Monday 22 July 2013

On the nature of inspiration

It has often been my experience (and that of many other authors, I suspect) that when there is lots of time in which to write, the inspiration with which to do it well has a tendency to dry up – at least once the immediate section of prose or poetry that has been nagging me to be written has been committed to paper or at least the computer. When wonderful stretches of time are ahead of me, my paid work (copyediting and indexing) having dried up (one hopes temporarily, for fear of the Wolf at the Door) and I’m looking forward to writing without interruption, the joy and expectation are intense.

And then, quite suddenly, after a week or two of plain sailing, with the story apparently running merrily before the wind of inspiration, the novel hits some kind of block. Perhaps I thought I knew which way the story was going, but without warning it develops a kink and seeks to rush off in a new direction, and if I stop to consider this, or to work out which way I should take it next (should I follow the interesting subplot that has occurred to me, or plough on with the original trajectory?) then the whole thing can grind to a halt. There are then two choices: to go on sensibly, if on rather leaden feet, writing the story as it was originally planned – which has the advantage of its being well thought out and all fitting together neatly into the original schema; or to try to see where this new idea might lead. And if I’m not careful, in the midst of this indecisiveness, the whole plot falters, and the inspiration for the next section fails. Or perhaps I simply lose my way in the immediate plot and am left with a bridging section that I just can’t capture.

Does it really matter what happens to these characters that I thought were so interesting? I ask myself. Shall I just wipe the whole lot out, or (more prudently) save it in a Pending folder, and start on something else (there are always two or three novels hovering somewhere in the wings of my mind, clamouring for their turn in the sun)? The lack of paid work suddenly seems a nuisance rather than a blessing – at least I know what to do with the copyediting and indexing, and they have the virtue of, well, being paid; and if there were outside work clamouring for my attention I shouldn’t have to sit at my desk with the screen in front of me, trying to work out what to write next. Fortunately, if I really get stuck, before too long another offer of copyediting or indexing will usually come along and rescue me, and the cycle repeats itself, with my finding the next part of the story reeling itself off, and longing yet again for some space to write it in. This can feel very frustrating.

And yet, it may be that this stop-start progression is actually how the writing process works for me. Perhaps I need to have the story percolating somewhere out of sight beneath the level of conscious thought, to spring out ready to be written when time becomes available. Perhaps I shall never be able to write in long swathes of time, as I constantly dream I will – looking with envy on bestselling authors who have the luxury (or so it looks to me) to write full time – one day, when I retire, when I don’t need to help with the family finances, when my children are grown up and don’t need my time and energy (and if you’re reading this, Izzy, don’t feel that I grudge it …), when (if?) my novels start to sell well and there is therefore the financial incentive to write more quickly (my two published novels each took years to write, edit and hone before they were ready to go out into the world, and I sometimes still want them back to make improvements!). One day… The dream is important, in itself, I think. It keeps me looking forward, making the most of the time there is, continuing to stretch for the best writing I can do, and hoping that as time goes on I will be able to write better. If it feels disruptive to go back and forth between the creative work of writing and the reactive work of copyediting and indexing, yet perhaps that tension in itself keeps the inspiration ticking over.

Who knows? This week I’ll finish the indexing work on which I’m engaged at the moment, and there will be some weeks when writing (between school summer holiday duties) will be tantalisingly possible.

I’ll let you know how it works out ….