1. I'm Writing a Novel Funny thing. I'm writing a novel.
This is not really something I've done before. Or expected to do. Okay, so there was that time that I spent the better part of a summer finishing a novel before promptly abandoning it because it wasn't the right way to tell the story I was trying to tell and I'd really just spent too much time envying Creative Writers who could tell everything in a poem or a short story and didn't feel limited, or rather intimidated, by that. And it's funny how if you think about an idea too hard, for too long, it gets warped, like it's been sitting in the sun, in the rain, the snow, and you can't really tell what shape it was originally supposed to be. I'm a chronic overthinker, so quite a lot of my life looks like that quite a lot of the time, actually.
But mostly I am not what you could call a Novelist. Not with a capital N, anyway. When someone asks me what I write, I have a love-hate relationship with my standard answer, which is something vague that ends with a sigh and a shrug as if to say, see? you can't pigeon-hole ME! I often say (and write!) things like, "oh, I wish I was a novelist, because it would be so much easier," and of course I never, or almost never, mean it.
But anyhow I am writing a novel, now. And I'm enjoying it.
I'm doing it because it's National Novel Writing Month. They call it nanowrimo. And yes, I hate the name. And no I will not say it out loud (unless, maybe, you buy me a drink, in which case I will say it out loud very reluctantly and very quietly). And yes, it's a gimmick. And no, I don't really have time for this. And no, neither does anybody else.
But it doesn't matter.
After the first thousand words it stopped really being a choice. Like Alice, I fell down the rabbit-hole of curiosity and now I'm wandering round Wonderland sipping potions. Growing, shrinking. Running just to stay in place. And it makes me deliriously happy.
2. It Looks Like This
What this means is that I come home from work and I go for a swim, and then halfway through my swim I start thinking about the book and by the time I get home I desperately need to pull the laptop out and start typing. It's like foreplay, but for writing.
Then I spend the next five hours typing as fast as I can. Which is great for me and not so great for the Man, who has to do the cooking and the cleaning and the entertaining himself all on his own, and then as a reward gets a grumpy/happy (grumpy because I need to sleep, happy because I'm SO TIRED and I finally get to sleep) me crawling into bed with my fingers still twitching. On the nights when he isn't around to provide for me I eventually realise that I'm hungry and look in the fridge and discover an open tin of baked beans and half an avocado and think, PERFECT! And make a meal of it, along with an entire bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon. (That counts as fruit, right?) And obviously I don't clean up after myself, because that would cut into the time I could be spending on the couch making shit up. This is straining our relationship (not actually, by the way, but after we've snapped at each other about something really banal like the fact that I left the bread on the cutting board and now it's harder than the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, we joke about it, a bit.).
But I'm not writing this novel in a FRENZY! sort of way; I genuinely enjoy it. If I could, I would spend all of my time like this. The other day I caught myself being grumpy because WE HAD TO GO HAVE DINNER WITH SOME REALLY GOOD FRIENDS BUT I COULD BE SPENDING THAT TIME WRITING, and, well, that's probably overkill, and I mean, I do like a bit of socialising sometimes (and we had a wicked time and I didn't really regret not spending those few hours writing). But I would probably be pretty happy to spend the majority of each day holed up in my study typing and reading and watching the neighbours' bushy black cat climb the naked cherry tree in the garden.
That's the other way you can tell I'm working on a project: all the books come off the shelves and there are strategic piles placed in every room. Our house is a mess because the Man can't clean up faster than I can take books of a shelf. Also, I haven't washed any of my clothes all month and I'm running out of relatively clean things to wear which you'd think would be fun - all the old stuff comes out of the drawers, you discover some amazing old vintage dress. But I had really bad taste as a college student so mostly it means I wear schlubby things; the other day I wore a hoody from Abercrombie & Fitch. Let me say that again: A HOODY, from ABERCROMBIE & FITCH. It was awful; I felt disgusting (I'm a total snob and also I'm not an ugg-boots-and-denim-skirt wearing Brookes undergraduate although when I was 15 I INVENTED THAT LOOK, but that's another story) and then I discovered it was so tight (I used to like really tight sweatshirts, I guess) that I couldn't easily get it off, and I ran from room to room with my arms above my head pulling on the sleeves and the hood and for a few seconds I just thought, oh my god. I am trapped in my own sweatshirt. This is The End.
3. It Gives Me Joy
But the point is it isn't really the pressure of having to write my 50,000 words by the end of the month (and also, I'm not that disgusting, I still shower regularly - or as regularly as I ever did). It's more the giddiness of being this happy about something I'm doing. Why on earth don't more people try to write novels in a month?
I keep reading these sort of pep-talky things. You know: writing isn't fun. It's actually really difficult, if it was easy everyone would be a writer! Even though everyone thinks it's so easy until they try! But this month is all about completing a project, NO MATTER HOW TOUGH YOU'RE FINDING IT, and ya just gotta keep on truckin' cause it's gonna be SO WORTH IT OMG!
