The wind whistling past your ears: dealing with the post-novel blues
24 February 2017
It has gone. The piece of work which has occupied over the past couple of years, a novel, has left my desk to make its way in the blustery, chilly outside world.
Almost certainly it will be back, nagging for attention of some kind, but right now I’m in that odd, conflicted state of mind when I am missing my characters while also being relieved that they have gone.
‘Ah, you’re at that stage when you can feel the wind whistling past your ears,’ said a writer friend. ‘The heady moment when you have taken flight.’
That was it, I said.
‘Those few seconds before you hit the pavement.’
Whether or not the pavement is rushing towards me, I can’t quite get away from the rather strange fictional world my brain has been inhabiting. The sensible next step would be to start something new, but I always seem to require a cooling-off period. There are authors – Ruth Rendell was one – who can finish one novel in the morning and start the next after lunch, but that kind of creative promiscuity is beyond me.
So I plan to do something active and faintly radical. I am going to climb the ladder to the attic and begin to cull my past.
Up there, in many boxes, are the handwritten manuscripts that eventually became my books – the breathless first versions, the rewrites, the rewrites of rewrites, the printed drafts, the edited drafts, the letters/revisions/rows which have marked my relationships with various editors.
Those boxes keen with the pain, the hopes, the despair and illusions that attend each book, however much I have tried to take the mature attitude of a grown-up professional. When I originally put them away, carefully marking and dating each box, I had the idea that one day, after I had won the Booker or Carnegie Prize, a university might be interested in this mighty archive. Even if that never happened, I might, one day far in the future, enjoy being reminded of the creative processes of my youth and middle age. I would see how my moods and methods have changed down the years, going from tentativeness to a sort of confidence and back to tentativeness (the more you think you know, the more you realise how little you know).
I have outgrown those ideas. Dwelling over something you wrote years ago is never a good idea. It will undoubtedly be better or worse than you thought at the time: either way will depress you.
One of the defining characteristics of someone who takes their writing seriously – maybe anything seriously – is that they don’t look back. A friend of mine, years ago, fretted for months about how badly his first novel had been published – the cover that was wrong, the reviews that never came, the booksellers who displayed it in the wrong place or not at all. The more he obsessed, the clearer it became that he would never write another novel, as indeed he didn’t.
Move on. Don’t look back. When a work is truly finished, let it go.
It is time for those old papers, with the millions of words which had such hope riding on them, to be recycled. As they fill the skip, I shall take comfort from the fact that, although they never won the Booker or the Carnegie, they also didn’t hit the pavement too hard. Or, if they did, they bounced.
More pieces on the utter joy of writing for a living can be found in the Writer’s Shed.