What you wrote yesterday is rubbish.
It can’t be. Yesterday it was wonderful.
You try reading it again, but you can only get halfway. It’s flat and forced and so dull that your stomach twists and the truth comes through you like a flush of heat: it is rubbish.
What were you thinking? You were thinking you could write? You were thinking you could make something that lived? Yesterday when you wrote this you had the feeling that finally now, here, you were getting it right. At last the words were coming in a voice that was yours and you had that indescribable sense of lift in your spirit, that finally, after so many attempts, this was really working. These were your characters, this was how they spoke, here was their story and you were telling it. Maybe it was the best thing you’d ever written, even if that only meant it was the first thing you didn’t feel ashamed of afterward. Maybe, in the giddy excitement of having at last written something wonderful, and having spent so long in the absolute aloneness of writing, you couldn’t help yourself, you made the calamitous mistake and showed it to a friend and yes, they said, yes, it was wonderful. They absolutely loved it and wanted more.
But here, today, you know it’s no good.
It’s worse than no good. It’s rubbish.
And here’s the fork in the road.
It seems to me that this is where the real writing begins.
This is where those who are going to write books stay in the chair. They face that terrible truth, but they don’t walk away. Maybe they sigh or curse or throw something. Maybe they bang a flat hand down on the desk or push their hands through their hair. Maybe they lean forward so they’re inches away from the screen or the page and give it an unholy piece of their mind.
But they stay in the chair.
Then, slowly, sometimes very slowly, because they’re still in that chair, and maybe just because of simple human stubbornness, an outright well-damn-you refusal to be defeated, or because for reasons that are entirely unreasonable and somewhere inside you you know this matters far too much, because somewhere in the mysteries of our own passion and need we just can’t get up out of that chair and walk away, the miracle occurs. We look at the rubbish we wrote and we think: if I delete that line it’s a bit better.
Not much. The whole thing is still rubbish. But there’s another bit down here that’s, well, not dreadful.
And we read down and see: In that sentence there, that’s not the right word, that’s not exactly what I meant, that’s not how she holds her head when she enters a room. And we find a better word, a better way of saying.
We stay in the chair.
This year marks thirty years that I have been trying to stay in the chair. The first thing to say is that it doesn’t get easier. Often, in workshops or classes I have met beginning writers who suppose that across the bridge of publication everything changes. In this version of how things are, once you have a book published the next time you sit down you know you’re good. A reader, an editor, perhaps even a reviewer has said so. You know you can do it, and you write with fluency and naturalness and command.
This may be so for some writers. But none that are any good.
In the thirty years the thing that I’ve learned is to work within the voices of doubt. I’ve learned that writing is so hard, so constant and arduous a spirit-wrestle, so against-the-odds and full of defeats that any normal person would give up.
But, for as long as humanly possible, writers don’t. They negotiate terms with doubt. It’s still there, still potent but not paralysing.
So every day you still work within the company of the voice that says, Is this any good? And, Why are you doing this?
But because you’ve gone through the experience of rejecting yesterday’s wonderful passage, because you’ve faced that with a kind of brutal honesty, and come to realise that that struggle is actually an essential part and proof of all vitality, that in fact far better than anyone else you know the weaknesses and strengths of your own work, because by the time your book comes out you yourself are already thinking: that wasn’t so great, the next one, the next one will be the one, with the next one, dear God, finally, you will get it right, because of all this, and more, you go back to your desk.
You sit in the chair.
(c) Niall Williams
Niall Williams international best-selling FOUR LETTERS OF LOVE will be re-issued in January as a Picador Classic. A tremendous honour, it has a foreword by John Hurt. http://www.panmacmillan.com/