When do you know you’re ready to write a novel? I say novel, rather than book, because although other forms of book (creative non-fiction, journalism, academic work) can take just as long, and have their own difficulties and rigours, for me at least there is something deeply interior about the approach to writing a novel that brings up a blockage that the other forms of writing do not. As for Coleridge, it is my ‘chosen’ form that troubles me most (Coleridge famously complained he could write prose without a problem, but asking him to write poetry was like asking him to cut off a leg. Whatever ‘Kubla Kahn’ is, it is also a statement on the thwarting of the artist.)
I’ve written about this before. How when one integrates a particular form of work too closely into one’s ego boundary container (that keeps us safe; that we ‘show’ to the world) then we won’t risk its failing. And I believe I’ve passed that now. I wrote to a friend, another writer, recently that my trip abroad, my two month travels on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, has given me the perspective to be simply a ‘writer’ and one in service to others (stories, ideas, people, values) rather than having to be a ‘novelist’ in service to my ego (writing for all the wrong reasons, and not ‘succeeding’). It was something I needed to give up. I felt as if I would die giving it up. And yet now I have—the idea that if I never write a novel but follow my energy and heart, that is okay—I am free to actually follow the energy of whatever comes in front of me, or emanates from inside, which is, or could be—no, this time, is—a novel. It’s a love story, at its heart, one set in a collapsed future and one themed around the idea of maintaining one’s values (of being vegan) in a world that no longer, if ever, respected and recognised those values. How does love grow in such a situation? How does one keep one’s compassion?
How do I know I am ready to write this book and not the other books that I have in my ‘unfinished’ projects folder (the book about my father; the book about relationships; the book about the lobotomy). I guess it’s this. That as I am clear that the first half of my life ended a while ago, so went with it the first half of life preoccupations and motivations. Those books started at that time don’t have the same energy now for me to carry on with them. Well, some do, but not while I’m also doing a full-time job. Or maybe. Argh! Constantly this push and pull between projects… And yet this is just an excuse not to commit and get things finished. As my friend, the poet, said, to always feel lukewarm, never cold or hot.
Yes, I guess I’m working this out by writing it down. I have a motivation to change the world for the better, to reduce suffering. Do I truly believe that by entering my own space, descending into the tunnel of writing, and of writing fiction, that I will come out of this with something that will be useful in the world? A novel? Perhaps it has always been the case or is particularly pertinent to this precarious world we live in, that there is no time for fiction any more. That it is entertainment and escapism from the pressing problems of the world. And yet, as Elizabeth Grosz says (PDF) (and I’ve used this quote so many times in the past few weeks) isn’t art about presenting future possibilities? Making of the materials of the present moment a vision or image of what the world could be? And don’t we need art—isn’t art what we save the world for? What she says is that art is the affective energy where “properties and qualities take on the task of representing the future, of preceding and summoning up sensations to come, a people to come, worlds or universes to come.”
What I think I’ve figured out this week is the practical stuff of motivation. I’ve written plenty this week – an article for a running magazine, another one on running and veganism for a Canadian website, a short essay on the film The Ghosts in Our Machine, this post – and they’re all enjoyably short. These essays and articles, as well as the piece on DXE and direct action I’m pitching to a few magazines, are day-long pieces of work (and then of course the re-writing and re-writing follow-ups) but provide something of the instant external gratification that a novel will not provide. So I was moaning last night about the need for some external motivation for the major project, the new book. Hoping that someone would just come along and demand work from me, provide a structure and a deadline. There are mentoring projects, of course. And I just had the PhD. But in the end neither of those appeal because, having learned from the PhD, I really do not want anyone else to read sections or samples of my work until a whole novel is complete.
And so it is back to the intrinsic and internal motivations. The real reasons why we stick with things.
It’s actually good to be thinking of motivation at the beginning of a new project. Do I care enough about this to see it through over a long period of time? It’s much better to be deliberative at the beginning. It’s a long-term commitment. What seems to me a very good indicator of motivation is what comes naturally. I’ve always fought this, being good at things (such as non-fiction, reflective writing, journalism) that I never wanted to be good at. My ego was always so attached, for some reason, to fiction. Perhaps because I loved fantasies and novels so much as a child (and yet I didn’t really begin reading until a little more grown up, maybe 10 or 11). I’m unsure now, now that I come to unpick this. I began writing stories at six or seven. I remember that moment when everyone was invited to write and most of the kids wrote a half-page story in massive handwriting. I was still going 16 pages later. I was so excited I interrupted my teachers’ conversation and got told off. And yet I was still excited, and carried on writing stories. I asked for a typewriter. I wrote whatever I felt like. Poetry, stories, a novel at the age of 15, also journalism, also creative non-fiction (I remember the report about work experience, written about working at, of all places, a women’s magazine, where I wrote an article for them on, of all things, astrology).
I think in terms of motivation I am a little too self-aware now of what comes with writing the novel. Although I have not been through the whole process of the previous one: getting it published, promoting, etc. But I do know what effort it takes, the practical effort but also the psychological drift and step out of this physical plane. What I mean is, you need to properly go and inhabit that other world. I know you do with any book. It’s what Rachel Carson spoke about in the final months of writing Silent Spring. The book becomes your world. You have to want to be in that world. And this wanting has to be natural, not conscious. It’s a bodily longing to be there, I think. It’s what Mario Vargas Llosa writes about in his Letters to a Young Novelist. The single most important factor for being a novelist is the reward of the work itself. Not the product, the process. Sitting and writing fiction is its own reward for those for whom it is the right/only path. (What symbolic lesson is it for me that I cut up Llosa’s book to create a birthday card for a friend? Actually not much. I found the book a little basic and dull.) Oh, okay, that was my ego at work again—being afraid to “be a beginner again every morning”. To be a beginning I mistyped originally, but I quite like that idea (even if it sounds like something out of Apocalypto).
So what new beginning? I think before I wrote for the wrong reasons, and that is putting the fear of god into me for starting something new without figuring out the reasons why I am doing it, or want to stay with it for the next year or two (when also balanced with the rest of my life). But trying to be deliberative runs the risk of being overly-rational. Motivation is perhaps, or should be, more about listening to the body, and taking the peaks and troughs, feeling one’s way into the future, whatever world is to come. Art is an energy and a sensation. Making art is a flow of energy and sensations. And it is about taking materials and shaping them with one’s own energy to create in others the sensation of new possibilities.
It is also about feeling prepared. Feeling capable. As Adele Diamond, the neuroscientist and educator says, the single biggest predictor of educational success is not IQ or even EQ but simply believing that one has the capacity to do the thing. And that comes from confidence and preparedness. Commitment flows from these things. Motivation in essence is then unleashed, whereas before it was bridled, or enclosed. This is where education works at its best sense, as a ‘leading out’ (an e-ducare, in the Latin) from the enclosure, unleashing the motivation through preparedness and knowledge. So maybe one does not simply find the motivation. I know it’s already there to write this novel. The steps I need to take are actually about preparing myself for the journey. And I’ve done that work before.