On the Prime Writers today, Sarah Sykes discusses writers’ worries.
When I was young, I used to imagine what being a writer would involve. Wandering featured prominently. Strolling about a hillside, staring up at the sky or into the distance, and then jotting down thoughts onto an aged but treasured note-pad. The fields would be green, the birds would be singing and it would be sunny. Always sunny.
As I grew older, the image altered. Now, as I trudged to Watford Junction station to catch the 7.45am to Euston, I fantasized about a lonely garret. A turret-like, forgotten room, where I could escape the rat race and write my novels without the harassment of a nasty boss and the trials of commuting in a train full of smelly people. The room would be sparsely furnished with an old table and a dusty chaise longue, where I could lie, waiting for the gods to empty their stories into my mind. When I fancied getting off this chaise longue, I would drink strong coffee and then stare out of the window for hours.
What do these fantasies have in common – apart from being daft? They evoke a certain peacefulness. The idea that writers operate in a calm, non-urgent world. That writing a novel is a bit like pottering around the garden and then dead-heading the roses. Or stroking the cat, before popping out for afternoon tea at a national trust garden.
When I became serious about writing – this myth was well and truly busted. Because peaceful it is not! It can mess with your mind. But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Who wants to read the work of a dawdling, contented, dead-header of roses? I prefer to read books that are angry, emotional, energetic, and have probably been as difficult to produce as giving birth to an eleven pound baby. I want books that have caused their writer’s physical pain.
For the record, my own variety of pain manifests itself in anxiety. I’m pretty good at being anxious in the day – but I specialize in nocturnal angst – particularly through bizarre, even menacing dreams. By way of example, here’s a recent offering….
So, for some reason there’s a very important meeting at my house, where various top publishing industry types (sporting black polo neck jumpers and clip boards) have turned up to listen to a group of writers pitch their ideas for novels. It’s my turn next, but just as I’m about to describe my incredible idea, a really annoying kid starts knocking at the door. I try to get rid of this boy, but he won’t go, and by the time I’ve finally persuaded him to come back later, the top publishing industry types are leaving in a cab. I panic. They haven’t heard my incredible best-selling novel idea yet. So, I run after the cab, clinging onto the door as they speed away. I’m still trying to pitch my idea through a small gap in the window, when they wind up this window, and I’m forced to let go – falling ignobly into a gutter.
It doesn’t take Freud to work this one out, does it? A fear of intrusions into my precious time, and a general anxiety about missing out. Mild paranoia perhaps? But, I’m not going to beat myself up about this – because it seems I’m not alone. I’ve taken comfort in discussing my dreams with other authors from the Prime Writers group. With their permission, I’m sharing some here.
Kerry Drewery reveals that her dreams involve ‘trying to find my way around, places. With Cell 7 it was a massive house on a cliff with hidden rooms and passageways. When I got about half way through writing the sequel to Cell 7 I dreamt I was back in that house, finding things I’d missed before.’ Kerry believes that this dream is her ‘subconscious working out the novel in my sleep.’ Wearing my spurious, non-scientific ‘dream interpreter’s’ hat – I would agree. Feeling your way through a puzzling, dark, deceiving labyrinth is exactly how it feels to plot a novel.
Louise Beech reveals that her ‘anxiety dream always involves being in a car that goes off a road into water. Always. It terrifies me. I know I have to open the door before the car hits the water or I won’t be able to (water pressure would prevent it) and then I’ll slowly drown. I usually wake before I hit the water.’ My spurious, non-scientific diagnosis? A fear of failure perhaps? (But then again, who among us is not afraid of failure? Only that ridiculous writer who wanders about the hillside of my childhood fantasy.)
Fanny Blake told me this; ‘Although I stopped working in publishing ages ago, I still occasionally dream about going to an editorial meeting and not having anything that I want to acquire when six months have gone by since I last acquired a book. Will I be fired? Still makes me sweat …’
Ah yes, sweating and the other physical manifestations of anxiety. Mention teeth-grinding to a group of writers, and you will find that many are in possession of a mouth guard to wear in their sleep. Myself included. It seems we like to gnaw our way through the stress of writing a novel. But, for some of us, the physical symptoms of anxiety can be even harder to deal with.
I’m very grateful to Sarah Jasmon for sharing this experience. ‘My agent and editor have finally pinned me down to a sort of submission date. That’s been really helpful, but it’s also triggered a certain level of anxiety which, for me, manifests in Chronic Hyperventilation Syndrome . … it means I kind of forget to breathe, and then I breathe too much to compensate, and then I have too much CO2 in my blood, so I try to take deeper and deeper breaths to get more oxygen, and so on and so on….But one of the strategies is taping up my mouth overnight so I don’t mouth-breathe. One of the happy side effects is that I’m breathing properly at night now, so actually feel rested when I wake up, which is helping a LOT with word count…’
So, there we have it. A cornucopia of anxieties. I feel that I should end this post with some uplifting words or even a moral to the story. Well, the uplifting words are these – that having a book published is worth the pain. Every single bit of it. And the moral could be this – don’t seek out a career in writing because you want a quiet life. Save your pottering for Sunday afternoons. Your books will need heart and soul… and yes, a measure of (manageable) pain.