I counsel my son on the need to master a skill before one can become great at it. To truly excel. We discuss the relationship between talent and effort. This is a perennial issue when you are twelve, and play sport. Effort in rugby is not the same as effort in maths. Even with talent, work is required. He strives for things to be effortless. I lecture and he listens and not much changes, because when you are twelve, you just want to do what you want to do. He attends a school where most, almost without exception, are super-competitive. Children and parents alike. It was the experience of going there that led me to the concept of my novel; without witnessing the behaviour at that school, there’s no way I would have conceived of a book about the veneer of the school mothers.
But back to effort. I can relate; writing a novel is an effort. The ability to write is a talent, for sure, but being able to write something meaningful and good requires an effort of the purest kind. And tenacity. And a muse.
My muse up and left in about May 2016. I handed in the first draft of my novel for my Masters and felt like I had run a literary marathon. The process resembled nothing I’d worked on before, no previous work experience in my other, corporate life. Even when we had wrapped an enormous business project, one that had sapped time and energy over months, even years, nothing took the effort that writing a novel took. I handed it in and waited for my grade to be given. The feedback. Terrifying. Luckily I had lovely but rigorous tutors who, I can now see, made me the writer I am today. I got a distinction for that submission and honestly I felt so pleased with myself, I think my muse might have left because of my self-satisfied grin.
To start with, I didn’t miss my muse because hell, I’d written that damn draft and that was all that mattered, right? I found myself talking about it like a done deal; my book, yea I’ve written a book. But that was really only the start, and in my naivety, I didn’t know how gruelling the next phase would be. Reflecting on what you’ve written is a crucial part of the creative process; this is why writing books takes so very long. If you have the type of talent that enables you to spew out a masterpiece first go, then brilliant. Thumbs up emoji. But for most writers that is not the case. For me there was a long and slow realisation that I had a load more work to do, and a Masters degree to complete, and an entire career to build as a professional author.
I looked for my muse everywhere. But she was so elusive, like some kind of willow-the-wisp nymph. I’d glimpse her, start thinking about writing again, only to find she’d gone. My life, I decided, did not lend itself to keeping hold of her. I was too distracted with other matters like running a home and being a mother and doing all of the million little things that women like me do. I made excuses and wondered if I might never recapture her. Finishing my degree was the focus and that required the visualisation of publishing a novel, but very little actual writing of said novel. The summer came and went. Leaves fell from the trees. I thought maybe it was a sign; I was a fair-weathered writer. More suited to articles and blog posts. Sort bursts of creativity that would get immediate attention (like! comment! agree!) and then become part of the internet ether. My yearning for a hardback copy of my own novel to be in a bookshop started to seem outrageous. How could I expect that? I’d only written a draft and a stinking great big academic dissertation on how I did it.
Another life lesson: when you are in education, you can lose sight of the benefit of your education. It becomes opaque. I found myself grappling for the meaning.
Now I’ve done it, I can see that education is an amazing gift. Those two letters: ‘MA’. Masters. I revert back; you need to master a skill before you can become great at it.
So my muse. She arrived abruptly. Just last week. My writing colleague gave me a talking to. She sent me some reworkings of my own plot – sometimes you can’t see the wood for your own trees. An outsider can. A better ending, the right tone, a fresh view. The possibilities reared up! This could be good again. And just like that the muse was back. The need to write. The compulsion. Sufficient headspace to work on the novel with openness and glee. And as the words started to emerge again, I noted what I’d learnt. Errors made in the first draft didn’t recur so easily. Grammatically speaking, there was flow and order. Parameters leapt up and settled in early; the writing was easier because I’d developed my skills. Oh the relief!
Now of course, I know how much I still have to do and how long I seem to have been banging on about this bloody book!
If anyone wants me, I’ll be at my desk…