Thursday, 6 September 2012

How to torture a writer

This question came to me recently while in hospital. I’d been in extreme pain and was called in for an emergency operation. I didn’t take my laptop, nor paper. It was a good hospital, the surgeon did an excellent job and I suddenly had no pain after months of living on pain-killers. I watched Babylon 5 DVDs and French TV for a while, and got increasingly restless. Why? Well, here’s the answer to the title question of this blog.

Answer: deny them paper, pencil or pen, computer device, or any writing medium. Deny them the ability to write.

It cuts deep. I tried to conjure up ideas for the two remaining chapters of my third book Eden’s Revenge, but there’s the problem, the ideas don’t get concrete and evolve unless you write them down. People blithely say ‘inside everyone there is a novel.” It’s like saying ‘inside every rock is a sculpture.’ Is there any difference? Yes, people know sculpting is hard, but think writing is easy. That is, any non-writer thinks that way (and maybe one or two very gifted writers and a lot of bad ones, LOL).

It is fine to have ideas. That’s one of the great things about being human. But writing them down, reading them, then writing them again, making them better, more refined, more developed, more evolved, more to the heart of the matter, then polishing until only the exact, correct words are there, those the characters would think and say, the things they would see and the way only they would see them, the only dialogue that could come from their mouths in that scenario, in that setting, writing down the only way that particular reality could be faithfully described, takes an awful lot of time and editing. Now it sounds more like sculpting, chipping away bit by bit, carefully, uncovering the statue within.

Once a writer manages something that amounts to the best that writer can produce, and it gets published and gets some positive feedback, the writer is trapped in a web of his or her own making. The next novel has to be better, or at least as good as the first.

While finishing my third book, my second book was being published as a paperback (it was already out on Kindle). I had to proofread it all in the space of two days. I found two typos, and three words that needed changing. I would have preferred to do more edits, but the publisher said only the necessary changes, so I held back on some of the style issues. But what struck me was how much more polished that book was than where I was currently on book 3. For Eden’s Revenge I am still finalising full draft #1, even if each individual chapter has been revised several times. Then I’ll go through it another couple of times myself, then two of my close readers will go through it and I’ll make more changes, then two independent reviews by professionals and more changes, one final review, then proofing, then the publisher, then out it goes. So, what has this to do with torturing a writer?

The writer knows what (s)he is capable of, particularly once published – there is no happier moment when he or she holds that first book in their hands, like a first kiss, a first love. But without the tools, a pen and paper, or a computer, those ideas one has for a book will never mature, never evolve from more than wistful notions. It is like a block of ice for an ice sculptor who can see a tantalising image inside the block, but it is unclear, unrefined, and he or she cannot really make out the face. The sculptor wants to chip away until that face is clear for all the world to see.

Perhaps torture is too strong a word; dissonance, tension, stress are maybe more appropriate. But it is a pain not being able to write when you can see something, but not clearly, and you don’t have the writing tools to chip away at it. A lot of writers are driven, it is their passion, they have to write. Without it they get withdrawal, and also know that their tools will become blunt. Some great writers throughout history do indeed seem to have been tortured souls.

Celebrated Irish writer James Joyce was once famously asked by another writer how many words he had written that day. He seemed vexed, at the point of pulling out his hair. “Eight,” he replied, staring at the writing paper aggressively. The other writer stated “But that’s quite good for you for a day’s work. You could quit now, come and have a drink” Joyce shook his head, and thumped the oak writing desk. “No, not yet! The order, the word order dammit!”

Perhaps great writers are already tortured enough.

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