Five years ago I started writing a book. I had just come out of a brief but exquisite love affair and I needed to write about it. Over one weekend I wrote 12,000 words. They just poured out of me. Then there was a bit of a lull. The sadness of it ending overwhelmed me and I couldn’t write anymore. I went into that spiral of self-loathing and asking why, and it was too painful to write about. After that, life got “interesting” for quite a few years and all I could do was hang on for the ride. There wasn’t much time to write, but now and then I jotted down a few things. Gradually the word count grew, but I wasn’t happy with what I’d written. It wasn’t the book I wanted to write. It certainly wasn’t the book I wanted to read. It was a jumbled collection of writings that didn’t fit together. There were sparks in there, points of light that I could see shining through, but the rest of it kind of resembled the grey fluff that comes out of the vacuum cleaner.
Many times I thought I should just give up on it, but I couldn’t. There were other stories I wanted to write, and I felt that they were being held up. There was a pipeline of stories and the others couldn’t move until I got the first one out of the way. I wrote myself notes about it: “Write linking passages! Develop the characters! Polish the dialogue! Make it sing!” But each time I worked on that story I couldn’t make it into what I wanted it to be. And still it sat there, mostly in my mind but also on scraps of paper and in a muddled Word document, refusing to go away until I cracked the code, discovered the secret or turned the right key.
Well, this week the key turned. It’s almost the end of my holidays and I’ve been feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my creative endeavours. There’s been baking and blogging and sewing but nothing BIG and EXCITING and INSPIRATIONAL! I got out my notes, the whole jumbled bag of them, and started sorting through everything I’d written, not just to do with the story but everything and anything. I found little snippets of things to use, to work into the story. I was resigned to it being a mediocre story, perhaps only a novella; the main thing was to get it done. I sorted the notes out and left them on the table. Then I went into town to do some mundane tasks.
While I was in town I decided to have a coffee. I always need something to read while I’m in a café, so I bought a copy of a magazine called womankind. I’d bought it once before and loved that it had longish articles that posed interesting questions. It also has really beautiful illustrations, photos and art. It’s worth buying for the art alone. I drank my coffee and read an article entitled “The Freedom to Fail”, which, in a nutshell, looks at life from a different angle and asks why we are driven to succeed all the time. It suggests that we should try things because they have worth, meaning for us, even if society judges us to have failed. When success doesn’t matter, the article says, you can truly do anything you like and find it valuable and rewarding.
The article also quoted Elizabeth Gilbert. I somehow missed the whole Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon and read the book only after I’d heard her give a TED talk on creativity. I remember her saying in that talk that she believed creativity/inspiration/ideas sit out there in the ether and kind of rush into you, and it’s up to you whether you act on them. Remembering that made me go and buy her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Then I went home and started reading it. Writers, artists, creatives, if you are stuck, read this book. It will tell you things you already know but have forgotten. It will remind you of the joys of creativity, the excitement of inspiration. Most importantly, it will make you get off the couch and do something just for the love of doing it.
I hadn’t got very far before I was inspired to open my computer, go through those notes on the table and just start writing something, anything. I looked at the 35,000 words I had already and decided the tense was wrong. So I went through the whole thing methodically and started to change the tense. It wasn’t terribly creative labour. It was grunt work, a process, but it put me back in touch with the original work and made me see again that there was something there. Buried deep under the rubble there was a jewel to polish. When I’d had enough of fixing the tenses, I shut the computer down. And that’s when the key turned.
The minute I switched off the computer, inspiration hit me in the head. It not only hit me in the head; it flooded my brain with light and colour and understanding and I started to laugh out loud, alone in my lounge room, like a mad woman. And even then I considered not acting on it, not bothering to restart my computer. I thought about going to make a cup of tea and then doing something else instead. But I forced myself to sit down again and begin to write. The inspiration was to totally change the framing of the story, to tell it using an entirely different format that allows the story to be as personal as it needs to be, allows conversations to flow in a way they hadn’t before, allows me to add in all sorts of mini stories and anecdotes that didn’t sit together previously.
So I started to write in the new way, rearranging, embellishing, polishing, and I felt ridiculously elated, as if I’d swallowed a bubble of pure happiness. I saw how it all could work. I wrote for a couple of hours. This morning I woke up feeling nervous and excited. I tingled with anticipation. It was the same feeling, I realised, as being in love, starting a beautiful love affair, except this time the love was for a creative project. This was the book I wanted to write. This was the book I wanted to read. The emphasis on I is intentional because after years of waiting I’ve cracked the code, turned the key, discovered the secret: I’m doing it for me, because I love it, because it makes me happy. And because I can.