To my mind, the craft of writing resides not in formulaic rules (e.g. ‘don’t use any adverbs’ or ‘no more than one adjective per noun’), but in that elusive process when our innermost, vaguest dreaming eventually shapes itself into a story we can interest others in. When we come to understand why we choose to write what we write about, what form/genre/voice our dreaming requires and no less importantly – how to manage those weeks, months, years of creation without giving up. And without giving up on that initial impulse that gave rise to all the subsequent toil, not succumb to ‘easy’ writing but to complicate and deepen our ideas. Learning about the writing process is also learning how to persevere with the working drudgery and keep believing in yourself in the face of the always-possible rejections (yes, yes, of course I’m writing from personal experience. Blogging as therapy…).
I’m speaking here from bitter experience. I’ve recently completed a memoir, after five years of on-and-off work, about my (gloriously failed) attempts at being non-monogamous. But my non-monogamous tendencies extend to my writing too. I could never keep faithful to one genre, or even one language. My first writing attempt occurred at the age of three in Siberia where I was born, when I read in front of the village babushkas my freshly minted poem in Russian: ‘The blue bird flies up to the sky. The blue bird goes high.’ They appreciated it. Seventeen years later my first novel, Scars, was published in Israel to where my family had moved, in Hebrew this time. That book, written way too early and hastily, luckily sank into obscurity after selling no more than 350 copies (although, lately, to my embarrassment, it re-emerged in the small universe of the Hebrew-speaking internet and, for mysterious to me reasons, keeps selling). Five years later I followed that amateur novel with a more thought-through short story collection that this time was picked by a major publisher. That same publisher would several years later released my second novel.
That third book of mine would become the last thing I’d write in Hebrew, since at the time it was released, in 2003, I was already living in Australia. Here I soon realised that writing for a readership based in another continent was an unsatisfying business, so I focused on mastering English. Of course it was easier to start with short works in my new language and here they came out, the short stories I’ve always written but also all these creatures I didn’t know previously I could produce – poems, essays, short memoirs. Quickly I fell in love with the genre of creative nonfiction, but – habitually – kept thinking of myself as a fiction writer. The crown of my achievements, I began fantasising after some years in Australia, would be to write a novel in English. And this was when my writing block began…
For four years I tried, unsuccessfully, to write a novel, because that was what I thought I should be doing. I was acting on automatic pilot, with no reflection on where I was now as a writer and not even on what the work I was trying to write needed to be. And I failed at the novel writing gloriously, just as I did at non-monogamy (although for different reasons, I suspect). For four years I filled pages upon pages, but my characters remained too earnest and nothing ever happened to them.
For four years I felt I lost it – the writing fire without which I didn’t know who I was. Because that what I’d always been, since that fateful Siberian fit of poetry – a writer. What prevented me from going mad in those four years were the short works I kept producing in the meantime, guiltily, thinking them diversions from ‘the real thing’, particularly that most of them were in the creative nonfiction genre. But there were other ways too for me then to feel a little writerly – the conversations I had with local writers I began to meet and the writing classes I started teaching. Then one day I just knew: it was time to put the novel away. Time to write what I really had to write – the memoir of my romantic misadventures. But this wasn’t really a lucky epiphany, I believe, but a result of a long, and convoluted, writing process that had been simmering for too long within the pressure cooker of my mind and needed those conversations with other writers and with my students about their writing processes. At the peril of sounding New Age (which I promise I’m not!) I think now that one of the most essential writing skills is to learn to find out what you really want to write about and what shape it should take.
I’d like to finish with a little confession. In the coming months, in between finalising edits for my forthcoming memoir, blogging and attempting to begin a new memoir, I’ll be also foraying into that discarded novel again.
Oh, the writing process…
This entry is adapted from my post for Writers Victoria http://writersvictoria.org.au/news-views/post/writing-from-the-guts/