On Books, On writing


Six faces appeared on screen on Friday to Zoom into one of our writer’s Masterclass sessions with Mike Nicol. Some more would be zooming in on Sunday to discuss their writing projects, both fiction and non-fiction.

‘So, how are you all doing? he starts. ‘Any issues, questions?’

I took the gap and jumped in fairly quickly. I’ve been feeling quite miserable about my writing. It’s as if I have a dark cloud following me around, really weighing me down. I needed to offload, share the burden.  

‘Actually, I have quite a big issue. I’m not sure that I can write fiction. Perhaps it’s just not for me? I’m finding it virtually impossible to find a way to tell my story. I mean… I have a story and for once I know the beginning and the end… but to be able fill in all the gaps…write all these scenes that I don’t know how to start … and then still sustain someone’s interest? I don’t know how to do it. I’m finding it …sooo damn hard!’      

Mike smiled. Everyone else kept reasonably still. Well-known fiction writer Qarnita Loxton- author of The Being series (Being Kari, Being Lily, Being Shelley, and soon her fourth and final,) sat comfortably both on her couch and in her mind. (Well, it looked that way to me. Her books make writing look easy!) I think she responded first.

‘Well, maybe don’t think of it as fiction. You’re writing a story. It’s real. My characters are real. They exist.’

This sounded sensible, easier. But still I wasn’t quite convinced.

Others added to the conversation, started throwing some ideas around about how to tell a story. Jennifer Friedman – author of two memoirs, Queen of the Free State, the Messiah’s Dream Machine – now also working on fiction offered up some ideas about what my character could do with her days: make awful sandwiches for her kids, take them to school.

I listened. I understood what she was saying. Make your characters do stuff.

Except that the character wasn’t me. This is not memoir. I can do memoir, or I’ve certainly tried but this isn’t. So how the hell would I know what she put on her sandwiches? Which school was she dropping them at, what extra murals would they be doing?

This story is not about what I did. How will I ever know what my characters did with their days? I can’t interview all my characters. They’ll tell me they don’t want to end up in my book! (Oh of course, be subtle, eavesdrop, observe, you say. I’m not such a clot.)

‘Well, make it up! That’s the fun of it! Use your imagination! Let your mind go wild!’

Well in truth, it’s really not that easy. I’m not particularly creative, imaginative. It’s not in my nature to make up dragons in dungeons. I’m fully based in fact, research, precedent, reality, the way things were or are. It’s comfortable for me that space.

Other participants added their own issues: about writing one story when instinctively they felt as though they should be writing the other; trying to write both at same time; finding time to write in the tiny gaps of life with young children; writing down thoughts, passages, ideas in journals, on scraps of paper and filing them, but oh my gosh where did you put them now? This latter thing? Yes, I fully relate.

The Zoom was just over an hour.

By the end of the session, it became clearer. And we all, without exception at least partially agreed:

Writing is a bloody nightmare.  

‘So how do you do it Mike? I pried. Tell us!’

Mike- expert, prolific crime-fiction writer, well-respected, well-known international author of poetry, non-fiction, biographies and about twenty works of fiction, (his latest The Rabbit Hole, just released) and our presenter, creator and mentor of the Writers Masterclass confessed.

‘It’s called C H A O S,’ he uttered quietly. ‘I have no system, files, folders. Mostly though I start in long hand and then… it kind of follows on from there…’

Aha. Here was the truth.

Mike deftly distilled that what happens to writers is that there is simply ‘a build- up of pressure’. One mulls over an idea for days, months. Sometimes years. The characters follow you around as you go about daily life. You think about them, their story, until you eventually have no choice but HAVE to find a way to tell it. And it can be fiction or not. There are so many ways.

It feels almost like torture. The ‘build- up’ especially, I think. Actually, sometimes the writing too. There are writing days that are truly bloody awful.. One could almost go so far as to say we are masochists.

Here. I’ll give you the full- on definition I found:

Masochism is an eponym — a word named for a person. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was an Austrian writer in the nineteenth century who described the gratification he got from his own pain and humiliation. There are many self-proclaimed masochists out there today — and, one would have to imagine, at least as many sadists, those who enjoy inflicting pain on others (from the name of the Marquis de Sade). But these days you’re most likely to hear the word used jokingly by someone who doesn’t understand another’s motivations for doing something painful or difficult: “You’re still building that stone wall? What are you, some kind of masochist?”

But the best of this Zoom for me was the feeling we all confirmed which was this:

Writing is like torture. But NOT WRITING is equally like torture.

And so we writers write because we cannot NOT write.

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