Monday, September 25, 2017

Taking dictation from God?

The Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie fame) once likened writing to taking dictation from God, as if the novel writing process is one huge effortless, magical explosion of joy. If only! For me writing a novel is a trial and the most strained moments come at the beginning and the end, at what the American editor and writer Robert Gottlieb calls “the getting in and the getting out.”

I hate facing the blank page, especially when I only have the roughest of ideas of what it is I want to say. The thought of getting those thousands and thousands of words down almost immobilises me. I put it off and put it off. Until, eventually, after days, weeks, and sometimes months, of procrastination, I can't put it off any longer. Finally, I make myself sit down at the keyboard and dive in. I write as fast as I can for six hours a day, have the weekend off and start all over again. I try not to edit as I go because I don't want to waste time looking for a perfect sentence or word in a section which I may later edit out – this is not as easy as it sounds as I want to rewrite every word almost before it's down. My goal, though, is to keep going.

Fast forward x number of months. I feel I've aged ten years and my friends all think I've emigrated it's been that long since we've been in touch. But I have 70,000 plus words in front of me, albeit awful, terrible, shitty words, words that I wouldn't show my dog, but that doesn't matter. I am ready to begin the sifting, combing, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing, crafting and shaping – what T.S. Elliot called “the frightful toil of critical labour”. This is the bit I LOVE. Now I am creating! I rewrite and edit for meaning and context and plot and imagery and rhythm and sense and the possibilities are endless. I go to places I never imagined I could imagine, and meet new, exiting people.

I sometimes think the elation I feel when editing could be similar to the excitement the gambler feels just before the silver ball drops into the black or red chamber of the roulette wheel? Or to the buzz the slot machine player experiences just before a bunch of whirring purple plums kerchunk into a row across the front of the fruit machine. It is the thrill of not knowing yet believing everything is possible and I never want it to stop. Is that what Muriel Sparks felt when she was on her dictaphone to God? But the story has to end. It must. The readers expect it. So, eventually, after however long it takes (which is usually a very long time) and when I have nothing left to give, and even though I know my story is still not perfect – but perfection is the voice of oppression, isn't it? – it's time for me to take a chance. It's time to see if my novel can stand on its own two legs. Reluctantly, and filled with sadness, I write the final last words and I get out. But I know I won't be miserable for too long. A new idea has been mulling about in the back of my head for months and it's crying out to be explored. If I'm lucky, I'll master my procrastination and sit down and start all over again. Why? Because there's nothing that I would rather do. So, what about you? Do you struggle writing your novel or is the experience more like “taking dictation from God”?


Rick Blechta said...

Oh, how well we all know the intimidating proposition of the Blank Page.

Knowing what the time and effort expenditure writing a novel involves, I'm always faced with the question, Do I really want to do this again?

Sybil Johnson said...

I find writing a novel difficult. Seeing a blank Word document is quite paralyzing for me so I write my first drafts long hand. Generally, before I even get started with that, though, I have pages and pages of notes and ideas and thoughts. Eventually, I find something that seems like a reasonable story and that's when I start writing. I do wonder at times, like Rick said, if I really want to go through this once again.

Type M for Murder said...

Great post. My muse is more like the Devil.

Vicki Delany said...

Welcome to Type M, Marianne. It's great to meet you online and read what you ahve to say.

Vicki Delany said...

The novel I'm currently working on, the forth Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery, has been somewhat like taking dictation. I can't say why, or what there is about this book, but that's not the way it usually works. I'm quite impressed, I hope it keeps going on my next book.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi All,

great to hear from you and thanks for kind welcomes and comments :)

Sybil and Rick, I also ask myself why I write but sometimes "not writing" is even harder than writing. I suppose we are driven for whatever reason to tell our story the only we can.

Mario, long live the Devil ;)

It is interesting, Sybil, that you write long hand first. I have a writer friend who also does this and she insists the process of physically writing the words down stimulates creativity. I used to write long hand but my writing got so bad it was impossible to read afterwards :(

Yay, Vicki! It's always reassuring to hear when the writing process is going well. Long may it continue and good luck with the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery!

Eileen Goudge said...

I, too, am familiar with the Curse of the Blank Page. Your writing process sounds very similar to mine. I enjoy the last draft far more than the first, and sort of dread coming to the end, and having to start anew on another project. How I manage it is the ultimate mystery.

Sybil Johnson said...

I agree that the process of physically writing the words down stimulates creativity. I know, also, that if I write something down, I'm more apt to remember it.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Eileen, like you, when i see my novel done and dusted, it does seem incredible that it exists.

Yes, Sybil, it does seem to help fix something in my mind if i physically write it down.

Aline Templeton said...

Marianne, this really struck a chord. 'Dictation from God' - well, sometimes! Most of the time it's just hard work.