I reluctantly enjoy this time of year, despite the fact it heralds a slide into the interminable British winter. The short days and short tempers of my compatriots don’t stop it feeling like a fresh start; out with summer, in with autumn. There are still hints at lushness; green grass, ripe blackberries, crops ready to be harvested. I walk with the dog around my familiar fields, and note the soft crust of the mud, which in a few short months will be frozen. Or worse; dank, sodden and rain-soaked. It was at this time of year that I started my Masters degree three years ago, and I sat amongst other wannabe writers, wearing writerly clothes and clutching writerly notebooks, in which we intended to pen our masterpieces. I felt I blagged my way onto the course, my evidential body of work was this blog, and a stilted short story about a school girl called Cressida, who wanted to rebel against her parents. My tutor, during a Skype application interview, asked me what I did when I got really stuck with my writing. I floundered over my answer to that question, she might have seen through me, she might have known I was a novice, and ‘my writing’ consisted of blog posts that were haphazard at times, and focused too much on clothes shopping rather than searing life commentary. I’d never been really stuck with my writing, because I only ever wrote when I felt like it, about frippery. I knew more about brand development and search engine optimisation than about how to unstick a stuck paragraph.
So when I got the place, we sat, day one, in our studio and went round the table in a sweat-inducing introductory session where we were asked to outline the plot for our novels. There was some invisible peddling, resulting in various iterations of ‘I might focus on…’ and ‘I’ve always wanted to write about…’ and such like. I said I was going to write about a school setting, mothers specifically, in the privileged environment of private education. Prep school. They nodded. Moving on. I had no more a clue of what my plot was then, than I did after a year of the degree! A plot stubbornly alluded me, and any measures I took to secure it, despite intensive workshopping with my peers, left me with a flimsy structure, a plot with the strength of a wet biscuit. I knew it. My tutor knew it. But my writing was good. Thank God, my writing was good. I chased ghosts of plots, and developed questionable preoccupations with themes; women, teenagers, competitive mothers, wealth, marriage, disillusionment, until I felt I could cobble a novel together. And so I did. I wove in concepts like a houseboat location, and set the novel by the water so that when I took daily walks by the shore, I could note tree types and tidal nuances, and that felt like book research. I asked my teenage daughter’s unsuspecting new boyfriend, on his first visit to our house, how he might behave if he were attacked by a swan, all in the name of reasearch. I contacted a swan sanctuary, and became an expert of the monogamy of the birds. And although this lent depth to my work, it did not give me a plot.
I remember it fondly now, with a wry smile, and see that the Masters was the ultimate learning exercise; of course it was. The academics twinned with the realisation that although I’d written a book, there were issues with it. I spent a lot of time then (and now) pondering whether I was good enough. Why couldn’t I find a plot? Who knew plots were so damn elusive? I came to the conclusion I needed a brain the size of a planet to manage one; I had enough trouble keeping track of my real life, let alone the fictional one I might create. Thankfully, I graduated, the first draft of my novel nestled safely and mutely in a folder entitled ‘book’ on my laptop, and thought; ‘well that was that’ all the while weathering the probes of friends and enemies alike. ‘Have you finished your book yet?’ To a writer, that’s the equivalent of a mother asking at a coffee morning why your toddler isn’t walking yet.
My writer friends and I used to talk about when we would become writers. Would it be when we finished a draft? When someone else read it? When we got an agent? When we got published? When a box full of pre-sale proofs arrived? When we saw our book on the shelf in a bookshop, or on Amazon in the best seller list? When we won a literary prize? Oh, the mind boggles. When we overheard two people discussing our book? When our book was the subject of a book club evening? When we started the second book (you’re surely a keeper at this wretched pursuit if you can do it twice)? All of the above? None of the above? The ribbon unspools. I guess the point is there is no defined or accepted time. You learn how to do it, then you reflect, then you write a bit more, then you stop. Then you start. Now, I see that it was all part of the process. Or at least part of my process. There are a million writers following a million different paths, like any creative in any profession, there are highs and lows; you move forward, you move back. It’s a game of snakes and ladders with more snakes than ladders, for sure. But that’s OK. There is time. It’s the season of fresh starts, and mine will be finding the book in the book.