Stella Klein discusses her frustrations when writing.
Horses are beautiful creatures. I love their velvet noses and warm breath, their timid, knowing eyes. Riding in the Black Mountains, aged fourteen, I also learnt to be nervous of their shrugs and bolts, their unpredictability. Still now, I am able to recall the mix of terror and exhilaration, the shrill tones of my instructor – Are you in control of your horse? – as I charged on ahead, one stirrup lost, my hat askew, snapping branches overhead.
That out-of-control feeling, that happy gush, vital for generating raw material, which comes to me so readily in speech happens far less so when writing fiction. Either because the voice or mood or image that I have in mind one minute, eludes me in the next, or because in the process of composition my drafting and editing go tightly hand-in-hand. As soon as have I splattered a sentence or two across the page I begin to stumble, correct, re-arrange and start again.
In Writing Past Dark, Bonnie Friedman identifies distraction, envy and fear as the writer’s greatest enemies. Turning the pages of her gorgeous prose, I return to my under-linings, to seek out the roots of my own stumbling.
Distraction. Well, yes and no. I love my work but I am not a career woman; neither am I a party animal or a social media junkie; my children have left home and I am relatively free. Leaving my phone flat or on silent to write a little every day is no big deal. I have no real excuses. Even the daily chores can wait because my sweet husband (for whom happiness is a ticked-off list – or so I like to tell myself) may even get to them first. While he attends to his mail or heads off on his bike to the fishmonger, I happily stay put in my chair by the window, collecting coffee cups, letting the dust balls gather round me, to jabber at my keyboard. And yet I can easily be drawn to other things: that good book half-finished on the side of the bath, the kettle on the boil, another slice of toast to butter. I might listen to the news, dead-head my flowers or soak up a square of sun on the doorstep. And on those days when I take my laptop out with me to write, there is nothing more delicious than staring at people in cafes. Distraction: life’s little pleasures.
Envy. As one wise friend of mine once called it, the least aired of human foibles. And the green-eyed beast can get me for sure. I may begrudge the next writer who has just won a prize for fiction. I may drool at Anne Enright’s humour twinkling on the page, gawp at the self-assured crispness of Sarah Hall or KJ Orr, the unapologetic pluck of Philip Roth. But there lies both the consolation and solution: the pleasure of reading to spur me on, to transform the envy into awe, the awe into inspiration.
Fear. I’d call it the mother of all writing enemies. Because at the root of envy lies a fear of one’s own failure and at the root of distraction the fear of missing out. And then there are the other kinds of fear, perhaps more specific to writing: the fear of being misunderstood, unappreciated, unread, never published. Friedman talks of the fear of success even – because just beyond accomplishment lurks nothingness, the possibility that once our great work is completed and acknowledged, we will have nothing to strive for; there will be no second novel. But for these kinds of fear I also have a cure: when the writing is not going well, I can always remind myself that I am, after all, a mere zot in the universe, that the extent of my impression on this world is neither here nor there in the wider scheme of things (though perhaps therein lie the sins of sloth and unambition).
In my case there remains one niggling, persistent fear, (the one that also drives me on): that I will never find those precise and beautiful lines to best express what it is I have to say. This is essentially a tussle with myself, what Friedman refers to as an overdeveloped critical inner voice, an obsession with exactitude; the very opposite of yearning, desire, flow. And so, it seems, I must let go, to enjoy the terror and exhilaration, lose control of that horse before I learn to rein her in.
Thankfully sometimes I do. There are tube journeys during rush hour when I madly scribble lines on a scrap of paper, days when every utterance sounds like a piece of precious dialogue. There are even days when I click submit. Because you never know, I may get accepted, I may be long-listed or short-listed or win a prize; and because for a brief, joyful moment I really like my latest story, I am a little in love with it even. Here, in its ‘final’ form, it speaks to me, stares at me, open on the screen, with its scenes and images and rhythms, re-drafted, honed and polished. And yet,… I look again. Something is not right and I feel the urge to tinker on. Tinkering; there it is, my greatest sin of all.