It's been so long since the last post here! I've no excuses, really, except that a trip to the USA in April, which included the marathon task of —yet again— sorting possessions, going through memorabilia, giving away and selling books (agony!), interrupted the rhythm, such as it was.
In the States I also read from my poetry book, Sudden Arabesque, at the quirky, historic Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia (alongside brilliant Philadelphia poet and Pew Fellow J.C. Todd). A writer I met there came to Oxford for research soon afterwards, and we had lunch together. The writing life brings delightful connections, and we spoke about many aspects of this life, including the way support from other writers helps combat the sense of being alone.
To my astonishment, she said she'd read my previous blog posts, and that I should stop neglecting this space. Sometimes that's all I need: the knowledge that even just one person is waiting for what I'll write. So, hello again. Since I've been away, as well as doing a few poetry readings, I've been immersing myself in the world of my new book, and I've made a sort of beginning; though of course it may turn out to be a false start, or the middle, or not even part of the book at all.
Even after the success of Adam Bede, George Eliot was afraid she would never be able to write anything again. For all her genius, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. For lesser mortals like me, it's worse. I forget over and over that with my first book I had the exact same certainty that it was impossible, the same knowledge of my inadequacy for the task, as I do for the second. I did—after a long struggle—finish the book I'd so often thought unfinishable. Those who've read it have said they enjoyed it. Only writers will understand, perhaps, that I might resort to printing out these responses, every one precious to me, so I can look at them often—daily if need be! This may sound hopelessly pathetic to those who can't relate to the constant shoring-up-of-confidence writers often need; but the mental voice saying "you're so feeble" is sometimes so overpowering that only drastic infusions of reassurance can begin to drown it out.
I used the word marathon for my possession-sorting task, but in fact creating a book is even more marathon-like. However, runners must enjoy marathons, or they wouldn't keep doing them again and again. And when I look back on the writing of my first novel, which I've called a "struggle," I have an affection for that time, a good memory of what I felt while in the throes of it; and rather than "struggle," it was a kind of enjoyment, like that of being deep in a complicated puzzle or swimming in the breakers of the Atlantic. There was pleasure in getting my teeth into the project, making something, being absorbed by difficult work.
Ah, but of course Elizabeth Gilbert says all this so well. After writing the above, I belatedly thought to look back at my own last post. As I'd forgotten saying, she urges us to delight in our creativity, rather than complain that the work is hard. I'm glad I did manage to catch myself in mid-moan, and recognise that I enjoyed the process.
The writing life is like a marathon, too. Very rarely does achievement come at sprint speed. However, unlike a marathon, it's not a race, though we may watch with a twinge of envy as another writer overtakes us. Better (though not easy) to be as generous as Matthew Rees, who in this year's London Marathon stopped to help a sinking runner over the finish line.
We need patience, and we need to pace ourselves; we must learn how to work, how to wait, and how to find the joy. And we need writing friends. In Sudden Arabesque there's a poem about finding the courage to swim in a cold mountain lake:
The lake's dark plum-skin must be split;
for past the plunge there comes an ease in it....
It was my dear friend Penny who encouraged me to jump into the lake; she has long encouraged me in my writing life as well. We all need cheering on, a listening ear. Now to some work, so I can say I've done something when I go to meet another fellow writer for tea.