This month was for me, an interesting experiment in commitment and writing. It is fitting, then, that I was able to start off the new year by giving a lecture entitled Authors and Agents for fine art students at Wimbledon College of Arts and Camberwell College of Arts, followed by a discussion with artists Zoë Mendelson and Nelson Diplexcito. The lecture traverses a brief scattergram of artistic treatments of ideas pertaining to authorship: ideas about what the role of artist really entails. For an artist, thinking about authorship presents a chance to review ones own personal theories of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. Having the chance to talk with the students about these things provided me with the opportunity to do that too.
Following some reflection over the Christmas period, I decided to try out some practical exercises to help me get back into writing my novel and trying to complete it. I’ve experienced many obstacles to doing so over the years, primarily because of a set of writerly fears that seemed to grow more intense and variegated the further into my novel I get. So I set myself an arbitrary daily goal: to write 200 words for the novel every day. I came to choose this quantity as a baseline, by trying to imagine the maximum number of words I could write on a really bad day. I thought that a daily word count, however banal the measure, might at least trick me into staying, mentally, with the project for an extended period of time.
To help overcome the initial hurdle of fear that I always experience before writing this novel, everyday I would also do a free writing session before starting on the novel: around 700 words of unbridled writing, where the primary goal is just to get used to touching the keys on my keyboard and taking pleasure in that. The free writing could be about anything, of course, and I did blab a lot about random things. But sometimes I wrote about writing; specifically about writing the novel. What follows are excerpts from those free writing sessions, detailing, across time, a kind of writerly odyssey.
This holiday has been nice because I’ve mostly just thought about the novel and parked everything else. To be honest, things like exhibitions are so fragile right now. A group of us have been planning one for months, but seem to be back at square one – the infections in London are worse than ever. We can’t really have a physical show, can we? I at least think it’s out of the question for the foreseeable future. Yes, physical, gallery art is in a bit of trouble. Either it needs to reinvent itself, or it needs to just hibernate.
Maybe I am partly more confident these days about the decision to write the novel because I can’t really see anything in the way of that. Obviously, writing can just happen from quarantine, no problem. I could work on my writing and people could read it during a pandemic; I could also work on videos but they can only be seen online. Which begs the question of whether my videos ever needed to be seen in a gallery. Maybe, on a personal level, I could start asking questions about the venue for my works. Right now, I feel instinctively that there is something special, still, about displaying my video works in a gallery, but I haven’t really got a good explanation for it. It might just be that the gallery places a special frame around my work saying, “this is worth seeing”, where I suppose YouTube does not!
I guess one can be more confident about writing projects than visual projects at the moment. But there may be a case for rethinking the exhibition, rethinking what making the works public means, so perhaps I could try to brainstorm options for my videos etc, that maybe don’t even rely so much on others for a platform? I don’t know, I don’t currently have any bright ideas for our postponed group show, for example.
The challenge I suppose, will start tomorrow: term starts and I have a few extra things to do besides the novel then: prepare a lecture, PhD-related correspondence, preparing for upgrade, and eventually teaching will creep back in. In spite of all these additional concerns, I still wish to put Anomaline first. We’ll see how that looks, but, I think I just don’t want to worry so much, and trust that the other stuff will fall into place, and trust that Anomaline will unfold as it needs to, if I just show up.
Right now, I am not a professional. I play. I feel tickled today, knowing, symbolically, that it is a day of work, and that I should feel like it’s time to be obligated, but trying to resist that urge all the same. No emails. No communications whatsoever. For all I know, the world is still quiet. I can simply write. It feels slightly scary, but empowering to deny that urge to be a ‘responsible worker’ first thing in the day, but satisfy instead my own pursuits, pursuits that in many people’s eyes would be considered secondary, hobby-like. Those projects become my main world.
