What Rough Beast
Letting go of what you have already written and starting a new creative project
Guest Post by Sandra Jensen
I finished my novel earlier this year – well, I say ‘finished’, but are novels ever finished? I know there’ll be more work to do in the process of publication, and even when published I may not feel the book is truly done. I suspect it’s the same with all creative writing. Apparently, after successful stage productions, Tennessee Williams still felt A Streetcar Named Desire could do with some tweaking. And Graham Greene said: “The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.”
So on that happy note, I’ve been thinking about how we move on to other projects?
For short stories or flash fiction, that’s relatively easy. But a novel? Even when I sense I’ve come to the last draft, I tell myself I’ll take just one more look, perhaps make a little edit…and another, et cetera. Our creative works are our children, and for many of us (Tennessee Williams!) it’s a challenge to let them go. But like children, there comes a time when they need to spread their wings and fly.
Writing a novel is usually a long and gruelling journey. I’m wrung out by the time I’ve managed to let the book go. I find I can’t write—anything at all. Flash, short stories, nothing. Sometimes I think, that’s it, I’m never going to write again. Ever.
‘the first step was to talk to my partner about the idea, the various incidents involved in a possible plotline. I find just talking can help me clarify things, even if the other person says nothing.’
But slowly, my mind, or rather my muse (my mind is not always friend during these times, at least the critical part isn’t) starts, well, musing. As my novel was based on my own experiences as a young teenager, the first thought was a sequel, a stand-alone story but a sequel. “Boring” was the second thought. Surely I should (note the ‘should’) write something completely different? But I kept coming back to this idea. I have, in fact, some very rough pages I wrote donkey’s years ago about the later period in my protagonist’s life, so it’s not the first time I’ve considered the subject matter. But I wanted a different slant. Maybe I could base it on a Greek myth?
I wasn’t convinced. Not at all. Many writers swear walking helps with ideas but what if you have a chronic illness like ME/CFS where walking isn’t always an option? I returned to scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, dealing with my endless health woes (prolapsed disks! Ovarian cysts! Burning Mouth Syndrome! I should write a book, ha ha).
I then realised there was a grant application I was eligible to apply for, one I’d completely forgotten about. The deadline was in less than a week. Impossible, I thought. The application would need a description and synopsis of the project at the very least. But I went for it, frantically contacting my writer friends—and Sam Ruddock here at Story Machine—to see if they’d have time to review what I’d come up with, or just talk. I’d need all the help I could get given how last minute it was. I stuck with the sequel idea as I had little confidence I’d have a new idea in a few days, let alone write coherently about it.
But the first step was to talk to my partner about the idea, the various incidents involved in a possible plotline. I find just talking can help me clarify things, even if the other person says nothing. But he did say something, he said, “It sounds like a fairy tale”. Which was, to me, a light-bulb moment. I’d thought of a Greek myth, why not something in this vein?
I sent my rough notes to my writer friends, and asked what they thought, and if they knew of a fairy tale I could work the story around. One did come up with something wonderful, but I realised in the short time I had, I wouldn’t be able to write a workable description. Another friend, said, “What about a heroine’s journey?” I did some reading to learn about it and suddenly the idea made perfect, beautiful sense. I could have my protagonist break away from the mother she feels both let down and eclipsed by, setting off with an illusion of a perfect world and herself as entirely independent and all-powerful. But when she’s faced with unexpected events and ordeals she descends into crisis and all seems lost until she opens herself to the support and friendship of wise(r) women who guide her towards self-knowledge and self-love.
Now, throughout this time, I was simply focussed on ensuring my grant application was well-argued, not what I’d actually end up writing. But once it was sent off I realised something unexpected had happened: I was excited about this new project. Very excited. The process fired me up and because I needed to write a tight synopsis, I could feel the story inside me, not just as a thought or an idea, but a seed, one that that had germinated.
I’ve talked before about the benefits of a making a grant application, that even if an application isn’t successful, it is alwaysuseful, but this time it truly surprised me. So, if you are looking for ways to move onto another novel, perhaps this will work for you too?
If there isn’t a grant you feel able to apply for, or it’s too daunting, research novel competitions. Some don’t need much material for you to enter. There are also competitions just for the first page (for example the First Pages Prize), use these as a way to get started. Deadlines can be such a powerful tool. That being said, once you do have an idea you feel you can nourish, sometimes writing to order can have the opposite effect and kill the idea. ‘What rough beast…’ as Yeats wrote in his beautiful poem The Second Coming. Let it be a rough beast. Let it slouch. Perhaps don’t even send what you write to the competition or grant body, just use the process to get going.
And, talk to friends. Even if you’re only ruminating, if they are good listeners, it will nearly always help. For me it’s best to talk to writer friends, or those, like my partner, with a creative mind (he used to write film scripts) and don’t feel any need to hijack the conversation. The main thing is letting yourself bounce from one idea to another in a supportive space. I don’t do this productively on my own, it’s as if the thoughts hit one side of my skull and bang against the other, slowly disintegrating until there’s nothing left.
If you feel you can write, but can’t take the leap into a novel, try the page a day I talk about here. It may well lead to an idea for a longer work. Or look for themed calls in literary magazines as a way to jump start an idea.
I’ve also learned time doing nothing is rarely unproductive for a writer. If you can’t manage any of the above—other than the scrolling through Instagram bit—trust that when the time is right, something will occur to you, even if borne out of frustration, inertia and boredom. But, if you can, keep reading novels, keep watching (good!) films and (good!) box sets. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés said, ‘Above all, the soul wants stories… [to] immerse in the undergirdings and nuances of another human being’s wild fate.’
So feed your soul, and soon your soul will feed your muse.
This is one of a series of blogs that Sandra Jensen has written for Story Machine. You can read them here:
The Art of the Grant: How to Get Arts Council Funding to Finish Your Book
Writing When Ill: Tools for writing, no matter what
Ask an Author: You asked questions about completing your writing project. And we’ve got some answers for you.
What Rough Beast?: Letting go of what you have already written and starting a new creative project
About Sandra Jensen
Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.
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