Two years into struggling to write some coherent chapters for my memoir The Dangerous Bride, and feeling overwhelmed by all the thinking and research, I took several months break to reconsider whether I could actually do this. Then, with much apprehension I opened the memoir file that consisted of a 25000-or-so word jumble of half-baked ideas, snippets of scenes, character sketches, quotes, summaries from books relevant to the topics I was exploring – non-monogamy in love and geography – and brief descriptive, or reflective or argumentative, lines of prose. Here is how a typical page in that file could look:
I turned to him and even through the haze of phosphoric darkness I could see in his face the ancient ruins of our marriage.
During his brief visit to Perth in 1922, D. H. Lawrence was overtaken by an uncanny terror in the face of the giant, luminous ‘unnatural Western Australian moon’ and, generally, what he called ‘the spirit’ of this ‘raw loose’ place.
The softly spoken English of the mystery writer I met was remarkably clear of slang and brimmed with words like whippersnapper. Steeped in Conan Doyle and Wodehouse books, he seemed to belong to another era, that of genuine gentlemen. He even used a typewriter. In short, he seemed like a man who could do no harm to a lady.
Much of the material in the file I initially scribbled in notebooks, on paperbags, napkins and even tissues – depending on circumstances. I always tried, and still do, to ensure that I take notes whenever I feel the urge. I keep a notebook in my handbag and another by my bed for when I’m too tired to get up, or wake up with some idea or sentence revolving in my head. I also have pens in my car and often write while waiting for traffic lights to change. Many of my writing outbursts occur in the gym where, sweaty and breathless, I scribble on the reception counter.
I must say all that notetaking felt way more pleasurable than the times when I’d try to order the chaos of my mind and material. But instead of enjoying the process of taking notes, I kept beating myself up. I never thought of that messy file as a book draft. In my mind, its content stood for procrastination, for my inability to get it together as a writer and produce lucid, logically ordered paragraphs. However, taking that break from writing proved to be one of my best decisions in relation to the memoir. Once I had some distance from the work, I revisited it with a fresher mind and, to my great surprise, realised that actually that file was a rough draft, albeit of first chapters only. And it also contained some sentences and ideas that I’d string throughout the entire book. Even better, some of the prose lines from the file became the engine that later drove the writing of longer passages. Once I finally got to the stage of writing where scenes, coherent reflection and a narrative emerged, I’d often write around those lines. They were those of my darlings which I didn’t kill and which I initially wrote for the love of language alone. However, later those lines often inspired the rest of the story. For example, the sentence
The girl was a willowy, pretty redhead with serpentine lips; her plastic uniform was dangerously short.
propelled me into writing the entire narrative of my excursion to a fetish club the night before my wedding.
In retrospect I understand that because I allowed myself two years of furious notetaking I ended up with a book more complex, and maybe crazier, than I’d have otherwise written. Now I consider taking notes to be not procrastination but an earlier – and, for me, necessary and delicious – stage of developing a first draft. I see such writing as akin to a child’s play which fosters creativity and imagination and is at once fun and important work. It is at that stage, when I’m not yet committed to the straightjackets of the narrative and the idea, that I let my mind loose into the wild and it is free to make surprising connections. Take for example the following quote by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam which I copied into that muddled file: ‘The spiritual disposition of a poet inclines to catastrophe’. At the time this seemed irrelevant; my book wasn’t about doomed lives of Russian poets. Or was it? Research revealed that Russian poets (Mandelstam included) were no strangers to non-monogamous love and this was only one of the several connections I made in the book to this quote initially chosen for its sheer beauty. Not dissimilarly, this blog entry began as a random collection of thoughts: a reminder to myself to reread the article by Joan Didion on notebooks (which I ended up not using), an image of me writing on the counter in the gym, the metaphor of notetaking as an excursion into the wilderness of the mind.
Nowadays, I don’t feel as much angst about the initial mess that my writing inclination requires. Nor do I panic as much as I used to about the lack of structure in my early and even not-so-early writing stages. I trust more my notetaking expeditions, believing they will guide me to my remotest brain regions both intellectually and linguistically, and I am more hopeful that at some stage of the process somehow the important themes will become apparent and the storyline will emerge. Such beliefs are reinforced by the fact that if I take notes on the same topic with intervals of weeks, or even months (because I forget I’ve already written about that same thing), the ideas, and even prose scraps, often end up being almost identical. This tells me that notetaking is a more careful and thoughtful process than it seems. I now think of notetaking as quite an accurate transcription of the subconscious.
This discussion here doesn’t suggest, of course, I am no longer an anxious writer. Rather that I now worry less about initial coherence and more about the later, more orderly, creation of the first draft. But in the pre-drafting stage, instead of feeling guilty I now let myself go truly wild and I love the madness of it and feel productive. And how do you go wild when you write?