Saturday, 30 May 2015

The fragility of the imagination – by Lari Don

I sometimes feel unreasonable when I say that I can’t write in my lovely bright study, unless the house is quiet and I know I won’t be interrupted. (I know it’s really annoying for my family, and fairly contradictory, since I can write in noisy cafes, libraries, bus stations, train carriages and staff rooms…) But I know that in order to put my whole self into the world I’m creating, I need to feel confident that I won’t be distracted. And I’m discovering that sometimes there’s just too much life and stress and STUFF going on, for me to be able to create stories.

I’ve been thinking recently about how easily the creative process is derailed, and about the fragility of a writer’s imagination.

Last week, Nicola Morgan, a writer I greatly admire, for the books she writes and for the wisdom she shares about writing and publishing, wrote a powerful post about how she’s struggling (temporarily, I hope) to write fiction, rather than non-fiction. Her post made me think about my own writing.

As well as novels, I write retellings of old myths, legends and folktales. Fewer facts and more magic than most non-fiction, but even so, I find this process, the craft of retelling something that already exists, fairly robust, much less likely to be disrupted by someone asking what’s for tea, or by more fundamental disturbances in my life.

However, I find the process of writing fiction, creating the new world of a novel, much more fragile.

One of my novels crashed and burned a year or so ago. An idea I was entirely committed to, characters I loved, a world I was fascinated by, questions I desperately wanted to answer… And it died. I spent months researching it. I wrote 21 chapters. Then it just died.

I couldn’t see where the story was going. So I abandoned it. Put all the books and research notes into a cardboard box.

And then I put that box with all the other boxes. The packing boxes.

Because that book crashed and burned in a year when I moved house twice. A year in which I sold a house, failed to buy another house, moved out of the first house anyway, lived in a (wholly unsuitable) rented house, finally bought another house, and moved house again.

And I will never know whether the story collapsed because of fundamental problems with the idea, or because of the disruptive circumstances under which I was trying to write it.

I will never know, because I just can’t face opening that box and re-entering that story, even though I suspect the essence of the story is fine, and it was just too hard to create that world inside my head, when the world outside my head was so unstable. So that book is probably dead.

But a book which is NOT dead is the one I’m currently writing. I’ve had an unsettled couple of months, when it’s been hard to get the peaceful focus I’m beginning to realise is essential for me to write fiction. And I had a minor crisis last week, when I was on the verge of wondering whether my current novel was falling apart.

But then I realised I’ve been trying to sort out the central plot problem during a General Election (always a busy time in our household) and while one of my children has been on exam leave (giving me no daytime hours to write in a quiet house.)

So, rather than packing this book in a box, I’ve reminded myself about the fragility of my creative process, and I’ve decided not to make any big decisions about the plot until I have time to think in peace and quiet and calmness. (Next Monday, I hope!) I’ll give myself time to get back into this world in the way that works for me, rather than panicking and abandoning it, and souring my relationship with this story and these characters for ever.

What writers do is very strange. Perhaps we don’t admit that often enough. Writing fiction, for whatever age, is essentially quite odd. We invent worlds, and live inside them. We do it convincingly enough to invite others to join us in those worlds. We invent people. We have close and emotional relationships with entirely imaginary people. We give our characters lives, make those lives dramatic and exciting and painful, then sometimes we take those lives away.

That’s a very weird thing to do. It’s precious, it’s delicate, it’s fragile. It needs nurtured, not forced. And it can never be taken for granted. Writers have to be allowed to admit that, to ourselves first of all.

 PS – I’d really like to thank Nicola for her honesty last week. It helped me think about my own creativity and its flawed fragility...
Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

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Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely post. Good luck with finding the still small space of calm!

catdownunder said...

I have not reached the heady heights of publication but, before I read this, I had written something on my own blog about how I had not done any "writing" for the past nine weeks because of another serious distraction. I was thinking of so many of the things you put so well. It takes emotional energy to write and it is not always possible to summon it.

Joan Lennon said...

"The peaceful focus" - is there anything in the universe more longed-for, more powerful? Well, probably, but not by/for writers! Thanks for posting!

Nicola Morgan said...

Lovely post, Lari. Of course, thank you so much for your kind words. I hope it doesn't make me sound horrible if I say that I found some relief in the fact that you also don't always find it easy to summon the necessary inspiration to make your imagination flourish? I very much hope you find your way back into your current book. I worked really hard at giving mine the nourishment it needed over this last week, and had some modest progress. Green shoots, though they still look vulnerable. And now I have two weeks of events and fractured thinking, but what I hope is that something organic will happen while I do that, now that I've sown and watered the seeds.

And now i'll stop mixing metaphors.

Good luck, Lari, and may the ideas flow. xx

Sue Bursztynski said...

The best thing to do is put it away till you're ready to look at it again. Then read it, from beginning to end. I know where you're coming from. I have 60,000 words of a novel written and just can't seem to go further. So in the meantime, I'm blogging. I'm writing short fiction. And yes, non fiction is good. I find writing at home is distracting, not because I have anyone asking for tea, but because I have excuses to get up and do something else. So I go to a cafe with free wifi and let someone else cook me a meal or make me a cuppa. So, no, it doesn't surprise me you do likewise. :-)

Penny Dolan said...

Very welcome post, Lari!