2023 in review: the writer’s struggle
Maybe because of my struggles with my own writing, I’m highly sensitive to the struggles of other writers.
I love mentoring, because like a midwife, I enjoy the immense satisfaction of helping to bring a new story into the world. In a sense, I am also encouraging myself, reiterating my faith in this most challenging of endeavours, because without stories what would we be? I get how the urge to communicate can feel so essential to one’s understanding of oneself, and the world. We so want to write, but as we know, it’s hard work. It takes grit and determination to finish something, to go back to it again and again.
Ken Follet, the phenomenally bestselling writer of 100 million books and counting , (his biggest seller is about the building of a medieval cathedral, therefore smashing all publishers rubrics of the ‘popular’ novel) says that the one quality a writer must have above all others, is sheer stubbornness, a refusal to give up on a story. This struck a deep chord in me, because of my particularly tortured relationship with my own writing. I’ve been struggling to finish a book for a very long time. I declared this year do or die time, because the writing had just gone on too long.
In large part the problem was structural: it is the last book in a trilogy, which means always having to refer to back story within the present narrative. (Mental health warning: never, ever, embark on a trilogy!). I also had to fight an inner resistance to telling a story with a true crime at its centre, a crime that has had ripple effects in my personal life. Plus, there were the challenges of maintaining a certain continuity in the development of the characters. The first two books in the trilogy had been written before the world changed completely, pre Trump, pre Covid, pre inflationary crises and devastating wars.
But there was a third, and even more daunting obstacle, my own lack of confidence in my writing. After two successful books, I found myself assailed by gnawing self -doubt, that single greatest enemy of the writer. I know I’m not unique, that it can happen to anyone at any time in their lives. But it became so self- defeating that it lead to complete paralysis.
This was partly because I became self-conscious. Writing unfurls out of that unconscious part of the brain that cannot perform under the harsh light of ‘rational scrutiny’. I’m pretty good at encouraging writers to disregard their inner critics and write freely and without self-consciousness, trusting that at some point the story will take on the shadowy outline of a usable story. So why was I finding it so difficult to finish this book?
In despair, I went back to the courses I teach at All About Writing. The maxim being that you teach what you wish to learn, right? Certainly, I learn as much, or more, from the writers on the courses, than I think they learn from me.
I revisited one of the most popular of our courses at AAW, The Hero’s Journey. As I read through the stages, I was again inspired by the wisdom of the universal structure that underlies great stories. I remembered how important it is to understand that structure and plot are driven first and foremost by the inner needs and fears of the characters. This brilliant tried and tested blueprint must be one of the most valuable tools at a writer’s disposal. In my whirlpool of doubt, I’d developed a blind spot. I’d forgotten to go back to the basics.
Then I looked at our Screenwriting Course again, and did some of the exercises. I am a screenwriter by profession, and love the medium of film. The screenwriting form has had a great influence on my novel writing. It was good to reacquaint myself with the discipline of brevity, of writing ‘scenes’ using visual cues, to ‘show not tell’, so as to produce exciting, fast paced writing. I found it freeing to write for fun, to experiment with forms I thought I ‘d understood, but which now inspired me afresh.
What I have learned from this year of difficulty with my own writing, is one that should have been self -evident, but amazingly, I just couldn’t see. Maybe because I take for granted that ‘I know’ what I teach at All About Writing. But I was humbled, and proud to realise how much wisdom there was in the courses.
I was reminded that when we get stuck, there are tools to help. There are guidelines to bring us back on track, that can help with the self-doubt, the procrastination, the sheer struggle of writing.
And most importantly perhaps, there is a community out there, of kind and helpful fellow writers also striving to do this most noble thing, communicate, entertain, and illuminate the world through the art of the story.