W. Somerset Maugham once wrote, “There are three secrets to writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” Right. Thanks for nothing, Somerset.
Sometimes I really, really want to know what those fricking three secrets are. I want it to be easy. I want to live my adolescent vision of writerdom. Wild parties full of interesting people, travel around the world, days in the sun and maybe surf or climbing mountains, and somewhere in there a quick coffee while I pound out five or ten pages. Of course, being older, I might skip the all-night parties etc… but the quick pounding out of wonderfully astute and insightful pages using powerful and arresting language that perfectly expresses what I’m trying to say—yeah, that sounds pretty good. If I just knew those three secrets, I think, wouldn’t life be great.
But here’s my reality. I’ve written many novels and every time I sit down to start a new novel I feel a wave a panic. What do I do now? How do I get going? Why is all that white starring back at me? I start to sweat. I sigh. I grumble. I have a kind of amnesia. Not like Gregory Peck in MIRAGE, not the “who am I and what have I done?” kind of amnesia,
but the “how did I ever write a novel?” kind. How could I manage to bang out so many pages, keep characters straight, make it all go together—mostly anyway? What have I forgotten?
Time to walk the dog. This is not code for some memorization technique or therapy. No, I mean when I feel this way I always think it’s time to walk the dog, watch a TV program, pick up a familiar book, check my email, facebook, twitter (thank you social media) or do anything to put off facing the blank page that is as blank as my mind. Anything not to face the fact that I have lost whatever it was that made it possible for me to write a novel the last time I wrote a novel.
I always feel this way when I start a new manuscript. Every time.
Maybe if I were an outliner type of writer the panic would be less. Maybe. Though the outliner types that I know seem to suffer from the same problem. They just suffer when they’re trying to get to their outline
If I knew the three secrets though. If only.
In spite of this initial panic, I do, eventually, get started. I write the only way I know how. One word after another. Sometimes the words fall out of me and sometimes I have to pull them out. Usually they make sentences as awkward as a middle school dance. But eventually one paragraph is made and then another and another. I tell myself that I’m writing a first draft and I need to let it be ugly and let myself think that I can make it more beautiful in revision. I urge myself on. Slowly, a story starts to emerge and once that happens the panic fades and I’m writing. I’m just telling a story, struggling with tone and character and setting and plot and all the things I struggle with as I try to become the story, try to be there in what’s happening moment to moment.
It’s this struggle that makes writing so exciting to me. It’s the struggle that makes it one of the great passions and wonders of my life.
I taught a workshop last week and a participant stayed after to talk to me. He was a businessman who had an MBA but had started writing fiction. He didn’t even know why exactly, but he’d written and written and now he’d finished a novel, and he said it made him feel something he’d never felt before. He couldn’t talk to his business colleagues about it. He’d had a hard time expressing what he felt to anyone.
He said, “It gives me a sense of fulfillment. More than getting my MBA, more than business. It’s hard to explain. It makes me feel alive.”
I offered him my sympathies. “You sound as if you might be a writer,” I said.
And I offered him congratulations, too. Unlucky lucky guy.
Maybe it’s not unfortunate after all that I don’t know what those three secrets are. If it was easy, if there weren’t the moments of doubt and desperate struggle then there wouldn’t be the moments of elation and discovery. I’m an unlucky lucky guy, too.