THE PATIENT ART
Writing a novel is like planting a yew hedge: you begin with a number of sturdy but small plants and trust the natural growth process to transform them into a towering, dense, evergreen structure with a life of its own. And like the slow-growing yew (Taxas baccata) the growth of a novel is measurable in years, often with many false starts and setbacks.
Sometimes writers know exactly what they are writing about, and sometimes they don't. How could anyone write something as time-consuming as a novel without knowing what it was about? Well, because so much of what is written takes place on an intuitive level; we tap out words, sentences, whole chapters even, but in the background the unconscious mind is juggling possibilities and ideas, playing out threads that will, if we follow them, eventually lead us into the centre of the labyrinth. Norman Mailer's book on writing was not called The Spooky Art for nothing.
At the moment, I am writing a novel whose theme has been hidden from me for almost the entire time we two have been keeping company. It was about music, I thought, and about the life of the eighteenth century woman on whom I had based my main character. I had amassed more than ten-thousand words and was feeling pleased with the way it was coming along, when I heard the story of how D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover three times from scratch. Each time Lawrence finished he would decide it was not the book it should be, put it aside and begin all over again. To me, his process sounded hellish.
A few days later, I sat down to read my ten-thousand words and had what I now think of as a D.H. Lawrence moment: what I had written was not the book I wanted to write. Appalled, I read it through again and finally found one sentence that I didn't hate, one sentence that sounded as if it belonged in the book I had imagined writing. There was nothing to be done but cut and paste that sentence to the beginning, and start the novel again. So far, I am cautiously optimistic that I have now found the way forward, and while I still seem to be walking alongside an impenetrable hedge, I believe that I will soon come to an opening. Then I will see, not just the close-up objects I have been writing about but the vista all the way to the horizon. The opening will frame the world of the novel, and I will see its mountains and rivers, its all-important borders, but if not, I suppose I will have to begin again. The prospect makes me nervous, but it doesn't deter me from writing.
Flaubert said, 'talent is a long patience,' and I can't think of a better description of the process of writing a novel. William Trevor has spoken of his 'great relief at the slowness of a novel,' although he admits to the even greater relief of stopping half way through to write a couple of short stories. Writing fiction definitely has its spooky side, but whichever way you tackle it, the novel demands endurance; there are no short cuts and no guarantees that anyone will want to read it when you have finished. Norman Mailer should have called his book The Patient Art.