Much as I always wanted to, I didn’t think I would ever finish a novel, let alone get anyone to be remotely interested in publishing it, so now that my first novel is about to be published, I’m still a bit amazed that it happened at all. Writing a novel always somehow felt like an unrealistic goal, and other new writers’ hair- raising accounts of trying to get published are so forbidding and desolate that you’d be forgiven for thinking that anyone would even bother trying, let alone me. And besides, I have a busy, absorbing job, three kids, a long suffering spouse and a mortgage – basically all the stuff of life, which while mostly lovely, can lead to the ditching of even the longest-held and most precious of aspirations.
And besides, much as I have often felt compelled to write, and much as it contains secret pleasures that are difficult to explain, that’s not to say that I always like doing it. In my experience, it is often a deeply frustrating activity. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake off my regular dismay at the inadequacy of language and my equally inadequate ability to manipulate it. I hear other writers express similar feelings – that even their best writing will never be anything more than the most deficient traces of the things that sing inside their souls. Gustav Flaubert says ‘language is like a cracked kettle on which writers beat out tunes for bears to dance to while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ It is a source of fretfulness to me that I hear the echoes of Flaubert’s kettle in the clicking of my own keyboard. But with all its frustrations and imperfections, it’s also a source of delight and inspiration to me that writers continue to write, or at least to try.
And that’s what writing is. It’s trying – in both senses of the word. Trying to find meaning, trying to capture a moment, trying to find the best way to say something, trying to connect, to tell a story. It is very hard work. It’s difficult to begin, and it’s easy to give up.
A few years ago I found myself confiding in my husband about my persistent regret: how I always thought I would write a novel, and how by then I thought I probably never would. I had made a few furtive, false starts. But each time, life, work, family, exhaustion and uncertainty got in the way. Paradoxically, I was engaged in a lot of non-fiction writing as part of my work as an academic, and I often ran seminars, retreats and workshops to help others with their writing goals, but somehow this productivity did not spill over into the energy I needed to realise my secret ambition.
‘If you really want to write a novel, then why don’t you just do it?’ my husband challenged. ‘I never see you writing. You never make time for it.’
‘But I’m too busy,’ I moaned. ‘And besides, I’m not good enough!’
‘So what?’ He replied, refusing to indulge my insecurities. ‘Lots of people are busy and don’t think they’re good enough, and it hasn’t stopped them. Doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to try.’
I’m not exactly sure why this tough-love pep talk turned out to be so effective. Perhaps I had been waiting for permission. Maybe I needed someone to help me to face down the self-doubt that I imagine haunts all writers. It could have been the timing. In any event, something changed for me after that conversation: I started writing in earnest. Within a couple of years I had something that approximated a first draft. While the journey to publication took much longer, and is a story in itself, the point I think, is pretty simple: I had to decide that I was going to do it, I had to make time for it in my life and I finally had to dismiss the myth that one day, inspiration would land on me like a solid object – and that I’d suddenly write an entire book through the night like Rumplestilskin spinning gold from hay. In my experience, inspiration does not strike in this way. Rather, day-to-day life seeps into the fabric of your story organically and accidentally.
I didn’t set out to write about memory, forgetting, loss and letting go, but at the time, my beloved Dad had begun to suffer from Alzheimer’s and so those themes crept into the writing without my meaning them to, and pretty soon I realised that they were going to be very important dimensions of the story that began to unfold.
I have had loads of help in my journey to publication: A childhood that was filled with books and stories, a hugely supportive, enthusiastic family, a brilliant agent (Jo Unwin) who was prepared to work with a callow fiction-writing novice like myself, and a professional life based in the University of Limerick, which itself is a very special and creative place, replete with the feeling that each of us who works and learns there is more than our day job. All of these were wonderful tailwinds. Nevertheless, writing doesn’t contain any shortcuts, at least none that I know of. It takes a big commitment.
Sucker for punishment that I am, I’m onto my second novel now, and while writing remains magical, it’s also still full of struggle. My very rewarding day job and my family continue to be the focus of most of my attention and energy. In order to integrate writing into my life, I need to cordon off time in which to do it, and at least now I know what that takes. So even if I’m wrecked from my day at the office; even if – once dinner is cleared and homework is done – the opening theme tune to The Big Bang is starting to waft seductively from the television; even if I have no clue about what I’m going to write next; on my good days, I will resist all temptations in order to keep at it. There are still false starts, frustrations, rewrites, obstacles, and, I’m afraid, a fair amount of goofing off, despite my best intentions. But I’m also holding out the hope that if I stick with it, every so often the creative act of writing will offer me up its gifts, which are the moments in the thick of it when everything suddenly makes a certain kind of bright and delightful sense.
(c) Sarah Moore Fitzgerald
Sarah Moore Fitzgerald is a professor and associate Vice President at the University of Limerick. She has authored/co-authored several non-fiction books on academic writing, learning and teaching in higher education (including The Ultimate Study Skills Handbook and The Handbook of Academic Writing) and has been appointed chair of Ireland’s recently established National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. Her first novel, ‘Back to Blackbrick’ was published on Feb 7 by Orion Publishers.