Actually some of these pep-talky things are very funny, or poignant, or just plain good, or indeed all three. But I have a fundamental disagreement with most of them, or at least, with parts of most of them. Because it is fun! In a sort of pleasure-pain way, sometimes; like biting your lip when you have a cold sore (or is that just me?). But fun nonetheless. I don't mean "fun" like wheeeee, we're on a rollercoaster isn't this so much FUN fun. (Although, I hate rollercoasters. But I do recognise - see how good I am at being empathetic? at imagining other people's lives? - that there are some for whom a rollercoaster is the epitome of fun.). Or, fun like a party, fun like a new dress, fun like binging on popcorn at the cinema, fun like "hey, guys, this is SO. MUCH. FUN."
I just mean, it's like eating a really good meal. You have to eat anyway. And then you get the perfect steak. That's fun, but it's deeper than fun. It's enjoying the act of surviving. What better thing could there possibly be to enjoy? It's a serious rush.
That's what I mean this is. It's the rush of enjoying the act of surviving. ALL. THE. TIME.
I'm not kidding or exaggerating (I do kid and exaggerate sometimes; now is not one of those times). I don't mean it's easy, and I don't mean I'm just sitting there and everything is appearing on the screen, perfectly formed. And I don't even mean that I'm grinning wildly like a maniac all of the time (although I am grinning wildly like a maniac quite an awful lot of the time).
I just mean that this is not really a struggle for me. I can write 50,000, maybe even 60,000 or 70,000 words in a month because most of the time I am actually stopping myself from writing. Because it is not practical to act all the time in the way that I've acted this month. I do need to wash my socks sometimes, and socialise more regularly, less urgently (Exhibit A: Friday night, I'm several ciders into the evening, in the same converse, skinny jeans, and black jumper I've been wearing all week, in the middle of a mostly-empty dance floor, DANCING, hi, have you ever met me, let me say that again, DANCING, like a complete fool), and cook dinner, and actually be in a relationship (these things need maintaining, you know: you don't just say, "let's be together!" and that's it). But probably, if I didn't have to do all of those things, if I didn't want to be a human, I would just sit there at my computer writing all the time. And sometimes, shopping for shoes online. Because occasionally the brain needs a rest. And the ego needs a hot pair of heels.
I guess I should clarify though that when I say "writing", I don't just mean the actual act of putting words together. I sort of mean the whole "process", but of course "process" makes it sound wanky, and it isn't really wanky. All I mean is: the thinking (which involves, or can involve, things like a swim or a run or a walk or a bath or, sometimes, hanging up the laundry). And the reading. And the going back and obsessively changing one tiny detail because 20,000 words later you've decided that you should have ended that totally arbitrary sentence with this and not that. The discovery of previously unseen connections between things (a Wodehouse quote and Bryan Magee's Popper, say).
The joy, the real joy, is always in these discoveries. To me this is the greatest thing that writing anything - a novel, an essay, a dissertation, a poem - offers. Finding the overlaps between texts (where a text is not just a book but maybe a piece of artwork, an equation, an idea, an experience), the overlaps between your text and someone else's, sometimes. Finding quotes that suddenly make sense in the context of what you're writing, ideas that suddenly mean something else because they've been enhanced by other ideas.
So all of that, as much as the typing and the actual sentences, is writing.
Is it really all happy, all the time? Of course not. Readers, meet My Self Doubt. My Self Doubt, meet - oh hell, I probably don't have any readers anyway (JUST KIDDING! SEE WHAT I DID THERE?!). She likes to eat my brains for lunch and then piss all over me. But hey-ho, as they say. And also, yes there are times when there just isn't another sentence. JUST ISN'T. Except sit there long enough, read a poem, eat a piece of toast, and suddenly there is. It's like coming to a fence and sitting there for awhile going, gee whiz, I didn't see THAT coming, I'm not a bird, I don't have wings, OH WAIT, I CAN CLIMB OVER IT, OKAY. On our way.
So yes. Frustration, self-doubt, smelly socks. But that's just life.
4. I Want To Get It Right (and yes, there is a "right")
Then there's also always the question, what's the point? Of writing a novel in a month, I mean. Or indeed of writing a novel at all.
Let's put it another way. Do I want to get this right? I mean, do I want each word to be deliberate, do I want the book itself to be edited, clear, to mean something?
Yes. I do.
And I want this because that's what I do, as a writer. I write things that I think could be published. I'm sorry, but it's true. I'm deeply suspicious of anyone who will write a whole book without thinking, even briefly and without deliberately doing so, of what would happen if the book got published. And who doesn't write with that thought in his mind, if even at the very, very back, where all of the stuff-you-can't-quite-be-bothered-to-think-about lives.
This novel was not part of The Grand Plan. It isn't the book that I've been slaving and struggling over for two years now, or the book I planned to write after that, or the book I've secretly wanted to write for fifteen years now. But it is A Book. By Me. Which means something. Also, there is no Grand Plan, not really. This is not a science or even an art, it is just a life. Capital L. A Life, or rather My Life. With lots of books in it, some of which apparently cannot be predicted. Yes I am writing this like it will someday be Something, because maybe it will. Maybe it will not. But I don't write things thinking they Will Not and I don't think very many other people do, either, or at least I'd like to think not very many other people do either because I'd like not to be alone in this.
(And I know this is not at all what I said in this interview but that was before I'd started this project and before I'd actually really thought about it in the same way I have now).
So yes. That is why I haven't written very many blog posts in November.