Thursday, 10 March 2011

Trusting the Seasons of Writing

I was on my fourth book, and it wasn’t going well.

There were tears. There was anxiety. And I was pretty sure there was about to be a realisation that the entire 40,000 words I’d already written were completely and utterly rubbish.

‘I think I might have writer’s block,’ I said to a friend.
‘I can’t do this writing lark any more,’ I said to another.
‘How much would it cost me to pay back the advance and go and work in a café instead?’ I said to my agent.

And then, luckily, magically, wonderfully, my incessant and probably incredibly annoying whingeing fell on the right ears. Those ears belonged to my good friend and fellow children’s author, Jen Alexander.

‘You’re not blocked; it’s just winter,’ she said.

I looked out of the window. The sun was shining and the flowers were in full bloom.

‘Err…’ I began.

‘Not actual winter, of course,’ she said patiently. ‘Just winter for this particular book.’

If you haven’t met Jen, let me explain. One of the wonderful things about her is that she has this extraordinary knack of seeing things from a new and brilliant angle. It’s as if she finds a light that you hadn’t noticed before and shines it on your problem. Once she’s done that, you suddenly see everything differently, and then you realise that the light had in fact been there all along and you never need to go back to the darkness.

So I got a cup of tea, made myself comfy and listened. Here’s what she told me, and I’m sharing it with you because it is one of the most amazing things anyone has ever told me, and it revolutionised my relationship with writing.

Each book, like each year, has its seasons. It starts with winter. This is the time when we huddle up against the cold, not enjoying it very much. We can’t see much colour, nothing’s in bloom, and we find it hard to believe things will ever be different. At this stage, it’s very easy to panic and think that nothing is happening. But this is when we need to trust. It’s there. It’s happening. We just can’t see it. Under the ground, new life is beginning. In the back of the mind, in the dark recesses we haven’t accessed yet, the idea is slowly, slowly starting to form. So this is when we need to metaphorically snuggle up in front of the fire with a bunch of DVD box sets, and stop worrying about what’s going on outside. Nature is working it all out just fine without our conscious awareness.

Next is spring. This is when tiny shoots begin to appear. A little bit of colour here. A snowdrop there. Spring is the time when the occasional idea pops up. It’s also the time when you have to be careful not to be too heavy-handed with them. You’ll have the urge to leap on every idea and delve into each one. But don’t! You’ll trample your seeds down before they’ve had a chance to fully open. Just keep a notebook handy, scribble down the ideas as they come, and then leave them alone while you go about your business admiring the new scents and sights, and not forcing anything to grow too fast.

And then, the summer. Oh boy. It’s all blooming now. Beautiful fresh flowers bursting out all around you. New scents every day. The world is suddenly ALIVE! This is when the story is flowing so fast you can hardly keep up with it. It's when your partner moans that they never see you, and when you emerge from your study at the end of each day glowing and exhausted. Enjoy!

And then it’s over. The summer has ended. Remember the book that you thought was never going to happen, back in cold December? Guess what? You’ve written it! And now it’s autumn. This is the time to let it all go. Take time out. Let the creative pool lie fallow for a bit (and maybe mix a metaphor or two while you’re at it!) You need this time to let everything lie still to restock and refill. Give yourself a break, congratulate yourself for what you’ve done, and remember to get ready to trust that it WILL all happen again…

My eighth book, A Year Without Autumn, is about to come out. Maybe it was thinking about this book, and in particular its title, that made me want to share this theory now.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it completely transformed my feelings about writing, and turned me into the happy, trusting and much more confident writer that I am today.

I don’t know which of these it was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters much more to me is simply the act of sharing it – and the hope that perhaps it might do something similar for someone else out there who is struggling in the depths of winter.

Thank you, Jen. You are as special as the first snowdrop of spring.


Sue Purkiss said...

This is fascinating, Liz (and Jen!) I shall print it off, re-read and mull.

But - is that picture really a snowdrop?

Liz Kessler said...

Yes it is! (I'm pretty sure it is anyway!) The one next to it was open but blurred - and this one felt more appropriate as it was on the verge of opening :)

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Liz, especially as I feel in the depths of winter right now.

But I'm looking forward very much to reading 'A Year Without Autumn'!

Elen C said...

A very touching idea. I'm also at the stage where I probably need to trust that it's true! Brrr.

frances thomas said...

A lovely blog, Liz. Especially as apparently there's more (real and not metaphorical) snow on the way- I shall think about what you've written to cheer myself up

Girl Friday said...

Love this post and your friend's way of looking at writing. It came at just the right time for me! I have lots of new ideas bouncing around, and I was worried that none of them seemed to be quite ENOUGH. Now I know it's just spring and I have to let the shoots grow a little more first :)

Candy Gourlay said...

i've been having a long winter ... but spring appears to be coming at last! hurrah! and hurrah for your blog's new springtime!

Rosalie Warren said...

Liz, that is so helpful. Thanks for passing it on. I'll remember it next time I'm struggling with a book.

Kathryn said...

Wonderful metaphor! It is a great way to explain the trials I go through. Thank you for sharing.

Leslie Wilson said...

I enjoyed this very much, Liz - though I must say that I often begin with spring and then winter sets in later on - well, it often does, doesn't it, in spring, snowing on the bulbs, or at least sleeting.. Look forward to the novel.
PS. It's not a snowdrop. Believe me. It's some kind of bluebell thing.

Leslie Wilson said...

I wonder, is it a summer snowflake, actually? They have multiple heads. And sometimes they get called snowdrops...
sorry to be such a pedant.. xx

Liz Kessler said...

For the pedants amongst you - I don't really care exactly what the flower is - it's an early spring one and it's there for what it symbolises more than for its label!

Ps Thanks for the lovely comments. It's great to hear that this resonates with so many other writers. xx

Flowerpot said...

Absolutely resonates, Liz. And I like that snowdrop - apparently there are over 200 different kinds so it;s one of the lesser known varieties!

Katherine Roberts said...

Liz, I do know what you mean about those long cold winters... not helped by the fact the other half of the world always seems to be enjoying a long and glorious summer while you sit and shiver!

Great pictures of your US tour, and WHAT A HUGE POSTER!!! With your level of fame, I guess a blog is more of a hobby than a necessity... but thank you for these posts.

Jane Eagland said...

Hello, Liz. This certainly resonates with me. What wise and comforting advice.

Liz Kessler said...

Kath, it's very kind of you to overestimate my 'level of fame'! I assure you I'm nowhere near the kind of success that makes these things just a hobby!

Julie Day said...

Never thought of it that way. I usually do something else writerly or entirely different, then my block comes unstuck.

Suze said...

'You're not blocked. It's just winter.'

Those words made me cry. Last fall, I was in deep winter and precious few within my writing community at the time understood. There was so much pressure to keep producing that I up and quit the critique group in which I was involved and eventually left a co-blogging effort with same.

After several months, the first snowdrop of spring reared its head. I have my own blog, now; a manuscript in the hands of an agent and revisionary work complete on an unfinished draft from three years ago. I am about to plunge into the end that I needed to wait three years to 'grow into.'

'You're not blocked. It's just winter.'

Your friend Jen is all wisdom.

Thank you for this exquisite post.


Laura said...

Hi Liz! I read your interview on Girl Friday's blog, loved it, and clicked the link. I think Jen's words are very wise. I'm afraid I've been plotting and outlining for almost 6 mos and still feel frost beneath my toes. I hope it all comes clear and blooms soon! Thanks to both of you for the encouragement.