Sunday, 27 September 2015

Losing the Spark


My novel and I did a sort of "Ross and Rachel" earlier this year and went on a break. In fact it wasn't just my novel, I took a break from writing in general. No new chapters, very little brainstorming, no new blog posts and occasional tweets (most of which were linked to GAA). It wasn't a deliberate decision by any means, in fact I had planned 2015 to be my year to finally commit to the book especially after I finished the first draft back in February (a feat I thought I would never achieve). But fast forward 7 months later and the word count remained starkly unchanged while my motivation had dipped to levels below zero.

I'll hold my hands up and admit that I'm hugely disappointed with myself. I had promised myself that I would commit to the book this year, especially given that I knew I would have a lot more free time due to circumstances in my personal life. I suddenly had all this time in the evenings to myself that I could devote to working on my second (maybe even third) drafts while constantly developing the timelines of books two and three of the trilogy. I could easily slot in two three hours each night following through on my writing and I worked out that in eight weeks, if I stuck to my plan, I could have edited the entire first draft and added in the five chapters that have been floating around my head for months. So basically, I had a great plan. And then life happened and it all fell apart.

I really hate sounding dramatic (being mundane, vanilla, fading into the background is much more my style) but the last few months have been extremely challenging and difficult. Throughout my life, even when I look as far back to my childhood, writing has always featured in some way (whether it was writing Babysitters Club-esque stories in primary school, scribbling funny poems to entertain my classmates in secondary school, plotting a Lord of the Rings style fantasy novel when I was supposed to be studying for my Junior Certificate and planing my current novel when I should be paying more attention in work) and it has always been my crutch during periods of difficulty. But it was the first thing to leave me this year when things went south.

Writing a novel, an achievement that had seemed so tantalisingly close in February suddenly seemed so far away. And it wasn't just writers block or a lack of inspiration. I just had no interest in writing anymore. I didn't want to write. That magnetic spark that had ignited within me when I first dreamt up the idea for my book and when I finished my first draft had vanished. And I didn't have any interest or energy in finding it again. And so my first draft was locked inside my brand new, sparkling laptop and my brainstorming book lay closed on my desk in my office, occasionally noticed by me as I walked across the landing each night heading to bed. But I never crossed the threshold. It sat there, forgotten about, a story wanting to be told but there was no forum for that to happen because I had given up.

But it turns out that those awful, inspirational, cliched quotes that people share on Facebook and Twitter have some grain of truth in them.

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Time heals almost anything.

I finally found my spark again.

It came back in several ways but most prominent of all was the increase in my creativity. The closed notebook on my desk began to become gradually more appealing. The manic scrawls from the past few years seemed exciting again. My special Paperchase writing pen was back between my fingers. The blank pages initially appeared intimidating and frightening but one idea became a sentence. And the sentence turned into a paragraph which then became a page. Before I knew it I had several pages of brainstorming in front of me including an ending to my novel which I've sought for 7 years now and a new character who is crucial to the development of the story. I can't imagine my story without her now. Okay, it means I have to change my first draft and rewrite the majority of it, but that's good! That's what being a writer is about. And finally, finally, I feel like I am a writer again.

I do find it interesting that one central theme of my book revolves around second chances and rebirth (the main image is that of a Phoenix) so there is definitely some irony now that I have been given a second chance to discover my love of writing again and my flair for it. Hmmm, "been given" seems like too much a passive phrase; I certainly didn't sit around waiting to feel better. Let's just say that I have taken my second chance and grabbed it with both hands.

I've learned a lot about myself over the past few months. It's a relief to know that the creative spark is still alive inside me and I know not to fear if it goes away temporarily. I think I had somehow convinced myself that the writer within me was a fraud, a delusion of grandeur and that the last few months have been my peak. But I know that's not true. I am a writer. I had a blip. I'll probably have one again. But my novel has more potential than ever, my passion for writing is back and my motivation levels are back to normal levels (I still love a bitta procrastination).

