I’ve been thinking about the writing process. Well, what else is a person to do? I began to take writing very seriously back in the mid-80’s while working as a Domestic Appliance Design Engineer (I know, I know …) in Bristol, England.
I knew I could write, but I also knew I didn’t know how to rewrite. So I joined a small writers group in St Paul’s in Bristol. The truth is, I walked up to the door and walked away again, eventually plucked up the courage and went back. There were three other people in the room (one of them Andrew Miller who has since been short listed for the Booker Prize and won the IMPAC Award amongst others). For a couple of years we met every Tuesday, and there were never more than a half a dozen writers. Most of us had good things to say but did not really know how to say them in a way that could really help each other learn about the craft. This, I believe, is still the case: most participants in writers’ workshops do not have a strong critical language. They might say that they like a piece but cannot specifically say why, or outline what the writer has done formally to achieve this success.
I decided shortly afterwards to give up engineering and concentrate on literature, but I knew I had to learn more and wondered if the structured environment of a university would help. In 1990 I was winging my way to Washington State where I took a two year Master of Fine Arts Degree at Eastern Washington University. And here I learned what I needed to know. Through some very fine instructors I finally found out about form and the writing and rewriting process.
Back in Ireland I stuck to it day after day, learning as I went. 1996 was a good year. My collection of poems, Digging My Own Grave, was published by Dedalus Press. I won two Sunday Tribune/Hennessy literary awards: best Emerging Fiction Writer and New Irish Writer of the Year. I began teaching writing at the Irish Writers Centre, DCU and elsewhere. I was on the other side of the table. Now I really had to know my stuff and most importantly be able to explain it to others. It took another seven years to have my novel The Eskimo in the Net published. The book was well received. It was short listed for The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was selected as Book of the Year by the Literary Editor of the Daily Express (“scandalously ignored by the Man Booker judges …”).
Yet here I am three years later, still thinking about the writing process. In fact I’ve been berating myself for my ‘slowness’. I am very disciplined at first drafts. Day after day churning out the pages. And as a first draft it’s quite solid . The difficulty I find now with rewriting is the distance necessary. You get too close to it. My ‘follow-up’ to The Eskimo in the Net is currently sitting ‘finished’ on my desk while I have just completed a first draft of a new novel. I still need time for the ‘follow-up’. I’m not sure if it is really finished or not.
When The Eskimo in the Net came out in 2003 my publisher said it would be good to get another book out within a year and then maybe wait a few years for the next. Well here we are three years later. Not a finished copy in sight.
I notice other writers I know who published around the same time as I did have their quota on the boil. I thought I worked hard, but I’m beginning to wonder if really I was just not getting down to it. You get a bit panicky. The world is passing you by.
But somewhere within I know this is just an ego thing — publishers, marketing, sales. And so when I read a clipping from the Irish Sunday Independent in their Bookworm section I was heartened to read how Eamonn Sweeney (the next big thing in Irish literature and a fine writer to boot) withdrew his third novel from his agent because he had “written it for the wrong reason.” He found himself thinking of his advance, his profile, the publishing world’s demands. He says when he started out writing it “had been its own reward” and he “needed to get back to that place.” Good on you, Eamonn.
And good on Catherine Bush who despite being short listed for the Trillium award for her novel substantially rewrote the paperback version because she felt rushed to finish the hardback draft.
Also from the clipping, the Observer’s literary editor Robert McCrum wondered if the serious novel had lost its way amongst the demands of marketing and publishing. “In 2006,” he wrote, “the novelist has become a cross between a commercial traveller and an itinerant preacher.”
I couldn’t agree more. For years a number of top publishers looked at Eskimo (which is a sort of existential literary mystery) and wanted more action — murder and mayhem. I resisted, and I believe I was vindicated. I’ll bide my time, write the books I want to write and not get too caught up in the celebrity nature of the business.
There are already far too many books out there, and most of them are unfinished.