Sir Winston Churchill, politician and prolific writer, said this of the writing process:
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.
Such a colourful metaphor! I have never felt that one of my novels is a monster, but I do identify with the emotional journey Churchill portrays – the thrill of being inspired at the beginning, through to feeling somewhat exhausted as one ties together all the threads, types those beautiful words ‘The End’, and then edits, and edits, and edits. Easy reading, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, is hard writing.
Dorothy Parker, poet and writer, declared, ‘I hate writing. I love having written.’ Strong words indeed, and again I can’t say that I’ve ever felt I hated writing, but I understand the sentiment here. It is a delight to look at the shelf on which I keep my six published novels (with a seventh soon to be added…), but writing itself is not always pure pleasure. One has to push through so many emotions in order to go from idea to published work, and the most difficult of these is fear.
The idea for this article was sparked by Elena Ferrante writing in the Guardian last month. In her final column for the newspaper, the famously private author looks back on a year of writing her column. The experience of sharing ‘these brief trickles of ink’ has been positive, she decides (and certainly I am one reader who has enjoyed reading the column). But what struck me most about this last column is the presence of fear in Ferrante’s considerations. Of her decision to write the column in the first place, she says:
I had never done work like this, and I hesitated a good deal before trying it. I was afraid of the weekly deadline; I was afraid of having to write even if I didn’t feel like it; I was afraid of the need to publish without having scrupulously considered every word. In the end, curiosity won out. …
Even once she started writing the column, the fear did not abate. ‘I was constantly afraid of not succeeding in the task I’d undertaken, of somehow rashly being insulting to readers, of losing faith in myself and having to give up,’ she admits.
Here Ferrante is focusing on column-writing; but is novel-writing any different when it comes to fear? Tellingly, she describes ‘the anxiety of being [her books’] author’ once they are published, and she tells us that in order to cope with that anxiety she distances herself as far as possible from ‘the torment of a new publication’.
Ferrante is sharing, with raw honesty, a truth with which all authors contend. If writing the book is hard, then publishing it is even harder. Publishing is, as Ferrante puts it, ‘the permanent exposure of fragments of [one]self’. Neither ‘permanent’ nor ‘exposure’ are words that sit comfortably.
But – and this is a big ‘but’, the driving force behind all published works – the rewards of writing and publishing can outweigh the risks. For Ferrante, ‘the anxiety of publication was amply counterbalanced by the pleasure of writing’. That, too, is how I experience writing and publishing my novels.
In the coming weeks, I will have news of a new novel to share with you. Another adventure, in Churchill’s terms. But rather than a monster to be flung to the public, I see my book as a butterfly, ready to emerge from its chrysalis. I hope you will see its beauty, as I do.