Are you a paranoid writer? I am. I’m worse than that – I’m paranoid, impulsive perfectionist. If you have personality problems as a writer, you should feel better about yourself already – at least you’re not me! Though I’m usually nice and a pleasant person to be around when I’m writing my first draft. Well … not exactly nice and pleasant – but enthusiastic and positive. At this stage I laugh a lot, tell people how happy I am with my writing and the entire universe. Hell, I don’t even mind marking my students’ papers, which have nothing to do with my book. I find positive explanations for everything (even marking papers, which normally brings me to tears, gives me tantrums and makes me generally question the purpose of life on earth). I tell myself that even marking papers (have I mentioned how much I dislike doing this?) can have some positive bearing on my book because … well … it brings me money. This is when my partner Shamir, our dog Humphrey, my friends and BFs find me fun to have around. This when Humphrey likes to help me with my writing, curled up by my desk every day at dawn. He Likes to be my muse, finds the process inspiring, and feels quite accomplished and superior to other dogs – and definitely far superior to the two evil cats next door.
This period lasts about a year, maybe a year and a half, depending on how long the book is and how much time I can steal for my writing away from – you know – marking my students’ papers.
Then sometime not long after feeling like a complete genius – the first draft of my book always makes feel like that – and an extremely skilled writer, the depressed, self-loathing, tormented romantic artist emerges from the dark crevices of my psyche. He tells me, in plain terms, that I am totally deluded, that I have no skill – or that if I do it hasn’t shown up as yet – and that what I thought was a work of genius is – let’s be honest – a passable first draft.
If I could only tell you how much I hate that dark romantic super-literary critic! But, alas, he is often right, especially in that phase of my writing. He tells me, ‘Go and read your draft, and you’ll see what I see.’ So I go and read my draft and it is no longer the work of a genius but a disappointing piece of writing which no longer embodies any of my ideas and impressions that so beautifully showed up in my mind yet are bereft of beauty on paper or the computer screen. It has all been lost in translation from my imagination or – dare I say it – my soul. The draft is worthless, I tell myself, and here I briefly become depressed. And when I get depressed the marking of students’ papers is no longer a means of supporting my writing but some hellish punishment for crimes in past lives. I walk the streets like the overwrought embodiment of some romantic poet tortured by her muse (but not Humphrey). This is when Humphrey decides that writing is too exhausting and doesn’t bother waking up with me anymore at dawn, stops curling up under my desk, and isn’t sure anymore whether he wants to be a writer – or even write ever again!
Then another person enters my writing process – the princess-warrior. I will not let the romantic/poet/depressing critic destroy me, I tell myself. I will slay the dragons of self-doubt! I put on my armour of writing skills, I read the book, re-read it again and again and again. I’ve read the great ones who, of course, always got it right. I remind myself that Garcia-Marquez often wrote seven versions of a book, each version with endless drafts and re-writes; that Joseph Conrad was generally depressed about his writing; and that Flaubert couldn’t sleep for months because of one particular word in Madame Bovary which didn’t really fit in the novel. So I do the same: I work, I work, I work more on my book. I wake up in the middle of the night with an urgent correction in mind which cannot possibly wait until the morning – unless, of course, I am willing to let the universe as I know it perish. This continues for another two years or more. Somewhere toward the end of this process, I wake up at night and go to my computer to make another extremely urgent correction, only to see that this correction was already made months ago. Slowly, very slowly, I begin to admit the possibility that the book might be finished or, at least, ready to be shown to someone who can help with final advice before I send it to a publisher or an agent. At this stage I often impulsively sent the manuscript to an agent or a publisher then find a fatal imperfection in the manuscript and beg them not to read it yet because – you know – there is this one paragraph, this one word, this one idea that needs more work. This is where I’m at now. As for Humphrey, he is thinking already of the next book – first draft of course!