I’m working on the fourth draft of my second book, which I’ve been prodding now for three years, on and off. Perhaps the clue lies in the ‘on and off’ – which Colm Toibin, discussing his struggle to write ‘Nora Webster’, describes more elegantly as ‘circling’ the idea. I wonder if, when the writing gets too difficult, too close to home, I run away – and work on a short story instead. I love short stories – reading and writing them – and the feeling of having polished a stone to the best of your ability, ready to hurl it out into the world, is hard to beat. To pursue a possibly unwise metaphor, more often than not it drops silently into a well. But sometimes it comes back, gift-wrapped, shiny, smooth with handling; maybe even wet with tears.
And that’s worth everything.
A novel, of course, is a different proposition: I’m in it for the long haul. Is that what scares me? The impossibility of reaching the end? Or the impossibility of getting on to the page anything approaching the lucid, compelling prose that slides into my head on the edge of sleep?
Well, all of the above.
Like anyone who tries to coax words onto the page, I employ all sorts of devious methods. Guilt, shame, carrot, stick, penalties, rewards; but who am I trying to fool? Only myself, and who knows me better than the self I’m trying to fool?
Deadlines work. A plan. A schedule. I was in the middle of drawing up my latest wheeze – an A4 sheet, divided into weeks, and days: all the information I can find on any one of my three calendars – when I was thrown back to my teenage years. There on the page, in the certainty of the wobbly lines and squares (drawn by hand, so the top ones are too small to write in) I saw my 14 year-old self; writing neatly, in two shades of biro, subjects and deadlines and amount revised, and amount left to do: pages and numbers and books to be read.
I wanted to say to her: you’ll be all right. Cling on to these if it helps, but most of all trust yourself, and your instinct to keep going, and your obsession with writing – because what else can it be?
I drew up my plan, with its wobbly lines and empty squares, and wrote in dates, and things in red and black. Still believing: still trying. And in the hopeful spaces in between, in the lines and squares and all the promise of the blank page, I found what I needed: the future, waiting for me to hurry towards it, with only my obsession and my instinct to guide me.