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.
Lovely! For all those of us who are unlucky lucky!ReplyDelete
Great post. Very well-said! I like to think I'm an unlucky, lucky one too ;)ReplyDelete
Wonderful post. It is comforting to know that I'm not alone in what I thought were just my quirky fears.ReplyDelete
Great post. I face doubts every day, even when the book is finally published, because then I'm worrying about the next one. But I guess that means I really care, and that's what propels me to write the next novel.ReplyDelete
I loved this post. So true! He must have been talking to a non-writer; you can almost hear the question that went before W. Somerset Maugham's answer.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for the comments. I don't mean this in a misery loves company way--but it's nice to hear others struggle with the same problems. And still feel lucky--mostly.ReplyDelete
Brian, I feel the same way with each and every novel. I stare at the blank page and think, "It couldn't possibly have been ME who wrote that last story. Someone else did it. Or if I did it, it must have been a fluke. I'll never be able to do it again."ReplyDelete
But I think you discovered one of the secrets to writing a novel, if not the ONLY secret, while writing this blog post: "I write the only way I know how. One word after another."
Isn't that the truth? Fantastic post :)
Ah, so helpful! So true! Thank you.ReplyDelete
Love this bit:
He couldn’t talk to his business colleagues about it. He’d had a hard time expressing what he felt to anyone.
THAT makes him sound like a writer as much as the thrill of finishing a novel!
Thanks Erin and Lia and Evan--I appreciate the comments.ReplyDelete
"Unlucky lucky guy (gal)" is the perfect way to describe being a writer. : ) Thank you for that. Great post!ReplyDelete
Enjoyed that. "Unlucky lucky." You nailed it. I can relate to the panic, too. Nothing's scarier than that blank page. Not earthquakes. Not my kid melting down in the checkout line (that's a close second, though). Thank you for the insight :)ReplyDelete
This is a really enjoyable post, Brian, thanks! And every aspect is so true - SO true! I love the story about the MBA unable to talk about his book. Yes, it's so emotional and sometimes there are just no words to describe the feeling.ReplyDelete
Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)ReplyDelete
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