But there’s one thing here that I’d like to reckon with; these things that I call more ‘obligatory’; so, I say the novel is play and the PhD & teaching & communications, etc, are obligatory. Perhaps a truly radical, or ambitious approach would dismantle the idea that those things are obligations either. For now, I think I am separating the play time from the obligation time; but I do wonder whether over time I’ll be able to seep playfulness into those other things too. Certain things I take seriously, should be taken seriously, but certain things probably shouldn’t. I could probably do without the kind of reverence I hold to ‘the institution’, ‘the degree’ and my ‘superiors’. Turning everything into serious play would be a wonderful goal. I suppose serious play means committing to ‘the right’ things; other people I have relationships with, the work that I find important — but not committing in the slightest to things which often have to do with social status, official forms of approval, authority. In some ways it may be liberating to respect the latter less, the former more.
I must watch my ambition. I have a tendency to see things are going well, and then to suddenly raise the bar for myself to the point it becomes a bit stressful. I set myself 200 words, but in the past few days have been writing 1000 words. That shouldn’t become the new bar all of a sudden, not yet at least. Anyway, the hope is that one day I might not need the bars. The 200 words thing is like attaching stabilisers to my journey; a mental crutch for a wobbly beginning.
My efforts have led me to respect more the art of novel-writing and the people who do it — they actually have to stay that long with a piece of writing. It’s astonishing so many books have been published, in a way. Writing comes to me naturally, I think, at least fairly naturally, but writing books, I reckon, does not. Perhaps it is only a matter of practice. I may have got very used to writing, particularly firing off improvisationally as I am currently doing, but this is my first book. It’s a struggle, I’ve never done it before.
I wonder what it feels like to then write a second book. Is it easier? Or will it feel exactly the same? I’ve been writing at least 200 words of novel every day for a week now, and already started wondering whether it’s going to get easier. What is easy though?
If I am honest, I think I must concede and say that once you are in the ‘zen’ mode, it is actually relatively easy. If I remember clearly, the zen mode feels a little like time is suspended, you don’t worry anymore about how much time is gone or how much is left. That’s ‘being in the zone’. You stop feeling time, at least in quite the same way, and so you don’t feel rushed. You are a mixture of sensitive and patient at the same time.
But the bit BEFORE is a little more tricky. It’s GETTING into the zone that feels a little uneasy. And because that bit comes first, it can often put you off. The uneasiness is like staying with a numb limb, slightly unbearable, but you know you must sit tight and wait to get into a state of calm again. So I suppose that’s the scary part, the part that staves you off from trying.
So far I have done at least something with the novel, everyday, and that has provided a sense of continuity that I did not have before. Meanwhile, a little curiosity in mathematics pulled me towards a lecture in topology yesterday, where I gleaned at least the fact that topology, the creation of a structure within two sets such that one set can be mapped onto the other, is all about continuity (at least, that’s what’s of interest about it to physicists, for whom the lecture was in this case given).
I may have completed a rough outline of a chapter yesterday. I had definitely reached ‘the zone’, though I do not guarantee that means the writing I did is great quality. The zone is just the feeling of suspended time, and a blocking out of everything but you and the text. When I was in it, I felt it unlikely to stop writing until I had reached the end of the chapter, at least in some form. It was supposed to be a scary chapter; again, I still don’t know whether I’ve achieved that, I need to look over it today, but as I worked on it I felt I couldn’t just leave it at a cliffhanger, in the middle of A being engulfed by insubstantials – for my own sake! I suppose I did have an entirely new idea yesterday, in that these insubstantials, which otherwise behave entirely like the familiar category of the ghost: translucent, drifting, haunting, capable of possession, etc… actually are not dead people. They are the opposite: they are unborn people, or characters, rather; they are the author’s ‘unrealised possibilities’. I smile now, because I’ve just realised that that particular phrasing, ‘unrealised possibilities’, is taken from Milan Kundera’s novel (Unbearable Lightness…) – and the reason it’s been on my mind is because earlier in the week I edited and recorded a lecture for BA students about authorship, and the passage from Kundera that uses that phrase features in the lecture. Funny how only now I’ve realised this. You see, sometimes even the thief isn’t aware when they are blatantly stealing. All the same, I don’t use the ‘unrealised possibilities’ thing in quite the same way he does; in the novel, he’s referring to his characters as his own ‘unrealised possibilities’, as in, aspects of himself that never came into expression. They do things he would never do, etc. In my novel I mean it more as in, these insubstantials, these ‘unrealised possibilities’, are in themselves characters that I haven’t bothered to flesh out yet, or that haven’t landed on fertile ground in my mind. They are ideas that are going to waste, and that’s why they look at A with a hungry fascination.
