Tuesday, 10 May 2011

When is a Writer Not a Writer?

What exactly am I?

Don't worry, I'm not getting all existentialist on you. Just wondering what my job really is. I mean, on one level, it's easy. A gardener gardens; a teacher teaches; a writer writes. But we don't just do that, do we? Take the gardener, for example. He (or she - but the only ones I know are definitely 'he's) has conversations with his clients; he draws sketches; sometimes builds walls; he shops for plants; he builds decking - and in the height of summer, he prances round in shorts and bare chest and the lady next door suddenly seems to remember she has a lot of gardening to do, herself (even if it does mostly seem to involve stopping for a cup of tea to admire the view.)

And don't even get me started on how much more there is to being a teacher than the actual time spent in front of a class teaching. I used to be one, so I know!

But writers. What do we do? When I'm writing the first draft of a book, it's quite straightforward. I sit at my computer for hours on end, bashing away at my keyboard and lots of words appear on the screen in front of me. I'm writing.

Even when I'm editing - you still see the words. Yes, they might be heavily obscured by the red scrawl all over them and the lines scratched across half of them. But it's still about sentences, it's about paper. At this stage I have a pen in my hand most of the time, which would give anyone a clue: I'm a writer.

But what about the part that comes before all that? The part I'm in now? The part where the novel's winter is moving into spring (check out my 10 March post, if you want to know what I'm talking about here!) What exactly am I doing now, and daring to call it work?

Well, I'm taking walks along the coast path and staring wistfully out to sea. I'm sitting in my study, looking vaguely out of the window and letting my mind wander. I'm lounging around in cafe bars with a notebook, writing a few notes and simply watching people interact. Can I call this working?

It's even worse when we have friends to stay (which is a fact of your life when you live in a beautiful seaside town). In a couple of months I'll be able to tell them I'm off to work. I'll disappear upstairs to my study and emerge a few hours later telling them I've done 2,000 words, so my work for the day is done. Anyone can get that. We understand numbers. But what about now? How do I explain that what I'm doing now is work, too? 'Sorry, I can't come out, I have to work,' I say, as I mooch down to the local cafe bar and hang out drinking cups of tea and gazing around for a couple of hours. Or lie on the beach with my notebook and pen, and headphones on, staring at the sea. Work? Really?

At this stage, what I really feel like is an explorer of undiscovered territories. An archaeologist. The story is out there somewhere, like the hidden Atlantis, buried deep under hundreds of feet of rubble. The writer's job is to find it. And the trick is having the skills, and the tools, to do so.

First, you have to figure out where to look. That's the bit where you do LOTS of wandering around looking a bit like a zombie, part in this world, part on another plane.

Once you've got an idea about where to look, you start to sift carefully, very carefully, around. Every now and then, you'll come across something valuable. Sometimes, you think you've got a major find, only to realise later it was just a piece of worthless stone which you have to discard. Other times, you find a matching piece to the one you discovered a week ago. Those are the exciting moments! Yes! It's coming together!

Finally, you have excavated as much as you can, and you have to start putting it together. That's when you need to become an expert at jigsaws. Tiny piece by tiny piece, you begin to form the picture. Slowly, slowly, it emerges, like a miracle in front of your eyes. Until, at some point, you realise - you have a story. It works!

Eight times, I've been through this adventure. And now I'm at the start of it all again. I have the same questions and fears each time. Will I find the site? Will there be anything there? Will I be able to piece it together? And how can I convince my friends - and myself - that I really am working?

And that's when you need your most important tool. Faith, belief, trust - call it what you will. It's like Neptune's trident. It's like the gardener's imagination or the teacher's commitment to her students. It's the glue that runs through everything; the map that will help you find your way there - even though the map was written with invisible ink.

So it's book nine and I'm setting off again. I'm packing lightly this time, but I'm pretty sure I've got everything I need. I've packed my notebook, my pen, my imagination and my invisible map - and I'm off to look for Atlantis.