Writing has been hard for a long time. There, I said it. Even finding the motivation to write a weekly blog post has proven tricky. I have a hundred ideas and write them all down in the journal marked ‘Future blog posts’ but when it comes down to sitting in front of this screen and knocking out 500 words, something just doesn’t click. Of course, the irony that I am now going to knock out 500 words on this topic is not lost on me. But it needed to be said. I have been finding writing hard.
For the past eight years, I have been close to completing one novel and have started five others. The start is always good. I get a good number of words down in the initial burst, then it peters out and I hit a wall. This embarrasses, saddens and frustrates me in equal amounts. I am not the kind of person who sticks around for things that are hard. Usually, if it’s too hard then I accept that it is not in my wheelhouse and I move on. But I love to write! So, what’s the deal?
It is also not this hard for all of my writing. With poetry, I catch a scent of an idea, I put pen to page and let it flow then edit and assess as needed. I can fill books with poems. I can write flash fiction. I can even finish a short story fairly painlessly, but when it comes to anything over 10,000 words, I have only managed to finish something once.
For the past few years I figured it was because I just didn’t have the endurance for novel writing; that perhaps my wheelhouse really only included the short stuff, the stuff I could get done quickly. After all, not everyone has a novel in them, do they? But in these past few weeks, when I have been sat at home with a bit more time on my hands, it has dawned on me that the problem isn’t so much with the length or the amount of time, but that I have been missing an important step in my process. And the answer to this riddle has come about as a result of my other passion: art.
Image copyright J. Beckford
I realised in one of those blinding moments of clarity that my creative process for art was completely different from my process for writing. With writing, I have a certain expectation of myself. Once I have an idea and an outline, however meticulously planned it may be, then the words should flow like honey from my fingertips. A first draft is always rough, sure, but it should already be mostly spun gold with just a bit of straw to weed out.
When I sit down to paint, however, my expectation is much lower. And, very importantly, I need a place to start. A place from which the rest will flow. It is allowed to start out ugly because no matter what goes down first, I can always go over it with another layer until it is right. In fact, the first layer is never more than just blocking out shapes and colours and lines; working on composition; moving things around. Then there’s about four ugly stages until I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere.
Stupid me. This is exactly what I should be doing with writing… and I’ve heard it before a hundred times. The first draft is only supposed to be me telling myself the story (I think Neil Gaiman said that). But it wasn’t until somewhere on layer three of my most recent painting that it hit me.