Terrific humidity after the storm. We had hailstones bouncing off the corrugated iron roof of the stoep, a brand-new auditory challenge for the dogs. At some point after midnight, the temperature finally began to drop and a wind came up from the north, mercifully cool and dry. I grew up in tropical Africa with regular monsoon rains, but never got used to walking around in a state of dissolve.
Received some emails from readers here about the trials and joys of the writing life. The key for me is sobriety. Even for those who are not alcoholic, anything written drunk would be better written sober. Every now and again I hear versions of the Hemingway myth, that drinking enhances the creative genius. If you really believe that, then go away and read a biography or two and the agonies described in the letters. Hemingway loved to write drunk in the afternoon and evening, but dragged himself out of bed in the morning and rewrote sober. He admitted that his drunken drafts were rubbish. An addled mind cannot structure paragraphs or think out character development.
For the long sober haul, however, there are some guidelines. I wish I knew the source of this, the line about joy makes so much sense:
1. Support is Essential
We all need support. Just knowing that there’s somebody there who supports and encourages your creativity is a massive gift. Who are the supporters and warmers of your creativity and who are those who freeze or discourage it? Which parts of yourself are supportive to your creative self, and which parts are destructive to it? How can you best support yourself – and enlist support – to write regularly and wholeheartedly?
2. Baby Steps
Think too big at the beginning and you will get overwhelmed. Break up your writing journey into small, manageable steps, and, if it’s helpful, find a way of marking each forward step. A writing friend made a schedule of the editing she needed to do, chapter by chapter, stuck it on the wall and ticked each off as she completed it. She’s now finished the novel. David Whyte (author of Crossing The Unknown Sea) decided to take one small action a day towards his ambition of becoming a full-time poet. Within three months he was standing in front of an audience, an event brought about by one of his actions.
3. Be Specific
Forget what may or may not happen at the end of the process of writing your novel. Forget the state of publishing, the statistics of the slushpile. Forget too – at least for the moment – the vision of winning the Booker. It’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the big unknowns, in life and in art. Fear thrives in the intangible, the virtual and the grandiose. Creativity thrives in the specific and the physical: in the action of sitting down to write those 500 words, or printing out your manuscript to send to one agent. What’s the next, small, specific task you can do right now? Each specific achievement embeds the concept of ‘can’ into your soul.
4. Be joyful
Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget joy. We get so wrapped up in the competition, the ambition, the achievement, that we lose sight of the sheer pleasure of being a wordsmith, of tinkering about with ideas, of playing. If you can discover what, in your life, brings you joy and simply do more of that thing, you are on the path towards fulfilment. If I keep noticing where the vitality in my life is and fish from that pool, joy follows. Joy’s a subjective business. Honour yours.
5. It’s Only Marketing
When my life coach said this, I was taken aback. Suddenly, everything fell into place. As writers, our business is to write. Everything else is marketing. Marketing includes anything that connects you and your work with the outside world, whether it’s blogging, researching agents, entering competitions, submitting to agents or publishers, or self-publishing. Necessary work, but just marketing. Nothing personal about it.
6. Two Steps Forward…
…and at least one step back. That’s the process.