Oh and I learned that those god awful cliched quotes have an occasional grain of truth to them but don't expect me to start sharing them on my Facebook and Twitter pages. The day I start to do that is the day that you can all start worrying about me!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Incredible Journey

Three weeks ago I did something that I believed I would never have the ability to do. Something that I fantasized about, daydreamed obsessively over but ultimately told myself I would never achieve. It was an unrealistic dream, one that the little voice in my head told me I would fail at. But three weeks ago I proved the voice wrong as I wrote those two magical little words at the end of my first draft: "The End".

I'm keen not to sound overly melodramatic but I can honestly say that that moment in my life provoked the most incredible sense of euphoria, one that I will never forget. There I sat in my poky little office on a gloomy Sunday night in a mundane little town while my husband watched the Superbowl downstairs. There was a lukewarm cup of team beside me and a half eaten chocolate bar. I was wearing tracksuit bottom and a hoodie with a blanket flanked around my shoulders. It appeared to be just another average Sunday night, yet such an ordinary setting ended up being the backdrop to the most extraordinary feeling that I have ever experienced.

Without meaning to sound too self-indulgent, I know that I've been fortunate enough to taste success in my life: I achieved the results I had hoped for in my Leaving Cert and was able to study my first choice course in Trinity. After four long years (and several existential crises wondering if I had made a disastrous choice in career) I graduated with an honours degree. I got a permanent job less than a year after graduating and 5 years later I still enjoy it. I found love very early in my life and we've already spent almost a decade together, a year of that married.

Overall, I know that my life so far hasn't been a failure and I've achieved a lot of things. And I was happy enough with that. But that incandescent feeling of invincibility that hit me as I typed those two words three weeks ago has been, and maybe will forever remain, one of the standout moments in my life.

It reminded me a bit of when I first came up with the idea for my novel. I say came up with, I didn't really. It just hit me (without meaning to sound too cliched, like a lightening bolt) from nowhere while I was in the shower and it popped into my head without warning. Queue frantic hair washing while I planned out the rest of the idea. I still vividly remember straightening my hair that night with shaking hands as my mind tried to keep track of the ideas that bounced around my skull.

Now I can look back with poignancy at that night as I look back at how excited I was. And I can smile at my naivety. The journey that I have taken with my novel from that night 6 years ago until the night three weeks ago has been long and multifaceted. But as Arthur Ashe said "success is a journey, not a destination".  There have been periods of the journey that have been immensely enjoyable but more often than not it has been painstakingly difficult. I have occasionally gone months without looking at it, almost forgetting its existence. Almost.

The plot itself has undergone many changes. It was originally intended to be a stand alone book but I swiftly discovered that the story could not be told within one book. Now it is a trilogy (or at least, I hope it will be).  The original plot had a very different story in mind for David but hindsight and reflection are two wonderful traits that I possess and I gradually realised that the story held more potential if I gave David a different role. And it took wings from there on.

The characters that strolled into my head six years ago have grown and developed so much and I wish I could give them some credit for that. They have kept me entertained for several writing sessions (and many daydreaming sessions between).

David himself has grown from a cliched, good looking, kind, thoughtful 27 year old (which let's face it, doesn't exist) into a complicated, tortured, courageous but slightly arrogant man with a huge battle to face. I also learned that David, while important on his own, is useless without his supporting cast. The major and minor characters in the story have each gone through their own journeys. I'm happy that my characters, for the most part, are believable and each has their own backstory, their own personal motivations and their own strengths and flaws. Particularly the antagonist to David's protagonist. S/he hadn't even entered my consciousness 6 years ago but now I couldn't imagine the story without them!

And finally, the other thing that has changed over the 6 years and throughout the journey has been, well, me. I think it's hard to devote 6 years of one's life to writing 90,000 + words and remain unchanged. Priorities have had to shift in my life, particularly my enjoyment of sitting down and relaxing after a long day at work. It's a luxury that I no longer afford myself (at least not every night). My discipline has improved and so has my motivation. I no longer (solely) depend on external motivation, I have had to rely on my own internal drive especially when I'm sitting at my desk feeling like the loneliest writer on the planet.

