I’ve been working on a second novel for teenagers. It’s a tough piece of writing (for reasons that will become apparent if ever I get to the end of it and it becomes a book.)
Recently there have been some days when I’ve flown along, covering lots of pages. But there have been plenty of other days when I expected to fly along, covering lots of pages, and actually found myself spending long hours on a single paragraph, or getting nowhere at all.
There’s an Oscar Wilde story I like. He said he spent an entire morning working on a poem, and all he did was put in one comma. Then he worked on the poem all through the afternoon, and all he did was take the comma out.
Oscar Wilde liked to exaggerate, for comic effect. But I find this story of his completely believable! Writing gets like that.
Some years ago, the difficulty…the stops and starts…and the getting-nowhere in spite of all the trying might have left me feeling dejected…perhaps pessimistic about what I was doing…probably frustrated with myself.
But I’ve been writing books for long enough now, to know that the bad days are intimately connected with the good days. You can’t afford to puff yourself up when it’s going well, or deflate when it’s going badly.
I’ve talked about this with my friend, the painter, Ed Gray. He’s described going through exactly the same good times and bad times when working on paintings in his studio. And he has a good little saying to deal with it: “The important thing is to show up.”
Sometimes I can ask myself if I’ve “shown up” for my work in recent days, and the answer is, “No.”
If I look back on recent weeks, the answer is “Yes.” And when that’s the case, I find myself feeling quite optimistic about the slowness, and the detours and difficulties along the way.
This poem, by British writer Robert Graves, has become a favourite:
The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
He has–who knows so well as I?–
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.
Robert Graves (1895-1985)