THE 5 STAGES OF WRITING GRIEF
You know that familiar beat where someone’s getting a tarot reading, and they draw the Death card, and the tarot reader’s like: ‘Don’t worry. This card is commonly misinterpreted. It actually symbolises change.’ You know that, right?
Perhaps you don’t. I’ve been a devoted reader of Chat: It’s Fate and Take A Break: Fate & Fortune for a terrifying 7 years now, and I sometimes forget that not everyone is conversant with the latest advice for establishing a psychic link with your German Shepherd (the dog, that is – German sheep-farmers are notoriously resistant to psionic manipulation and get a +3 saving throw against Mind Bond).
Part of me wishes tarot readers weren’t so goddamned equivocal. Whatever happened to the doomy prognostications of the portentous fortune tellers of yore? I’d appreciate the Russian Roulette-style frisson generated by knowing there was a clear ‘LOSE’ card in the deck. Tarot readers, when overturning the Death card, should be like: ‘Oh fuck. Dude you are so boned.’ And you’d have this massive adrenaline rush and spend the next two weeks in this hallucinogenic daze of existential dread where the whole world felt floaty and alive and old anxieties just fell away as you realised how transitory everything we strive for is, then after a fortnight, when you hadn’t died (which of course you’d have no more chance of doing than normal) you’d experience this surging Scrooge-like high as you realised you’d been reprieved, and you’d bound back into the world a saner, less anxious, less grasping individual.
Shit. I guess it really does mean change.
If you’ve worked on creative writing with any sort of critical rigour, especially on a novel, you may well be familiar with this process.
I’m here today to tell – or more likely remind – you, that the toughest, most dispiriting moments of the creative process almost always presage the biggest breakthroughs. Certainly that has been my experience.
And I’m not sharing in this in some twee, vague spirit of chin-upness. I’m convinced that is immensely valuable, practical knowledge to absorb and remember. Recognising these stages is a tool that can inform your writing process, helping you better allocate your energies. It’s immediately applicable.
I’ve nothing against pats on the back and expressions of solidarity amongst writers – we could all do with a bit of a hug from time to time – but it seems to me that the bulk of writing advice on the internet is of the air-punching, yay you, be inspired and let your creative energies flow school of bullshit mysticism that feels helpful, but contains absolutely no practical steps to improving your craft and achieving your writing goals. Maybe it’s part of the self-mythologising to which writers are prone, maybe it’s because most of the people sharing writing tips online are not writers themselves, or are not good writers. Most good writers are probably getting on with the gruelling business of making their writing not shit. Hmm. I’ve snookered myself there a bit.
Still. The test of writing advice is not whether it makes an intuitive, satisfying sense, or whether it makes you feel good, or whether it’s expressed in some catchy maxim or elegant metaphor. The test is: after you read it, does the quality of your writing measurably improve? If not, the advice might be entertaining, but it’s pedagogically worthless.
The more I write, the more I’ve come to realise that making big, necessary changes in a novel involves something akin to a mourning process. You have to come to terms with the creative failure, let go of the scene or character or plot strand you worked so hard on, accept that it really is gone, allow yourself to feel a bit blue, and then there’s this coming up for air and this exhilarating re-engagement with the work where you’re back, you’re living, and you have this renewed zest and appreciation and optimism.
Here’s the process as I’ve experienced it. Your mileage may vary depending on your temperament and the standards to which you’re holding the text, but the broad shape should be the same for everyone. These stages feel like they last several weeks each, but it’s probably more like hours. I hope you hold yourself in high enough esteem to aim for brilliance, and I’m sure you’re clearsighted enough to recognise when your work falls short of that challenging benchmark.
Learning to recognise these stages in yourself can make the difference between quitting in despair, and pushing through to some of the most significant breakthroughs of your creative career. So keep an eye out. Godspeed, noble warriors.
You’re writing. It’s going well. You’ve hit a sweet streak lately, you’re making your word count targets, that overall word count is creeping up. Oh boy. You’re a proper writer.
Still, the last week or so, you’ve had felt experienced… doubts. Not really doubts, just tiny niggling gutfeels. Little prods in the chest. Sometimes you’re not sure if the dad character is really contributing much. He talks a lot and often drags conversations off the path you meant them to follow, and his function in the text is a bit similar to your protagonist’s older brother, but…
No, see – this is the inner critic you’ve been warned so much about. The little voice in your head that wants to crush your creative spirit by making you doubt yourself, by insisting you’re shit, that you have no right to be creating, you awful, self-indulgent, talentless git. It wants you to stop writing, to close down, to protect your heart by never trying.
So you keep writing. Nothing to see here.
2. SHITTY DREAD
So that voice hasn’t stopped. In fact, it’s got louder.
You check back on an early chapter, just to reassure yourself that the voice is chatting balls. And… actually you notice some stuff you aren’t sure about. Gnngh. That scene transition is awfully perfunctory. And the dialogue exchange here is placeholderly as fuck. Actually this whole second half of the chapter feels a bit leaden and hackneyed.
But this is just the self-critic needling you, right? So you stop re-reading and you set yourself a big word count goal to shut down the nerves because mind over matter, dammit. You’re going to bury that doubt under a fucking productivity avalanche. You empty your schedule. You brew so. much. coffee. You fire up the laptop, and with grave countenance you turn to your artillerymen aiming 10,000 cannon at the ugly Kraken O’ Doubt: ‘What are you waiting for? BLAST HIM.’
