I’m in the middle of writing a novel and I’m having a bit of a wobbly at the moment. It was all going so well. I would get up, have ideas and batter out a couple of thousand words in the morning. For two days, that is. Before that was Monday and, of course, I had to reboot from the weekend. I’m a father of two young children, you understand. The week before was okay: a good day, a bad day, a mediocre day, two days lost to paying work. Don’t get me wrong, I like earning some money to help my wife pay the bills, but really what I want to do is write. Except when I have the time to write, when I prefer to agonise.
Don’t you hate people who update you on their poxy word counts?
I work at home as a freelance editor, proofreader, general book-production guy, and this quarter I’m lucky enough to have two regular part-time retainers which allow me at least half my working days to write. I’ve jumped on this space to work on this solo novel, and realise that it may well be the last time I have the luxury of so much time to work on unsolicited, unpaying work.
It doesn’t always feel luxurious, arriving at the page in the morning knowing that time is finite and that I owe this draft to my family, who graciously allow me to idle at half-speed and indulge in my hobby instead of filling up my gaps with paid work, and to my writing partner, who’s patiently waiting until January to start our next collaborative novel – one that we’ve actually been paid an advance to write. It’s sort of like if you told your bank manager you were actually not going to repay that loan but were going to move to Tahiti and carve aardvarks out of coconuts. It’s utter self-indulgence, I know, and that knowledge often drives me to work on the novel rather than mess around.
But sometimes my inner brat rebels at all the pressure. It tells me in unconvincing hippie tones, ‘Chill out, what’s all the striving for?’ And despite the bad California accent, it’s rather compelling sometimes. Yes, I would rather play solitaire all day. Yes, I would rather treat my inner brat to a movie date. Yes, I would rather tweet and facebook all day and hope that people laugh at my jokes. Yes, I would rather lie on the floor and read my book.
NO, I wouldn’t. I’d like to write this novel.
More honestly, I’d like to have written this novel. I’m enjoying it. (I know there are lots of writers’ advice columns which warn you against enjoying your own work because it’s a sure sign that blah blah blah – but if you’re not enjoying it, I wonder, why will anyone else?) I wish I could read more than the half I’ve written. I want to know what happens. I can’t wait for my wife to read it, then my writing friends, then an agent who’ll fall off his chair because it’s so good and sign me up, then the publishers who will come to physical blows over it, then millions of fans and then the movie producers and then, and then, you know … and then.
Problem is, I have to wait. I have to have lots of days when I squeeze out five hundred grudging words containing two decentish ideas that might work, or a couple of lines of plotting. I have to be here for those days. I have to stare at this monotonous screen and force it out while everyone else is frolicking outside.
Okay, they’re not doing that. People are stuck in hot traffic, a lucky few may enjoy their jobs; more are doing menial and unacknowledged work for mean-spirited bosses. Or they may not have work, or food, or a home, or their dignity, or their health, or their freedom. Reality check, please. I owe it to decency and the world not to complain about how tough my job is. Shut up, inner brat. I know this adds to your pressure, but suck it up.
Novel-writing is isolated, solipsistic work, and when you live in your head for long stretches it’s hard to empathise with the outside world. But isn’t empathy the very substance of fiction? I never regret having to switch off at five and on weekends. My children and their demands are my anchor to the real world, and I don’t say that because I’m smug and pious. It doesn’t always feel that way and I often have to remind myself. I know others who have gardens, animals, charity work, running, meaningful employment which keep them real. Lots of writers’ advice columns will tell you that your writing has to be the top priority and blah blah blah, but it doesn’t matter if the draft comes more slowly.
Sometimes, in rare moments of peace and clarity, I realise the world won’t change if this book never gets published. But that doesn’t make it unimportant. Writing makes me happy, it justifies me, it makes me feel that I’m meeting a serious challenge. And nothing leaves me feeling better when I go in at five than a good day’s writing. I suppose one way I can repay my family for the time I’ve borrowed is to spend it graciously and be happy.
So shut up, inner brat, and do some work.
About the author
Louis Greenberg is a freelance writer and editor. He is the author of The Beggars’ Signwriters (Umuzi, 2006), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize in 2007. In 2010 he compiled and edited Home Away, published by Zebra Press. As S.L. Grey, he co-writes urban horror novels with Sarah Lotz. Their first novel, The Mall, was published by Corvus in the UK in 2011.
Louis has a doctorate in English literature from the University of the Witwatersrand, specialising in contemporary North American speculative fiction. He worked as a bookseller and marketer for Exclusive Books for 13 years, and now edits and proofreads literary, thriller and youth fiction for various publishers, including Penguin, Umuzi and Tafelberg.
Louis tutors the 12-month ‘Write a Novel Course’ at the Writers’ College. Contact us for the course prospectus.
Photo credit: Sharon Drummond