Applying The Seat of My Trousers To The Seat of My chair ….
Kingsley Amis once famously said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” In other words, a writer has to be practical and actually write to succeed. It seems obvious. But it’s easier said than done. I have written four novels: one is still in my drawer, two are published, a fourth is due out at the beginning of next year, and I am working on a fifth. However, every time I set out to write a new novel, I struggle to apply the seat of my trousers (or skirt or dress as the case may be) to the seat of my writing chair. Why?
Well, unlike some writers, I don’t prepare intricate plans or complicated plots before I begin. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a vague idea, and sometimes not even that. I simply make up my story as I go along. It’s not very scientific but its the only way I can do it. And I am comforted by the fact that there are other writers who work like this. For some of us it is as Raymond Chandler once said, “If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.”
However, making up your novel as you go along is scary stuff. Every time I aim to start the thought of writing thousands and thousands of words and ending up with a story no one wants to read, or even no story, immobilises me. What if I have nothing new to say? What if I’ve used up all my creativity – I fear this even though I believe Maya Angelou was correct when she said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Again and again I avoid applying the seat of my trousers to that chair. But, eventually, after days and weeks, sometimes months, of procrastination, when I can’t put it off any longer, I finally make myself sit down at my keyboard and dive in.
Once I start I don’t stop. I write as fast as I can for six hours every day. I have the weekend off and start all over again, and again and again. I try not to edit as I go because I don’t want to waste time looking for a perfect sentence or word in a section which I may later edit out. My goal is to get down as many paragraphs and chapters as possible. Eventually, after five or six months, or longer, I have a first draft of my novel in front of me. By now, however, I feel about one hundred years old and as if half my hair has fallen out. Plus, my friends think I’ve moved because they’ve not seen me for so long and my family are worried about my health as I’ve started talking to myself. Worse though, I am sick of the sight of my novel. I am, as we Scots say, scunnered with the thing. But this passes. Because for me writing a novel is bit like I imagine being hooked on a drug. I can’t leave it alone for long. Little by little I become engrossed in the writing again.
I start sifting, combing, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing, crafting and shaping – what T.S. Elliot called “the frightful toil of critical labour”. But I don’t find this stage toil. This is the stage I love. I edit for meaning and context and imagery and rhythm and sense. Chapter by chapter I develop my characters’ stories and pull the strands of my plot together. I link the various themes and place my red herrings and do all the other stuff I need to grip my reader. I am as excited as the gambler who waits for the silver ball spinning in the roulette wheel to drop. The possibilities are endless. And I never want to stop writing. But the story has to end, readers rightly expect it.
So, eventually, when I think my story is finally finished, and even though I know its still not perfect – perfection is the voice of oppression, isn’t it? – I reluctantly write that last word. It’s time for my story to stand on its own two legs. Sink or swim. I feel sad but not for too long. I know another vague idea will come along soon. And when it does, once again I’ll make myself apply the seat of my trousers to the seat of my writing chair and face that blank page along with my fears. Why do I do that? Because if I’m really lucky, I’ll be able make a totally new story come to life again and that possibility makes it worth taking the risk.
What about you? Would you take a risk to do the thing you love? If you are a creative sort of person, do you think being creative has to involve taking chances? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do leave a comment 🙂
Marianne Wheelaghan is our Featured Author for November.
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