My lack of blog posts over the last few months has been no reflection on my writing habits over the same period. In fact, I have been working diligently since August on a fantasy book, the first prose writing I have committed to in almost seven years, and I recently typed the last line of the first draft, which swept in at just under 110,000 words.
Yes, it was a marathon.
It is not the first novel I’ve completed, but it is the first of such a great length, and the first in which I have actively taken an idea – the notion of social empathy, or lack thereof – and deliberately transposed it into a fantastical setting in order to explore the effects of political manipulation on a frightened and angry populous.
That all makes it sound very sophisticated and lofty. At its essence, it is a book about dragons. And magic. And inter-dimensional travel. It was a lot of fun to write.
But I now find myself rather at a loss. Often, my writing is an exceptionally grounding influence in my life. When I am off in other worlds, I feel more rooted to this one. My ability to translate narratives from my own fictional worlds to my lived one, and vice versa, makes it a great deal easier for me to handle the chaos of living with any kind of perspective. (In fact, chaos is another major theme of the novel). But now I have finished the first draft. There is no more of it to write. There is a great deal more to do to it, of course. It must, eventually, be rewritten, reorganised, pulled to pieces, gutted, devoured and then reincarnated as something significantly better. I have plans already. My mind is still whirring away in the story, telling me all the things I have not yet managed to pack in, and pointing out all the painstaking details of the first draft that, it turns out, are utterly irrelevant.
I am trying very hard to listen to a piece of extremely sound advice: leave it for a month or so, and then go back when you have gained some distance.
It is an excellent piece of advice. I have given it myself so many hundreds of times as if it was the easiest instruction in the world to follow. Only now I feel like an astronaut floating free of a ship, my fingers inches from the lifeline, and a voice in my ear is saying, don’t grab it yet, you’re not ready. But I’m afraid that if I do not grab hold, dive back in immediately, I will float out into the terrible blackness and never be able to claw my way back.
Now, I’ve just read that sentence back to myself and thoroughly appreciate it for all its glorious melodrama, but the sentiment still stands. I was rooted in narrative, now the narrative needs time to sleep and my roots have come loose. I could blow over in the slightest of breezes. I could be washed downriver in the lightest of showers.
It’s strange how we seem to have evolved to become such narrative creatures. Even those of us who are not avid readers express ourselves through anecdote. We build the story of ourselves, around ourselves, to be dished out to those we trust. In fact, we may have several narratives. There is the one we tell our closest friends, the one we share at dinner parties with people we want to impress, the online narrative of selfies and hashtags that are only vaguely concealed lies, and there is the narrative we hold close, like a cup of poison, to our own hearts, as if terrified to spill any of it out. In my work with young people, it becomes increasingly clear to me those who are able to engage with their own and others’ narratives and those who are not. Almost to a child, those who have not built the language to develop their own narrative are angry, frustrated, destructive, bitter and lost. They are the ones who say ‘I feel sad’ when what they really mean is ‘I am desolate with loneliness and grief.’ They are the ones who say ‘I feel cross’ when what they mean is ‘a monster has stepped inside my soul and is driving it in any direction he likes’.
And now that, after such an intense immersion in a narrative that was both perfect escapism and powerfully embedded in my understanding of the real world, I have stepped back out into the air, noticed suddenly that winter is coming and the days are shorter, I feel panicked and lost. I want to clamber back inside the fort of my own story and hibernate there until the real world seems better again.
But now comes the difficult crux: the first draft of a story is a delight. You, as writer, are your only audience. It can be self-indulgent, full of bizarre and personal twists. It can be unplanned, plotless, directionless and playful. Yet, I am a writer by profession and, at some point, everything I write wants an audience. My ultimate aim is to publish my work. So now comes the arduous task of turning what was a journey embarked upon for delight, art and play, into a well-crafted and honed product. Because, sadly, like every other beautiful and meaningful thing, the art of narrative has been neatly and efficiently converted into profit. This is not so much the fault of publishing houses, many (if not all of whom) exist out of love and passion, wanting to provide a wide audience for good stories. Almost all the editors and agents I have met are strong, pure souls who love what they do and find purpose in nurturing narratives into full-blown successes. But as a writer, it is daunting to know that your story might be taken out of your hands and made into something it was not meant to be.
How do we stay true to our narratives when there exists such a pressure on them to be something specific, something that they may not wish to be?
This is true of the stories crafted by writers as well as the stories crafted by non-writers. How many times have I scanned through Facebook and Twitter, a terrible, dark pressure building upon my soul, as I read through the numerous successes of my friends and contemporaries: how this friend got this massive break and that friend just got that publishing deal and still others are lauded as the voice of their generation and here I am, little old Becci, wrapped in a blanket in her living room as yet unchanged.
But of course, this is an incomplete story. I am not unsuccessful, I am just aware of the fullness of my own narrative, complete with all its failures, mishaps and insecurities, as well as its triumphs. We do not allow space for failure. We do not allow space for fear. There is no place for it on our online forums and networks. To express it is seen as self-indulgent, attention-seeking and distasteful.
Yet, in every good narrative, the hero has a moment of doubt. Where does the success come from if not the depths of failure, the first fight with the dragon in which the knight is utterly broken and defeated? The captain whose ship is torn and battered by an ocean storm? The moment when the conman realises how deeply he has hurt the people he loves? Where is the space for these moments in our own, internal narratives?
I miss my story. I miss the relentless and powerful rage of my protagonist, I miss flying with dragons, I miss not knowing where my story will take me. I miss exploring an alternate world inside my own head that is utterly new and beautiful to me. I feel sad. Sad like driftwood. Sad like the hunger of a whale. I am aware of the utterly immense task of turning this book into something worthy, and then setting out on the wide, wild road to find agent/publisher/readers/reviews/peace/enlightenment. Sometimes, I wonder why I have set such a path for myself when failure is so terribly probably and so dizzyingly painful.
But I will keep going. Because it will worse, in fifty or sixty years, to contend with the knowledge that I was afraid to follow my own ambitions, that I might have succeeded but I could not bear the possibility of failure. That will be far worse. Regret is the largest and cruellest and hungriest of all dragons and it crawls inside all of us and coils itself around the jewels of our distress, the glittering coins of our embarrassment.
I will not deny that the dragons of fear and doubt and self-deprecation have paid me many a visit. I am often flayed by their persistence, the sound of their roaring in my head.
But triumph is a dragon too. And longing. And passion. Their fire is just as potent, their voices just as loud. Right now, my narrative is in its trough of self-doubt. It does not know if it can reach the end, defeat the monster, find the way home. But it will pick itself up and dust itself off because we must keep going. And if it finds success, it will be all the better for it.