A Warning To Other Writers

Oh, this sodding book.

I…no, first, a little bit of context.

Those of us who call ourselves creatives, why do we create? Why do we have this need to make things? I know the usual answer is we write / paint / carve / whatever it is we do, because we have to, because there is something inside of us that needs to find an outlet. But what is that something? In my case, as well as a storyline it is frequently a place where I have spent some enjoyable time. It provides me with a comfortable setting in which to tell a story.

Most of what I do, certainly the work I feel is my best, my most successful (in the sense of expressing what I want to express), falls into that category. My long poem The Night Bus, for example, was the result of a thirty year (admittedly intermittent) search for a way to record my experience of a long bus ride across Northern India into Nepal. I attempted prose and paintings without success, although through this I did develop a style of painting I went on to successfully use on many Indian paintings, and had long given up on the project when chance showed me a way into the poem. The poem I completed succeeds in conjuring up (for me) the impressions and feelings I had on that journey; I can relive the journey again by re-reading the poem. Whether it conveys anything of that to other readers, I naturally cannot know.

And my stories, too. I look through Making Friends With The Crocodile, and I am in rural Northern India again. I re-read The Last Viking and can easily feel myself on an island off the west coast of Scotland. This is not to imply any intrinsic merit to my writing, other than its ability to transport myself, at least, into the setting I am attempting to describe.

These stories are a composite of three basics: a setting, as mentioned already, a storyline – and again this needs to be something important to me, or I find it pretty well impossible to put my heart into it, and strong, convincing, characters.

It is useful, then, to know where lots of my writing comes from, and what shapes it, what drives it. I have long suspected that this is frequently nostalgia and, recognising that, have wondered whether this might be a bad thing. Nostalgia, after all, has a rather bad press…does it just mean I am living in the past because I am viewing it through rose-tinted spectacles? As a way of not addressing issues of today I should be tackling?

This yearning for nostalgia, though, is a desire for something we see as better than what we have now. To write passionately about something it needs to be something I feel strongly about. Obviously this can also be something we find frightening or abhorrent – dystopian warnings about the future or anger about injustices, for example – but even in those cases the familiar provides a cornerstone of safety, even if only by way of comparison.

This is also true when I paint. I am not someone who can paint to order – if I’m not inspired, it does not work. A number of difficult commissions have proved that point to me. I paint what I like, what moves me. After all, whatever I am creating, it should be foremost for myself.

That book, then…

I began writing it about five years ago for all the wrong reasons. I had self-published Making Friends With The Crocodile and decided my next story should also be set in India, and as a contrast decided to write about British ex-pats living in a hill station in the foothills of the Himalaya. I wanted to write about India again. The trouble was, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I had no stories that might slot into that setting I felt in any way driven to write; it just seemed to feel appropriate at the time. I was pleased by the reception the first book had and felt I ‘should’ write this one.

What could possibly go wrong?

I spent time putting together a plot, with which I was never wholly satisfied, and began writing. Really, I should have seen the obvious at that point and bailed out. But I carried on, and twice reached a point where I thought I had the final draft.

My beta reader then proceeded to point out all the very glaring faults.

So twice I ripped out a third of it and chucked it away, then re-plotted the second half of the book and got stuck into the re-write. I’m sure you can see part of the problem at this point – I wanted to hang onto as much of the story as I could, instead of just starting completely afresh. And now here I am trying to finish the final draft for the third time, as my February project for this year. And it’s just not working for me. But at this point, after well over a hundred and fifty thousand words (half of which I’ve discarded) I just feel I’ve invested too much time and effort in it to abandon it now. Somehow, it has to get finished. I do have an idea for a couple of quite drastic changes which I’ll try this week, but unless I feel I’m making some real progress I’ll then happily put it aside for a while and concentrate on next month’s project: painting and drawing.

And, to be honest, if it eventually ended up as a story of less than ten thousand words, and if I felt satisfied with it, then I’d take that as a result, now.

And the moral of all this? I’m sure there was a point after a couple of months when I knew I shouldn’t have been writing this book. I should have binned it there and then and saved myself a lot of fruitless trouble, but stubbornly ignored the warning signs.

26 thoughts on “A Warning To Other Writers

    1. It would be nice if it was, Robbie, but I don’t feel it will. Inevitably, I’m finding it very difficult to pour my heart and soul into it and unless something leftfield suddenly leaps into view, it just feels like damage limitation. But, who knows…

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Here are a couple of idle thoughts that aren’t exactly direct responses to what you’ve written here, but they came to me while reading, so I’ll share them.

    Have you read Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life? It’s relatively short, and about as far from a ‘how to’ manual as you could get. I’ve had a copy for years, and re-read it (or portions of it) fairly often. I think you’d enjoy it. I always draw a good bit of encouragement from it.