That happens right after the angry letter I sent to my protagonist in the novel. I make her write it out in her own hand, and at the end I bitterly proclaim to be the evil authoritarian she makes out that I am, through her dismissive behaviour. Her independence can only be achieved, after all, if she has something to dismiss (me); some support she can reject. I suppose what’s happened in this scene is that I’ve released all manner of uncooked notions on her, just brain-dumped all my wasted ideas. She can do with them what she wants — we share the same knowledge bank, you see; she can draw on my knowledge and memory; a bit like a machine learning algorithm draws on training data.
Yesterday was rather good, but I suspect it’s partly because the part I was writing was relatively ‘straightforward’; I’d just decided that A would wake up in excellent spirits, almost like a normal character ready to go about her business; slightly confused as to why she hasn’t sensibly put the house in order before now. But this is a ‘new’ A. She becomes the fussy hostess for a while, but even in that she proves useless, as she flurries about through plans to entertain and housekeep, that amount to nothing. I’m now at the bit where she’s about to discover the open cellar door, the lucid inspector, and the missing AI. The doors are all open because her house is being searched; the hologram is being questioned. All the insubstantials have been recruited as inspectors, in the mind of the author. Perhaps there needs to be one more letter before she goes out into the sea. One where the author shows signs of some yielding, perhaps, or where A writes the letter herself.
To calm my senses, I have lit a tobacco and vanilla scented candle, and because I’ve drawn the curtains to retain the warmth, I work in a lamplit space. My stomach is still churning with apprehension, but I reckon that plugging myself into a ‘relaxing opera music’ YouTube playlist might do the trick. A little bit of music helps a little to get past the initial hurdle of fear.
The hurdle is always here, must be the thing that’s put me off writing on all the days I’ve had the opportunity to do so. But you should see how the me ‘post-writing’ betrays the me ‘pre-writing’, at which point I get on my high horse, feel elated and confident: “Look how easily I wrote those thousand words! I am a natural.” The next day, I am back to feeling feeble and insecure again, questioning whether I can possibly get into the zone, my stomach churning, my chest tight. We go in a loop like that, again and again! I suppose that, by at least putting the writing relatively early in my day, I minimise the length of time I feel anxiety; though, I hope some day that I can trust myself enough to not have to be anxious before writing, and not to be arrogant after writing.
People say that the most creative thoughts come when you least expect them, but the missing ingredient here is input. Your unconscious will do its mental mastication thing, turn over latent notions as you go about other business, but you need to have those notions latent in the first place. So, you need to be confronting the novel, concerned with it, on a regular basis, so that it is present for the unconscious to deliberate over in your absence. So, that’s started happening to me lately, not a lot, but a little; I’ll be lying in bed in the morning slowly going through the motions of different thoughts, and then I’ll recall recent patterns I’ve mulled over lately in the novel. It’s because of the continuity I’ve established lately, I think. That continuity keeps the novel present in my unconscious’ repository. I’ve not had this sort of continuity for a while. And it’s a new intuition for me, even if I may have theoretically been cognisant of it before, that you can’t force things sometimes; sometimes you need to construct an environment in which things then happen easily, instead. Perhaps part of my endeavour with this new way of working is, in a sense, to ‘make writing easier’.
