Write Champagne

How are you all? A while back, I read an article which said 'it's impossible to write champagne in a pandemic.' Yes - I thought, scribbling it into my notebook - that's it exactly. But what do you think? If you've read these posts for a while, you'll know how much I admire Nora Ephron. I regularly pick up her essays when in need of - well, a pick me up, a literary glass of champagne. She is the wisecracking aunt we all wish we had. Re-reading 'I Feel Bad About My Neck' a couple of months ago, I realised much of it could be applied to difficult novels, too:

'Short of surgery (editing) there's not a damn thing you can do about a neck (WIP).'

I've had a draft of this post on file for months, working title: I Feel Bad About My WIP.

This is my difficult ninth novel. There, I said it. I've always ascribed to 'never complain, never explain,' but - ohmygoodness - these last couple of years have been tough writing, haven't they? Yes, I know its a pandemic, but still. The previous eight books, (six published, two in a bottom drawer), were a relative breeze. I felt so bad about my WIP after a handful of 'love it but ...' rejections last summer I went right back to the first novel I ever wrote and entered it for the Elizabeth Goudge trophy and it won a highly commended. ('See, you can write ...' that defiant inner voice said). 

'Our faces are lies, and our necks tell the truth,' Nora said.

So in spite of a new book in Germany a few months ago, and two in the UK recently, and regular journalism, and keeping on writing and trying to stay positive, the truth is this WIP hurts. Really bad. So bad, I stopped working on it completely for - oh, about two weeks after the last call with my agent. I read, I ran, I meditated, I cried, I made a long list of every career I could do except write. Trouble is, I can't not write. I sat down two hours a day during the weeks of throwing my toys out of the pram and not writing 'properly' and I had a literary fling -  I wrote a novella. Hemingway called keeping your hand and brain moving 'five finger exercises'. Just like playing scales if you can't play a symphony. Rest, but keep moving. Who knows if it's any good, it's in a drawer, I haven't looked at it again - yet.

The thing is, I can't let go of this WIP. Not having this book out in the world feels like a pregnancy past its due date. I am full of this story, and the characters are wriggling and trying to be heard, and until it is out there in the world I am restless and sleepless and I really want to see my feet again. Looking back at photos from 2017 when I started working on this idea, my children are so young. Four years is a long time. My eldest has just left for university. (Don't talk to me about empty nests, I'm so happy for her but quite bereft. As usual, social media provides and a friend posted this Larkin today). 

I've talked to a lot of writer friends recently, reminiscing fondly about the early days of being published when everything felt easy and deals and books flowed freely. Although more people than ever have been reading, the pandemic has been tough creatively and financially for a lot of writers. Hot debut? Come on in. If you're already a stellar 'name' or a celebrity, clear the floor (and the supermarket shelves). For a lot of midlist writers the water's still and the wind has dropped. But tides turn. 

'One of my biggest regrets,' Nora said, 'is that I didn't spend my youth staring lovingly at my neck.' I feel like that about my WIP. Four years ago joyfully researching this book, or three years ago when I was up a mountain in France merrily drafting the outline instead of skiing I had no idea that I would be ten drafts in and going back in for a final round with it, nor that I would hear another writer in one of my groups is suddenly working on the same niche subject.  (Here's some advice: don't get lulled into false sense of security when your script is being sub'd and talk about your book. If you have a hot idea hold it under your hat until the book is out in the world). The title, which was unique and unused, has also been taken by another writer in the last couple of months. Annoying, but as ever - there are no new stories (or titles for that matter), just perspectives. Only you can write the story your way. 

So, if you're in the same boat, don't give up. Writing is a craft and as someone said it takes damn hard work to make it look easy. This quote came up recently: “Of course, there are those critics - New York critics as a rule - who say, 'Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it's good but then she's a natural writer.' Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.” - Maya Angelou.

Do the work. Persevere. I've been lucky enough to workshop this book with brilliant writers - my beloved writing family the MA/PhD alumni of the Manchester Writing School keep me going. We've met every month through the pandemic and recently for a week of zoom writing workshops. They would tell me if it stank, and they have kept me writing and editing. As Nora said - you can't just have a neck lift, you have to do the face as well. Every time I have picked apart the twin-timeline I've had to edit both the past and contemporary strands. You can't do one without the other. I love this book, but I hate it, I've read it so many damn times. Some of the best advice when you are starting writing is to find your group - you need people who understand what you are trying to do, and keep you going.