Identifying as an aspiring writer has been a key turning point. 6 years ago I would have been mortified to advise people that I was writing a book. Sure they'll all laugh at me. But now I don't mind telling people. I have to, particularly if I'm attending writing workshops or courses. And guess what, people don't laugh. Who'd have thought it?

My writing, as difficult as I find to accept it, has improved too. I've dropped the adverbs, honed my dialogue, avoided as many cliches as possible and learned how to write even when my head is empty. That's not to say my first draft is good - it's not! It needs a huge amount of work and I don't know if I'll ever be 100% happy with it. But I've done the impossible and actually finished it. Okay it's taken 6 years and will most likely require countless rewrites but I have finished it. I can proudly say the words I never thought I would say: "I've written a book."

Friday, 9 January 2015

Into the Darkness

I always thought that when I reached the 70,000 word mark on my book that I would know what to do, that the words would fly straight from my brain through my fingers and onto the keys. I assumed that the comfort and reassurance of having that much work behind me would only act as a positive - a reinforcement that I can do this. That I can write and, more importantly, finish a novel. But, as regularly happens when it comes to writing, I was proved wrong.

I reached this approximate wordcount of 70K over the Christmas break and instead of feeling relieved, encouraged and excited, I felt anxious, overwhelmed and uncertain. As I sat there at my desk, with a cup of tea to my left and a scented candle to my right, I stared at the MS word cursor as it blinked menacingly at me.

"Go on Sinead, I dare ya, I dare ya to write another word. Just one. No? Not even one? Oh, that's right, you can't, can you?"

The wordcount had increased gradually, but how was I to take reassurance from the fact that my manuscript was all over the place? And even worse, the realisation that only person who could possible correct it is me. As I realised just how lost I was amidst a sea of clunky words, chapters that were the wrong way around and irrelevant dialogue, I could feel the panic rising within me. So I did what I do best. I walked away.

The truth is, I was scared. Scared of many things. I was scared that my novel was too big a challenge, the storyline too implausible and the characters too flat. I was scared that much of my large wordcount needed to be edited and, worst of all, deleted. And I think I was scared at the enormity of this task. I am regularly reminded of how hard it is to write a novel, but sometimes it just hits me with the strength to knock the breath out of me. 

I'm afraid of many things: deep water, spiders hiding in my bedsheets, long-haul fligths and open toed shoes to name a few. But the experience of staring at my manuscript, feeling my control over it increasingly ebb further away was a different kind of panic than the type that I have experienced when I almost drowned in the sea off Crete or when our flight to Poland suddenly dropped in mid-air for several seconds. It was a more reflective, dare I say, existential sense of fear: Am I going to have to stop writing this? Have I made a terrible mistake? Have the last two years been a waste?

I may have stopped writing but my mind hadn't stopped working. If there's one thing I do well, it's thinking. Analysing. Reflecting. So I began to think about the art of writing and the power of imagination. And the act of creating.

At the opening night of Listowel Writers Week last year, Colm ToibĂ­n spoke about the art of creating something from nothing. That's what writing is - an idea, no matter what shape or form it takes, ultimately emerges from a place where it hadn't been before. Julia Cameron said that creativity - like human life itself - begins in darkness. 

The reality is that creation has to come from a place of nothing before it can become something. 

What adds weight to that is the fact that very little of what is around us is new: the Bible says that "there is nothing new under the sun".  So creation has to come from an unfamiliar place. From the darkness. 

Every writer, indeed every artist, poet, sculptor has to create something from nothing. They fill a space that was empty before. They persevere through the darkness when it is usually easier to give up, accept defeat and turn back towards the light.

I think I expected my path to grow brighter as I progressed along my journey. I didn't expect to need a torch when I got to the halfway point. I visualised a large road with street lamps on either side, burning brightly as I reached the finish line. But in reality, there was nothing. Just a dark road with no end in sight and no light behind to guide me either.

But that's the challenge. Sometimes you have to trust your footing, feel around and embrace the blackness. And we all know that if you sit it out long enough (without turning the lights on), our eyes eventually adjust to the darkness. And I think that can be enough to take the next step forward. It helped me get to 71K so that's enough evidence for me.