And you write.
And it’s hard. And a lot of the words you’re producing seem… not so good. You’re not spending as long weighing a sentence in your mouth, getting the heft of it, picturing the scene and hunting down the right word for the bit of the shoe you’re thinking of (and what type of shoe is it, anyway? A white golf shoe? A caramel calfskin half-brogue? FUCK I HAVEN’T GOT TIME FOR THIS) because every time you slow down you feel that pressure of the voice saying you’re losing your touch, you aren’t hitting your productivity goals, you’re flaking.
Your guns are blazing, a lot of smoke and noise is going on around you, but the Kraken O’ Doubt is very much alive.
So you work harder, even as your productivity and quality decline. Because fuck, you want to be a writer, you’re not going to give in to self-doubt, and maybe tomorrow will be better.
3. JUST FUCKING SHOOT ME
Tomorrow is worse.
You have cystitis of the pen. Your prose comes out in tiny, burning squirts. It stinks, it hurts when you do it, and you never do enough to feel satisfied.
You reread what you’ve written. You do not feel pleased or mollified. You are ninety percent sure you have gone wrong. God, why are you giving in to that voice in your head? Didn’t you make a deal with yourself never to listen to it?
Fuck. Maybe you really aren’t a writer.
You go for a walk. You go for a wank. You binge on biscuits, box sets, Boggle. You read other authors for inspiration and it’s like clicking through photos of your ex on honeymoon in Hawaii with her beautiful new husband while you shiver in a damp kitchen rubbing a Vanish stick over the skidmarks in your Homer Simpson boxer briefs.
These novels are good. Objectively better than what you have written. And if you can recognise good writing when you see it, then it can’t be that you’re just in this ‘GRAAAAR everything is shit’ mode, so the problem must just be your writing. Which is shit.
Fuck. This is the end. It’s the actual end. You’ve stack it. The wheels came off your dream-mobile and you crashed it through the plate glass windows of your ambition-villa, mashing the legs of your hope-valet and spraying blood all over your fuck-yeah-jacuzzi.
You stop writing. Time moves on.
Now you’re not an author you have a lot of time on your hands. You go to the park and watch twins do handstands. Someone’s taking the bits of a picnic from a wicker hamper and laying them out on a red-and-white-checked cotton blanket, beside a lop-eared rabbit in a red leather collar.
You download a couple of albums and go running while they play. You make a carrot cake. You phone your gran and tell her the joke about the two penguins.
It’s sad that you don’t get to write anymore, but maybe it’s for the best. You weren’t really enjoying it at the end there.
And now you’re getting out more you’ve noticed most people can live perfectly meaningful, fulfilling lives without writing a single word. Most of them don’t know who sold how many copies of what, or who won which award, or who wrote that very very nuanced scene in the freight lift.
Being a writer doesn’t seem all that attract now you’re free to be a human being.
Maybe you’ll learn Welsh. Maybe you’ll take up glassblowing, or kendo. Imagine if the dad character in your book had been a kendo instructor. Maybe he would have been obsessed with it, knowing how he’s been reacting so far. Maybe there is no older brother character, because the dad is totally devoted to this niche Japanese martial art, and the main character was an accident that ended up holding his parents’ marriage together. And of course his dad would retreat into kendo after the coach accident – maybe instead of doing weights in the garage he’d be practising his kata, obsessively. The noise through the wall of his dad swishing the carbon fibre sword and shouting: ‘Kai!’ And – oh Christ, wait – what about when the main character’s agoraphobia gets so bad he can’t leave his room? Wouldn’t the dad be trying to push this sort of cod-mystical ‘fighting spirit’ philosophy on him? Wouldn’t he try to get his son into kendo? As a misguided way of helping him, even though we – and the main character – can see that it hasn’t helped the dad at all, only given him a way of hiding from his worries?
So like, in a way, isn’t the arc of both the protagonist and the dad that they have to learn to embrace their fighting spirit? Not by doing kendo – the dad by admitting he’s not happy, and ending the marriage, and the son by facing the world?
The woman behind the counter asks, for the third time, if you’d like syrup on your waffle. You blink, look around.
‘Actually, I’m not hungry.’
You start walking away. You’ve got to get to your laptop. A notepad. Anything.
Fuck fuck fuck
5. BOOKER ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
This might work. This is actually good.
You start rewriting the opening scene, copying and pasting chunks from the previous draft – which, now you read it, is better than you remember – and less like writing, more like blowing the dust off an old and beautiful story that was always there. You’re revealing.
Yes, you think, as each sentence comes out sweet and clear and true, I remember this. This is the real story, the one that was hidden behind those clouds of confusion. You knew it all along. You’re reteaching it to yourself.
This is great. Fuck those books you were reading last week. This turds on them from a helicopter. You love these characters. You care. Christ, look at that line you wrote just there. Resonant as shit. God, you’re good.
You’ve cracked it.
This feeling will never end.
(If you’d like to experience the neverending feeling of creative nirvana without any of the soul-frappé-ing struggle, pre-order my debut novel, THE HONOURS, out in just over a month. Click the link, read the blurb and the first page. See if it grabs you.)