These words are a distraction. I don’t necessarily mean for you — although there probably is something else that deserves your attention right now, isn’t there? — but certainly for me they arrive here at the expense of something less occasional, something more worthy of my time.
For a little bit over eighteen months, working in fits and starts, I’ve slowly been piecing together a new novel. It’s called Winter Fugue. At the start of the summer, it existed as a loose-limbed, shaggy beast of about 80,000 words. It was recognisably one thing, fully formed in the sense that all its core components held together, but its surface textures were coarse and unfinished and its proportions were all askew. I’ve been going over it again since August, trawling through it line by line to tighten it up and smooth it out, and now, with the first 25,000 words in better shape, I feel like I’ve passed at least a minor waymark. Time to pause for a look back over the route that has brought me to this place. Time to rest and take stock, and survey the terrain ahead before setting off again.
The truth is that the results are still nowhere close to readable. Even those 25,000 words aren’t quite ready for the eyes of a reader who isn’t me, and there’s a long way to go before all the remaining words have been made to yield to the contours of the second draft. But day by day something is unmistakably coming into being, and it’s now at the stage where I can pick up any one piece of it and feel, beneath the skin of its prose, the coordinated movements of muscles and sinews and bones; I can see, from a single fragment, the integrity of the enterprise as a whole.
It’s hard to reach the stage of writing I’ve come to now. Especially hard, for me at least, is having to grapple always with the persistent doubt that I’ll ever be able to reach this stage at all, the doubt that I’m writing something valuable enough to even warrant being brought to where it is today. Hardest of all, though, is not simply allowing myself to carry on with the task at hand in spite of my doubt, but instead finding a way to seize my doubt and turn it around and use it as a reason, as fuel, to continue to write. I suppose I’m saying that I’ve only reached this point because not for a moment did I give myself permission to believe I could actually do it. I don’t think you can write a novel worth reading if you’re not prepared to invest your life in it, and I can’t see that it would be worth investing a life in it unless it takes a form that has never been given life before. To write a novel involves a lot of trouble. Why would you voluntarily endure it, except to give expression to a thing conceived as so fully itself that trouble is an essential condition of its existence?
Odd, then, to break away from the book and bash out a few new words for this blog. Or at least I can see how it might seem that way. There’s clearly a chink in the logic here. You can’t write about your focus on producing a new novel without breaking the very focus you say you want to sustain. But really, the focus is never sustained. It’s interrupted, time and again, by nagging questions about the meaning and overall shape of the work, by thoughts on the problems encountered in the process of writing, by anxieties towards the standards that must be met if the end result is to be everything it should be.
Although these questions, these thoughts, these anxieties are in some ways woven into the words of the novel, mostly they remain hidden from view. I’ve written this post as the first in a series through which I hope to throw some light on them. I don’t mean to explore the nuts and bolts of things like my preferred writing routine or the layout of my workspace. I mean to consider the trinity of subjects that have been enumerated at the top of this website since I started writing Infinite Patience almost seven years ago. I mean to consider the what, the how, and the why of literature — as always — albeit less as a reader searching out the best of it than as someone shepherding more of it uncertainly into the world.