My younger daughter has been wrapping Christmas presents with me. Just turned four, her enthusiasm for ‘helping’ knows no bounds. So she kneels on the floor beside me, eyes wide as she talks about the gifts we’ve bought, and the unparalleled delight that awaits their intended recipients.
I soon realise there’s a lot about wrapping presents that she hasn’t learned yet. She doesn’t know that it’s usually best to cut the paper in straight lines. Or that you need to hold the Sellotape by the ends so it doesn’t fold over and stick to itself. She hasn’t registered that the tape has to go over the joins, and not just anywhere on the paper, or on top of Santa because it makes him shiny.
If I try to intervene, she pulls away, shrieking, ‘I want to do it MYSELF!!’ It’s been a long day, during which I must have heard that phrase a hundred times. After half an hour wrapping one small rectangular box of Lego, I feel like crying with frustration.
So I try, instead, to imagine the neurons in her brain, deep inside that mysterious little head. I picture them growing, reaching towards each other through the dark to make new connections.
And that makes me think about writing, and the learning involved in that equally mysterious process. Writing your first novel is hard. There’s quite a lot to it, most of which you don’t realise until you’re mired in the middle of it. It’s not just the stringing-a-sentence-together part. It’s the storytelling – how to make characters come to life, how to plot, or how to wing it if you want to. How to plant hooks, ratchet up suspense, and weave story threads. How to build up emotions under the surface, and then let them sing. All this has to be learnt, and that’s ok. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play the bassoon first time, or sail a yacht.
Then there’s the second book. You should have got the hang of it by now, right? But no – if anything it’s harder. It’s kind of like becoming a parent the second time. You’ve a feeling it should be easier, but it isn’t. You have to learn all those things again, but for THIS child, this story. And there are new challenges too, like writing new characters while your first ones refuse to let you go. Or learning how to focus on your new book while the first is out on submission, and you’re checking your emails every five minutes.
And all the time that you’re struggling with this, there are constant reminders, everywhere, of how bleak the prospects are for new writers. We read that it’s impossible to get an agent, to find a publisher, to sell books, to keep selling enough books…..
The single most important thing, in all this, is to keep writing regardless. You have to tolerate the uncertainty about your writing prospects, and most importantly you have to tolerate the problems in your own writing during the drafting process - the amateurishness, the lumpen turns of phrase, the wooden characters. You have to be able to shrug at the passages that look like the ramblings of a love-struck teenager, or Enid Blyton on speed. You have to be able to open the document every day and LOOK at that mess without flinching, crying, or deleting the whole lot.
You do this, I think, by learning to switch between reader and writer mode. Using the present wrapping analogy, the ‘reader’ is like a parent, who knows what it should look like, and the ‘writer’ is the child, the one actually engaged in the process. So, you have to let the writer write. Then switch to reader mode, and notice what doesn’t look or feel right. Go back into writer mode, change things at sentence level, or reimagine whole scenes, characters, storylines, if necessary. Then go back to the reader… and so on. Eventually the writer will nail it - IF you give her the chance. Because the writer needs, and deserves, just as much space and patience as the four-year-old who doesn’t know about Sellotape yet.
The good thing is that, by simply doing, you can’t help but learn. My daughter and I persevered with the wrapping. A few days later, we do have a pile of finished presents. They’re a bit lumpy, a bit wrinkly. Some are like flies, bound up in webs of deadly Sellotape. But they’re interesting-looking, prepared with love, in a spirit of endeavour, and all the better for that.