    Also: I learned very early on in my blogging career that there’s a huge difference between ‘wanting to be a writer’ and actually writing. The ones who take their Mont Blanc pen and moleskin notebook to the corner café and spend hours sipping lattes and watching people for inspiration — well, there may be a Proust or a Faulkner among them, but the odds aren’t good.

    Related: I’ve never thought of myself as a writer. I’m more like a five year old who’s just discovered something marvelous — like an oddly shaped piece of gravel — and come running into the house to share it. The point of writing is to help other see the marvel in the gravel. (And yes, I am going to use that last phrase as a blog title now, so don’t you use it first!)

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    1. I don’t know that book – it sounds as though I ought to look out a copy of it, though. Encouragement is a good thing.

      I’m not entirely sure I agree about your second paragraph, though. I would argue that if we write, we are writers. Just as those who paint are painters, regardless of any financial success or recognition they get. It’s the doing that matters. There are dilletantes everywhere, of course, but that shouldn’t detract from those that labour without reward.

      I think you should certainly regard yourself as a writer. You write. Ergo es. And surely the idea behind all writing is to discover the marvel in gravel and want to share it with the world in our own words?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Re: your second paragraph. Of course. But some enjoy calling themselves writers without the labor of writing. I used to take their critiques of my work very seriously. I became a better writer when I stopped doing that!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I can tell stories of terrible things when they are in a setting that has given me so much that is positive in my life. You’re right about the comfort and security it brings. Can we doubt the love great writers have had for Russia, England, Africa, and the U. S., though their books deal with harsh realities? Those books are filled with episodes of beauty and joy as well. Something draws you to the foothills of India. What is it? Nostalgia is that touchstone of what you love and moved you to remember the place and its people. It’s a good thing to build on.

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    1. I fell in love with India the first time I travelled there. And you’re right, in that my novel dealt with dreadful things there but I was able to wrap the story in the setting and be comfortable in telling it.

      And was it nostalgia that drew me there? Not as such, it was a love of travel and places that are both beautiful and, above all, interesting.

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  3. I have the same problem: not being able to write what I feel I “should” write as opposed to what I really want to write. But after all the effort you’ve put into it, I understand why you want to finish the novel. And maybe, now it is something you want to write?

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  4. Hi Mick,

    I’m a bit late responding to this post. Sorry about that – I’ve been up to my eyes (and ears!) in coursework from my writing course. I was doing quite well to begin with but have now got that writer’s [dreaded] block with this particular piece. So, although you and others also experience the same thing, I’d admire your ability to conjure up many of your posts from nostalgia and mostly fond memories, particularly from your travels to your beloved India. It must be wonderful to have travelled so far and wide and I can understand how the images of these places must stay in your mind, hopefully forever. I love all your photos of the places you have been to as well. I have to say that, in my case, I usually write from feelings as opposed to memories (or perhaps a combination of the two, now I think about it).

    I’ve never had the opportunity to travel (apart from a short holiday in Southend!) Having said that, I went alone and had a wonderful time. I don’t think I wrote anything about that at the time, but I took an extended break from my blog. Perhaps, I should take a leaf out of your book (excuse the pun) and see if I can conjure up my happy memories from that time. Holidays are now out of the question due to acquiring my cat and not wanting to leave her anywhere unfamiliar. I don’t much fancy having someone strange coming in to feed her either.

    You’ve definitely given me food for thought though, so if you see a post from me about Southend, I hope you’ll forgive me for pinching your ideas and inspiration. Ellie X 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ellie.

      Whether it’s Southend or Shanghai, what’s important is what you take from your experience somewhere. The location is a backdrop, and frequently not much more. It’s the people you meet and how your own thoughts and feelings are stimulated by those interactions and your reactions to the location. That’s not to belittle the locations, as they are frequently the reason for what you write and modifiers to what happens.

      I think what I’m really saying is that it’s all about what’s inside of you, and how you express that. That’s what the writer has to do.

      And you mention you had a wonderful time in Southend, which is what matters. I’ve been to some ‘exotic’ locations and had a crap time.

      We do have a neighbour who comes in to feed our cats, which works well. And you might well find you have friends who’d be happy to come in and do that for you.


  5. I am exhausted most of the time, so I hope I am writing right. If the question is: ‘Why do We create?’ – then, taking from Your post – ‘To write passionately about something it needs to be something we feel strongly about. Obviously this can also be something we find frightening or abhorrent – dystopian warnings about the future or anger about injustices,’ says it very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find I’m frequently exhausted too, Swami, but I seem to be able to work through that if I’m feeling inspired. When it’s just a difficult slog, though, I think I need to recognise that something is wrong. That’s not to say that we don’t hit parts of our writing that do require a lot of effort to resolve, but I think it’s possible to recognise when to stop. If you reach a point when you genuinely don’t care about your story or the characters in it, it’s probably time to call it a day.

      Liked by 1 person

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