I have been forced, in the last couple of days, to confront and to question what makes me actually sit down and write, to reflect on the compelling power of a deadline, and to wonder what is special about a promise given to someone else, rather than one made to myself.
I’m working on the first draft of my second novel. In contrast with my first, which started with a character in a particular environment around whom a plot developed, this one began with an idea born of an observation that in a group of three people there is always one on the outside. It’s taken me a while to develop the characters and I still don’t have a fully formed idea of the plot, although I have a list nearly as long as my arm of the situations through which I plan to put the protagonists.
To help me along the way, and to put me in a situation where I would be forced to formulate my ideas coherently so that I, at a minimum, knew where I was heading, I decided to have some mentoring sessions. The other main objective of pre arranged meetings was to set a deadline by which my mentor would have expected me to send her some of my new work so that we could discuss progress, as, until then, the rate at which I was producing new words was achingly slow.
For my two first mentoring sessions I was a good student, I worked on and off during the available time and produced something that wasn’t a polished final version of what might or might not be the opening chapters, but was well advanced from a clunky first draft. And then last week arrived.
With the meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning I had to send some work, something chunky enough to make talking about it worthwhile, by Monday evening. I had little in my diary for Saturday and Sunday other than a space cleared for writing time, and yet I managed to produce only a sad little trickle of words amounting to no more that a page. It was only at lunchtime on Monday, the real risk of shame in a failure to meet the agreed deadline approaching like a raring high speed train, that I finally sat down and concentrated.
I had a fantasy in my head that by the end of the day I would have several pages of typescript, and the feeble hope that it would appear without my being fully aware of where it came from. And bizarrely, that is exactly what happened. At noon when I started I had the 400 or so words that had been eked out over two days, by 5 o’clock when I had to leave for my evening class I had just over 3,500, and by midnight, after another hour of work, post class, I had nearly 4,400.
It reminded me of all those three hour exams I had to do at school, university and for my accounting qualification. I walked into the room with no idea about what I would be required to do, but the adrenalin, the pressure and the knowledge that I had a limited time to impress, gave me total concentration.
I don’t think I’ve ever written that many words on a creative piece in one day in my life before. It’s not perfect, there’s a technical issue with the flow of time and the placing of flashback, and it lacks a bit of background time and place description, but it has a definite flow and energy about it, and the infrastructure of what I wanted to convey is there.
I was really surprised when I read it through. At the risk of sounding pretentious (!), I think what the absolute requirement to produce something did was to make me write without ‘the critic’ in my head holding me back. It’s a cliché of writing courses that a writer has to deploy the creative and the critical sides of her brain at different stages of the writing process. Create a first draft and then critically improve it.
So now the search is on to work out how I can replicate that sense of urgency, that profound concentration, that silences my otherwise over active critic. And how I can give the same importance to a promise made to myself as to one made to another person.