Yesterday I think I managed to make a little headway — with the help of some groundwork put into place the day before — in that, I’ve broken out of the house and am leaving domestic shores. We are getting very close to the final scene indeed. In particular, I found a way of inviting the author back in. I suppose a necker-cube effect is produced by the turn of conversation after the sitting room scene, in which the hologram is being questioned by an insubstantial detective on the whereabouts of the ‘fugitive’. A is understanding that she herself lives within a condition of possibility: the author, to which she, like the AI to her, is a wave. This way of defining the relationship provided a new literary avenue: to conceive of the writing as a wave rippling through the author/reader’s mind. Sometimes, when possibilities like this present themselves in the writing, my hands move across the keys as on a piano — with a slight musical tremor.
As far as A goes, I suppose I feel a niggling feeling that I am becoming a bit distant from it, which is unsettling. I’ve been doing the bare minimum for it lately; there’ve just been so many things to attend which I’ve signed up for. Teaching commitments, the commitment to learning to teach, the writing forum I run, the PhD cohort activities themselves, my forthcoming upgrade from MPhil to PhD. It’s been a little tiring. But the point of the whole ethos I’m trying out at the moment is the fact that I don’t want to wait to find out if it will get easier, or less busy. I don’t want to wait just because I think I’m busy now, hoping I’ll be less busy later. I can’t count on it, and must make it my priority, however difficult that may feel. Moreover, I must try to find a way of approaching this all with more lightness, more creativity.
But doing the bare minimum of 200 words a day, while it must have led me somewhere, has still made me feel a little detached. I haven’t had the full sense of continuity I had earlier in the month. I have somehow ended up at the very last scene, although I have sort of skipped bits here and there; the conversations and scene changes are a bit holey and disorientating-in-not-a-good-way. But I am, curiously, at the end with the AI in my lap. I suppose today I will attempt to blab out the postscript element of that. I thought it would centre on the idea of ‘as if’. It’s as if we were here…
I’m not sure what I mean by it entirely, but I’ll figure it out, because when I first had the idea it felt rather promising to end on some such note.
One thing I’ll want to emphasise eventually, is the absoluteness of every joint step between author and character.
The last chapter, or the last few scenes, are full of holes, not quite resolved; but today as I read aloud the final paragraph, it sort of felt like that might be the actual final paragraph. That the book could end with the artificial intelligence gazing back up at A after landing into her lap. A pieta-like scene. Have I really written the last scene?
After reading, I went out for a walk in the rain and in the muddiest park ever. Luckily I had good shoes, and so could walk right into the swampy centre of the field. It was quite a joyful walk; listening, as I was, to my favourite songs in my earbuds, and feeling in quite a celebratory mood. At this point the novel is beginning to feel like something I might be able to enjoy. I have made this thing; I seem to know what it is. It has an ending. That fact became either happy or bittersweet depending on which song I was listening to.
Soon I may not have a need for the 200 word rule, because it will be time to edit rather than add new reams of text. I will probably come up with some other arbitrary measure of daily progress, in order to look alive and keep the flow going during this rather lethargic time.
Some sort of awakening happened, the moment I realised that that might be the last paragraph, like letting out a sigh: ah, now I can finally do it justice. I can go back over the book and ‘make it more like itself’.
In truth, I am still not at the point where I feel I have a ‘first draft’, even as I have written some of the final scenes. The last six chapters or so are a bit choppy and skip over details (and much of what I think are the best bits are the details), and there is a little chapter huddled in there somewhere which I haven’t written, but have provisionally called ‘Sleep Chapter’. It will be a chapter chronicling an instance of self-induced sleep. Not dream, just sleep.
For these, I may need a final push toward generating new chunks of prose. But after that, I will start entering what I think will be a slightly more leisurely, indulgent stage in the writing (if that’s possible, most writers including myself seem to mostly describe it as a bit of a painful process). I think I will have the opportunity, for a brief time, to ‘have my cake and eat it’.
When the book is really finished, I anticipate a certain bittersweetness may come to eclipse the pleasure of having it. Indeed, it’s almost like the book is eating itself, negating its own future possibility, the closer we come to the end.