Over the last ten days a lot of people have asked me how it feels to have finished my book and each time I pull a face and say: scary. The truth is it feels awful to have finished my book because i can no longer indulge my fantasies of what it will be like when it’s written. The deed is now done! And I’ve had ten days to convince myself that I have, in fact, let myself down and written a load of crap.
I think it would be safe to assume that I am on a come-down. After channeling all my energy into the writing I’ve been feeling a bit lost. There’s so much I want to be getting on with, but i just feel so horribly un-anchored. I’m all adrift and the negative thoughts have been gathering around me, poking me in my sides and whispering in my ears.
This is not the first time I’ve had thoughts like this. During the months I was writing there were weekly sessions of me wondering what the hell i was doing — who’s going to want to read this shit? I’d think, as I retold a story or shared an insight. Who do you think you are to write a book, you faker?
The voices in my head are not always very kind.
Getting past the doubts was the first obstacle I had to overcome. At some point I had to give myself permission to actually write the thing, to suspend my disbelief for long enough to get the words down. There were afternoons when i probably wrote entire paragraphs with my eyes shut, lest i immediately delete all the words on the screen. Some chapters flowed out whole, a breeze to write; others were so dry and unformed, every single word was like pulling teeth, an absolute agony. It didn’t help that so much of the book covers such emotional ground for me.
I discovered that it is physically impossible to write anything worth reading during the days leading up to your period (the actual day of your period it’s best to stay in bed). On those days my brain was not functioning at all, and I found that blankness terrifying — it was as if someone had removed my hard drive and my head was completely empty. This feeling returned again and again, as I wrote myself into corners and couldn’t find a way out.
On the days when I thought it was game over, that I was never going to have another original thought in my head, I retreated into the visual — Pinterest was a life saver, as was Instagram. Photography has always been my friend, and when the words were missing, images helped to get my brain moving in different directions.
I learned that it’s essential to let yourself write the shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott calls it — people, this was SO HARD. When I write I tend to edit as i go, circling back into my writing again and again, inching forward slowly. But there were times when I had to let that go and just get the words down, when I needed something in front of me to be able to edit — you can’t edit a blank page.
When I was working as a journalist I was often commissioned to write articles of about 2,000 – 3,000 words max; lately I write 500 word posts. Some days all i type are 140 character tweets. So to be faced with a 50,000 word book to write (which isn’t even that long in book terms — most novels are 80,000+ words) was daunting. In theory I knew I could do it; in practice I discovered you need a huge amount of stamina to complete such a prolonged stretch of writing — mentally and physically; in the last months I was taking anti-inflammatories to ease the RSI in my hands and wrists. I had days when I loathed the writing process, when i wanted to email my editor and give her the advance back. But there were other days when the words danced to the right tune, and i had moments of true inspiration that reassured me I was on the right track. I lived for those moments.
The biggest lesson of all was also the most obvious: You need to allow yourself enough time to write a book. I mean, how obvious is that? But it had to be learned in real time, not just in theory. My publisher gave me more than enough time to complete this project, but it took me months to find my way into the writing. You know how a dog will shuffle around looking for the best position before flopping down on the floor to sleep? I shuffled around for months, making notes, trying to work out the book’s structure, but putting off the actual sustained writing practice out of fear and intimidation — there was always other work I had to do. I was right to map out the chapters as carefully as I did, but I now know most of that was me stalling — what i should have done was just flop down on the floor and start where I was. You always dream of the day you’ll have the luxury of time to write your magnum opus, as you sharpen your quill and look out across the moors for inspiration…
It does not happen like that.
What actually happens is you shit your pants for five solid months as you scramble to find a bunch of words that don’t make you throw up while you obsessively check your Google Reader and Twitter, convinced everyone else in the world is more accomplished and better than you.
…or maybe that was just me.
Whatever it was, I’m sharing all of these thoughts so i have something to refer back to when i begin the next one. Because, just like mamas forget the agony of childbirth and do it all again, I absolutely will do, now I know what to do… and what not to do.