I’ve been writing books for twenty five years and in that time I’ve written sixteen novels as well as a lot of non-fiction, so writing is pretty much a bread and butter activity to me. I don’t often get stuck when writing a first draft. I can get very frustrated trying to think up the story and seriously bogged down knocking the first draft into some shape; but I don’t generally begin the first draft without knowing where I’m going and I usually find that it is the most straightforward part of writing a book.
During the last fortnight however, I have been getting slower and slower until finally, a few days ago, I came to a complete standstill. There I was, sitting on the floor, surrounded by printed pages, with my head in my hands convinced that I was no good as a writer at all, never had been, never would be.
I was reminded of the time when I was at university and a friend of my flatmate came to stay with us. Let’s call him Malachy. He was an enormously likeable guy with a great sense of humour but he was seriously screwed up. He’d grown up in Northern Ireland and a bomb had gone off very close to him when he was little. Perhaps that had something to do with it, I don’t know, but the fact of the matter was that he was a nervous wreck. He was on anti-depressants from the doctor and he liberally self-medicated with alcohol and recreational drugs.
After he’d been with us a few weeks. it was clear that he was heading for some sort of crisis and right on cue it came. One night we came back to the flat from visiting friends and as soon as we opened the door of the apartment we saw slices of white bread lying in the hall. The further into the flat we went, the more bread we saw. Finally, we entered the living room and there was Malachy sitting on the floor in the middle of the room crying, and he was surrounded by bread. It looked as if there had been an explosion in a bakery.
‘What happened?’ we asked him. He shook his head, barely able to speak. Finally he whispered, ‘The loaf of bread attacked me.’ And that was all we could get out of him. He went away again not long after this. I have no idea what he’s doing now.
Well that was me a few days ago, except that it was my story that had attacked me and I couldn’t seem to fight back, no matter how hard I tried. Fortunately, Rosie came back from work and decided to take matters in hand. We went through the story together and she identified two chapters that simply had to go, suggested a couple of incidents that could be developed and pointed out that one of the central characters had no real story of his own. He was, in effect, merely a kind of accessory for the protagonist. Finally, she showed me that I needed to develop the logic of the world I was describing in greater detail. Suddenly I saw how simple it could be.
So now I’m a recovering narrative-phobic. The first draft is back on track and hopefully there will be no further episodes of despair and self-pity. That’s the thing about writing. It’s a solitary business. Ninety percent of the time you just need to be left alone to get on with it but every now and then, you need someone to point out the blindingly obvious. Otherwise you can’t see the loaf for the bread.