 

Twin timeline edit number - who knows?

Crucially, after months of feeling really bad about the book/neck I've had a breakthrough. Perhaps you're the same - my bullshitometer has gone past breaking point. I care a lot - a whole lot - about not bringing home the bacon for my family in the usual way - yet. This book isn't a hobby, this is my career. Right now, I care more that this god-awful pandemic has kept my family apart on opposite sides of the world for almost a year and a half. I care more about the people who have lost jobs, and lives because of this wretched disease. This is a good book, its time will come. I believe in it. All I can do for now is my best. When it's done, it will be published one way or another.

As Elizabeth Gilbert said: Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness… One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this—I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.

During all these months of feeling bad about my WIP, I ran the virtual Camino de Santiago. It was a walk I hoped to do in real life before one of those significant '0' birthdays this summer. A friend did it a few years ago and it changed her life. Instead I've hiked through forests and walked on Exmoor and run virtually 'through' places I love - London and Paris, Singapore and Rome. I am not a good runner, but I enjoy it. I've had an on-off relationship with Michael Johnson for a couple of years now. The Couch to 5k programme is a really good place to start, if you're thinking about it. Writing and running or walking go hand in hand. If your job has you sitting on your backside hours a day you really need to get up and move it. Movement is a meditation - it unknots thoughts and plot problems, it gives your characters room and space to grow when the chatter of your monkey mind won't shut up: 'I can barely write a shopping list'; 'this stinks'; 'oh god he/she got the deal/editor/prize' ... Just put on a pair of trainers and head out the door.

We need to ring-fence our mental space and health more than ever, I think. I find myself incredulous and often incandescent on a daily basis - fuel shortages, the army going in, empty food shelves. Don't get me started on Brexit, the climate, the rank misogyny in our society. My son said to me on the school run: "everything is getting worse isn't it? We were lucky to live through the good times." He's fifteen. Even children are noticing what's going on. So, what to do? 

For me, when something's not working it always helps to go back to basics. Put everything you think you know aside and see what comes up afresh. One of my favourite lines about writing comes from Anne Enright. She said "no one who is any good feels confident. What makes you so special?" Accept uncertainty. Go back to school. I signed up for a deceptively chilled 'Yoga for Writing' workshop with the brilliantly sweary Stella Duffy the other day. Stella is a terrific writer, and - it turns out - inspiring workshop leader. I really, really recommend her classes - you can do them online anywhere in the world, or in person at Level Six. The gist of the workshop was: there is magic in mistakes. Allow yourself to fail. Allow pain and grief. Then, as Stella might have said: Write f*ing champagne.

In France during WW2 they had 'jours sans alcool'. The only exception to the ban was champagne. It was seen as a necessity. I've just signed up for Sober October in aid of Macmillan - my Dad's birthday was in October and he died of cancer, so it always seems like a good idea. But this month I am having champagne, of the writing variety at least. In the hope - as with dogs and children - if I ignore the WIP it will start to behave itself, I am writing champagne, doing a contemporary romance course with CBC courtesy of the RNA, (thank you, both - I really recommend the course led by brilliant Jenny Colgan, and if you are just starting on your writing journey check out the RNA's NWS scheme). 

We have to live in hope. In a long life and a long career writing, things tend to come in cycles and you remember that things always shift and change if you just keep going. I remember after 9/11, twenty years ago, when I was working on an early draft of 'The Perfume Garden' in Spain, many people in the creative industries felt what they did was trite and shallow. We were at war. And recently there have been many days when I've thought: you're not frontline NHS or a keyworker, what on earth have you got to feel so bereft about? But think back to Alfred Barr's call to arms - as director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York during WW2, he said the arts make life worthwhile. They are worth fighting for. Perhaps something you write just might make the day of someone on the pandemic frontline a little bit lighter. Get out of your head and into the world and see if you can't make it brighter. In tough times champagne is exactly what you need and it doesn't stop being marvellous just because the world's gone mad. Be defiant. Be kind, to yourself and others. Write with hope - always. Write champagne.

 


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