In an interesting piece in yesterday’s paper, Rick Gekoski suggests that, while reading might only be harmless, writing actively erodes the soul. So, writing about the essential isolation of writing, he highlights three key characteristics he acquires while he is working: “irritability, abstraction, and a tendency to fall asleep on a sofa at any time”. He continues:
“There is nothing unambiguously agreeable about this to my loved ones, nor to me either. It is embarrassing, being thus conquered by an inward voice desperate to formulate, reconsider, construct, deconstruct, seek out the right phrase, amend it, think again. And I am only a writer of bits of non-fiction. You’d think it would be easy. Or easier, certainly, than being a novelist. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be inhabited by many competing voices, ceaselessly reconsidering the flow of a narrative, charting the development of character, juxtaposing one thing with another. It’s astonishing that novelists have any social life at all.”
Now, a declaration of interest. I’m currently trying to be a novelist. Or at least I am trying to write a novel, if that is a distinction worth drawing. However, I believe I still have a social life (and have yet to fall asleep on the sofa) so maybe I’m not doing it right. But I have been increasingly fixated by my own question about the effect of writing on the soul: is it possible to maintain normal social relations while writing a novel?
Some background. When I started this process, I found it surprisingly easy to do the things that I most expected to be difficult. Sitting down to actually, you know, write. Actually turning in, or exceeding, my daily word count target (I made sure I did that before writing this). Constructing and sticking to a coherent narrative arc, but being flexible enough to accommodate fluctuation and modulation. Not becoming anxious to the point of paralysis about the internal coherence of my characters or the authenticity of the emerging sub-plots. Yet.
None of this means it’s any good as a bit of writing, just that the process has been relatively straight forward, and certainly better than I could possibly have imagined. I’ve written a lot before in a work context and, whether it’s been a 500 word article or a 70,000 word report, it’s always been hellish. A pulling-your-own-teeth-out kind of hellishness. In comparison, this novel-writing lark has been a breeze (thus far, I should add, touching wood and throwing salt over my shoulder as I do so).
But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started to think about what writing something as sprawling and omnipresent as a novel is doing to me. You see, it never quite leaves you. It hangs around outside, like a ne’er-do-well behind your house, unnoticed; then, like a brick through the window, some phrase, or sentence, or new idea that would make sense of an entire chapter, comes crashing in, and you have to act. Immediately. I woke one morning in Vietnam at 4am to make sure I captured some nocturnal insight about a minor character, now discarded.
So much, so manageable. But then there’s the other thing. You can only draw on what you observe: your raw material, especially for the fine grain, the patina, is everyone you’ve ever met. When you’re writing a novel about human relationships (aren’t they all?) and you’re perpetually hungry for ever more granularity, every conversation – those you participate in, those you overhear – is legitimate source material. Every hair cut, every nose, every pair of shoes or nervous laugh is fair game.A writer observes, for sure; but more than that, a writer listens. If you can’t hear it in your head as you write it, the words and the cadence, then nor will the reader when they read it.
This I knew. Then I started to notice that I was actively mining conversations, exchanges, interactions for material. Not just observing, noting, what was going on, but mentally writing it into my novel as the exchange was happening. And if the conversation didn’t fully meet the needs of the character or plot, I found myself steering it in ways that would. I stopped it of course, for my own sake as much as my friends: it felt like stealing, but moreover I was disturbed by the idea of fictionalising my life, of turning my relationships into the components of characterisation.
So while I’m not worried about irritability or sudden snoozes, I do worry that writing this thing, if not risking my mortal soul, changes the way in which I relate to friends, colleagues and the bloke in the corner shop. I’d very much like to believe that it doesn’t, that it won’t. But I really do want to get that shop assistant character right.