych and the as yet unpublished An Uncertain Grace and to some degree Affection.
Triptych was the easiest of them. That book spilled out, each first draft novella took between two days and a week to write. The edit was comparatively minor. I had already done a year or three of research and it was simple to let all that knowledge just coalesce on the page.
Affection was easy because I had all the scenes in my head. The method of putting them into words on a daily blog got me into a rhythm. The material was there and I worked in the same way as I do when I am making a documentary, putting all the scenes on index cards, organising them into themes, cutting the unnecessary cards and then shaping the piece accordingly. I had trouble with the end. I remember struggling over the ending for a few months. For a while I thought I would never get the ending right and then when I did finish the book, even now I think the ending is less strong. It is a memoir and it has no life lesson to impart and the life is still going on. I wanted to be honest about the content. I wanted to write the truth, but the truth was not easily moulded into a dramatic structure and so the ending is less solid although not many people have minded that. The scenes are vivid enough in themselves to obscure this.
An Uncertain Grace may turn out to have a lot more work in the editing stage, but the scenes were written by accident. I started writing on the plane to the Sydney Writers Festival and just kept jotting down disparate scenes all through a busy year. It was not until all the festivals were over the I realised I had the bones of a book. The novella about an ungendered person was the most difficult. I struggled with the practicalities of pronouns. Language was working to make my character invisible, or at least amorphous. When I got that one right I knew I had the whole book in my hand. I am sure there is more work to be done, particularly to the last section but I think of this book fondly. It came as if plucked from my subconscious.
Then I have the hard books.
The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine started as a joy. I just wanted to play with this book. I wanted it to be light and to be funny but in the end it was a struggle. I wanted it to be sexy and have one foot on the ground even though it was a flight of fancy. The problem with this was that the rest of the book was so surreal, bizarre and fanciful that it kept lifting off the ground. There was also the problem of exposition. The structure of the book meant that I was referencing a new erotic novel in each chapter and that is honestly a difficult task to perform. You somehow have to bring the books with you without diving into exposition with each new chapter. The reader has to have a sense of the erotic novel without having read it. It was a tight-rope and occasionally I hovered at the point of falling off. The final edit was a complete restructure. A lot of new chapters were written and a lot were abandoned. I had to pummel this book into shape and felt exhausted at the end of the re-write. I have a different relationship to the book each time I approach it. Sometimes I laugh and feel satisfied that I have written something crazy that sits in a new and interesting place in the genre. Sometimes I just see all the hard work and the trouble in the writing and I feel like burying my head and ignoring the book completely. I feel like my relationship to Holly is mood dependent.
Steeplechase was a bugger to write. It had several complete new drafts. Very little remains from the first draft in the final book. I kept digging into it and finding new things in it, even towards the end of the final draft. For ages I didn't know how to do the ending. The ending is the hardest thing I have ever written. It just didn't work. I went away to Varuna Writers House for three weeks of uninterrupted writing and for the first two weeks I just struggled with the ending, putting the book together, taking it apart, all in the hope of cracking the end of it. I did it. This is the thing I am most proud of in my life. I cracked the ending of that book. When I did I was filled with a wave of joy and calm. I felt so light I might have ascended into space. That was the hardest book to write because it was about sisters and I really wanted to be honest about the complications of a sisterly relationship. My relationship with my sister is the most problematic one I have and that was what I was mining. I finished it. I did it. I didn't quite say everything I wanted to say about sisters but I got the ending right and that makes me proud even today.
This book. Here now. This book that I am writing might kill me. At the moment the book is called The Story of I but it has had many titles in many drafts. It started as a novella in 2007. I worked on it for a year in 2012 and didn't get it right. Now I am back at it and my changes aren't working. I don't feel like I am in control of my world. I don't have a way into these characters. I approach the page with dread. This is the hardest book I have ever written. This feels harder than Steeplechase. It keeps shutting me out. Whenever I have to go to the writing place I worry that I am going to end up feeling so useless that I will dream of falling off bridges, day-dreams. If only this bus could crash now I would never have to go back to that book. This book brings me closer to myself and therefore closer to my death.
No one is forcing me to go back to that book. I could walk away and no one would be the wiser. I could start an easier book. But that wouldn't help me to grow as a writer.
I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout yesterday. It is a good book. Solid. True. It has all the elements that I want in this book but that I haven't managed to reach yet. This is why I have to keep working. If I manage to get this book right I will be a better writer. I will know how to find truth even in the oddest places. We don't write to 'be a writer' we write to become a better writer. If I want to be a writer I can just keep writing more easy books because I already know how to do them. I need to grow as a writer. I want to write something real and true. I want to believe that the hard books make us better. I want to believe that setting a higher bar is a good and fine thing.
This bar is so high.
I will go back to the desk today and try to make yet another run at it. I will fall and run again and fall again. I hope one day soon I will manage the leap I need to get this book done before I die from it.