Coetzee Archive

40before40, Writing Blog

Leave it in the drawer

What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering this weekend as I keep considering the question: how can we work better as writers? It’s an essential and common piece of writerly advice. Once you’ve written a complete draft of a work, put it away. Leave it for as long as you can.

Although perhaps not for as long as Vivian Maier, who never developed a single photograph she took during the 1950s and 1960s, and whose work was discovered (not even re-discovered) by a historical hobbyist John Maloof, when he bought her negatives at an auction, and uncovered one of the great street-photography artists of the 20th century. I’ll come back to this later.

The manuscript of my novel was put away last June/July, after also sending the manuscript out to around a dozen agents (eight rejections, four non-replies).

I’d spent just short of seven years working on this one project. The idea for the novel that I have written and submitted as my PhD thesis came to me in July 2007, as I was working in a pressured editorial role in London. I was becoming fascinated with neuroscience, and what seemed to be an explosion of popular and mainstream news and ideas about what we were learning about psychology via the neurology of the brain.

The original novel idea was both more simple and complex than the book that I’ve ended up with. It began as a split narrative in the 1930s and the 2010s, a little like The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry.

Over the next few years I was, in some way, was put off the idea of the split narrative. The Secret Scripture captures the woman’s historical voice so well, but fails so miserably to do the same with the modern doctor’s voice. (Perhaps I should have stuck with it. The film version of The Secret Scripture is now in production, starring Vanessa Redgrave.) But I was also deterred by the complexity of the narrative; also that Ian McEwan was writing about neuroscientists in Saturday, and also that the 1930s portion began speaking to me far more loudly. These were the characters I wanted to write about.

And so I did. For the next five or six years, and properly for the last three, I invested a great deal of time and effort in the book, through the PhD process. And then it was completed to PhD standard, a year and a half in advance of the deadline, and so I considered it ‘done enough’ (not quite ‘good enough’) but for this academic process, finished.

Having left it aside for six months now, I have returned to it to complete the very, very final copy edit for soft-submission to the initial examining team for my viva.

As I’ve written about before, the novel has not come out as I hoped—a combination of much to do with my own craft skills, and a little to do with the PhD process. And that was even clearer this weekend, as I copy edited. It was a hard task. I can see all the flaws, weaknesses, and flatness of the plot and development.

It’s bittersweet of course—only now, as I have developed so much as a writer, am I able to look back at this book and see its flaws, become aware of what it lacks. But it is hard to have invested for so long in something that remains relatively unfinished, and will not yet get published (even though it’s as competent as many other novels on the market, especially first novels published through small publishers, and vanity projects… oh, the bitterness!).

But what I realised—after getting down on the floor, certainly my best location for gaining perspective (‘this is as low as you get, Alex’)—is that this novel still matters a great deal to me. And that since tucking it away in the draw (with all of the previous drafts, notes, versions – I’d say around two million words of sheer effort over six years) the bursts of energy and enthusiasm I’ve had for the novel are not false dawns; they are real, and exciting. And that they explain to me, as part of the craft of being a writer, which is also the craft of listening to your body and unconscious about what it is that is important to you, that I will come back to this novel. That it is far from finished. That is was in fact not complete, only on schedule for a preliminary deadline that was laid down by the PhD process.

And so what I’m most intrigued by in this renewal of an engagement with this novel is the clarity on the importance of story. The writing of the novel is very good—technically my writing has always been very good. But in terms of both craft (story telling, structure, weaving) and imagination (opening doors, pushing further, saying what hurts) I can see how to improve the book’s story. It will probably mean a huge amount of what is there, and what is also there in the background of those two million words, will not make it into this book.

But that’s okay. That was just practising.

So back to the opening question. What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

What you leave there is, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, work that needs to compost, ferment, break down, and grow again. And there’s a companion drawer in the mind where the psychological imprint of that book is doing the same work: composting, breaking down, going over the ground to become fertile again.

But what you leave there is also a little part of your old self. And particularly the part that attaches your ego-driven wants to the book you’ve just written, and which, in the writing, are death for your book. It’s the desire to get it out and published before it’s ready. It’s the need for recognition after working on a project for five years without any public reaction. Joseph O’Neill writes well about this in relation to his novel Netherland, which took him seven years to write. What sustains you as a social creature when so much of your imaginative and emotional life is lived in a private world? This is when you need your loved ones and social calendar to compensate—if you are that type of social animal (or in degrees, which we all are, understand where your needs lie). It’s why Steinbeck, in Journal of a Novel, both curses but ultimately blesses the social engagements his wife organises for him. It pulls him up out of the den, gives him good cheer.

So leaving the manuscript in the drawer for as long as you can is an exercise in patience and good craft: I realise now what I have is a first draft. And what Hemingway said is true: all first drafts are shit.

But it is also an exercise in personhood, in freeing oneself from the social self and conscious ego’s needs, which can ruin writing, any art.

Vivian-Maier

Which is why it’s valuable to come back to Vivian Maier. Imagine taking thousands of pictures on an old film camera and never getting any of them developed. Not only not getting recognition for the art you are making, but never even seeing it yourself. There is something incredibly powerful in this story—which is why so many people have written about it, have dedicated blogs to Maier’s story, why it resonates with us, why so many stories of posthumous fame and success resonate with us.

Because posthumous fame is of absolutely no use to the social ego. And in that I think we sense a vital lesson for our own life and work. As Jung put it, the ego is useful for the first half of our lives when we need to establish boundaries, strategies for sustaining ourselves, relationships. The ego helps us build the containers that we then go on to fill with our life’s work. But the ego is not the container. And nor is the container our life’s work. Or should not be.

What Maier’s story, what putting a manuscript away in a drawer, is all about, is, I think, some sort of recognition that to do our life’s work will not be driven by, or even of much benefit, to the ego. There are higher, wider, deeper callings and powers we must listen to, to find and complete our life’s work. The recognition of others—and I know how much my novel was written with this goal in (some sneaky part of my) mind—as a stimulus to work will never result in great art. Not even for Warhol.

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And so a double report on my 40before40 utopia of writer’s habits, as I forgot to do it last week. And in some ways, it has become more difficult, now I’m a month or so into the challenge, because old patterns, energies, etc. are starting to take hold of my behaviours. For example, not going to a play I’d already paid for as my companion for the evening was ill, and I took the opportunity to be tired, and a little lethargic. My continued running injuries (spasms in my soleus and calf muscles now) are still getting me down… And yet I definitely see the benefits of challenging myself to create new habits, and how much easier now I can do things I feared before (even ‘wasting time’ watching films, for example).

So this past fortnight I read Coetzee’s mainly-disappointing The Child of Jesus (although not everyone agrees it’s that disappointing), and have nearly finished Bill Herbert’s excellent Omnesia (the remix), I spent an afternoon doing nothing (great!), entered my novel into the Dundee Book Prize, also entered the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction prize, listened to a couple of albums, Liquid Metal and Girls Names’, wrote a new poem based on learning about Picasso’s Minotaur, listened to a couple of podcasts, Our Hen House’s Episode 216 and the Animal Rights Zone 79, bought K a lamp, read two random journal articles ‘We all Kill Whales’ and ‘Environmental EMOs’, and committed at least three hours to pilates. Not bad going.