How to Harness a Writing Task, and Ride It Home

One day, years ago, I was suddenly seized by inspiration.

  • Thursday, May 27, 2021 5:51pm
  • Arts
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By Phil Clapham

For The Beachcomber

“Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.” — Norman Mailer

So I just published a novel – which creation emerged, sputtering and wailing, from the womb in which it had gestated for a couple of long years.

The process of writing any book is a weird undertaking, and authors go about it in different ways. For some people, writing is annoyingly easy. Isaac Asimov, that ridiculously productive titan of science fiction, was once asked what he would do if he was told he had a month to live; “Type faster” was his response. Most writers, however, have to work at it — and rework, and rework. That’s assuming that the ideas actually come to you in the first place; there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

I’ve written a ton of non-fiction — a few books on whales, and innumerable scientific papers — and for me, that stuff is fairly easy to crank out. There’s some creativity involved, but a lot of non-fiction is just about organizing material in a way that makes sense and presenting it clearly for the reader.

Fiction, on the other hand, is a very different kettle of fish. [Side note for the etymologically inclined: the first recorded use of the term “kettle of fish” was in 1785, in a book recounting travels around England and Scotland. Although today we think of kettle as the small container used to boil water, the word previously referred to a much larger cooking pot.]

The evolution of my own little novel is actually a pretty good example of the contorted way a story comes together.

One day, years ago, I was suddenly seized by inspiration.

I sat myself down and disgorged from my brain some very lyrical writing about a young boy who goes into the woods at midnight, leaves an offering there, says I believe to the darkness, and is silently observed by some unnamed being in the trees.

More followed, a story told by a man whose lover was a beautiful and mysterious woman whose origin he didn’t know; somehow the two tales were connected. Where all that came from I have absolutely no idea — it was the closest I’ve ever come to the idea of being possessed by a Muse. I wrote some more, trying to understand the nature of the story, which I knew was, at its heart, a supernatural romance of some kind. But then, having neither the discipline nor the time to work on it, I let it sit. And sit.

Then sometime around 2015, I began writing a very different novel: a comedy narrated by a dog who lives with a dominatrix. For some time I was hamstrung by the belief that I needed to know the whole story before I could write it. I’m sure some authors know exactly what the beginning, middle and end of their novels are before they start writing, but I’m not one of them. However, after a while I found myself writing sections, and since one section seemed to lead to another, and another, I finally realized that I didn’t need to understand the whole thing to move forward. Somehow, the novel seemed to be writing itself, and the story gradually took shape as more was added.

But I kept returning to that earlier, lyrical text. I knew there was a wonderful tale there somewhere if only I could find it. Was there a way to fold it into the dog story? It was hard to imagine. The writing styles — comic on the one hand, lyrical and romantic on the other — were radically different. But then one day I suddenly realized — again this came out of nowhere — that this could be something that one of my main characters wrote down, in his own words, as the remembrance of a grand romance he had with the mysterious woman of the earlier story (in the novel, he reads it to the dog). That would work, wouldn’t it?

It did. And it forced me to write that tale, bit by bit, and to figure out how to weave the story into the overall plot of the novel so that the two arcs connected. As I continued to write, the tale gathered momentum, and with that my motivation to finish it duly increased. It took two years, but eventually, the whole book came together, and I am still happily astonished to hold in my hand a novel that I wrote and completed. It won’t make me a fortune, but hopefully, it will amuse and move some readers out there in the wide world.

Writing is an act of faith. Sometimes you hit a dead end, but much of the time it surprises the hell out of you. If you are fortunate and your mind is suitably engaged, a story unfolds as the tale is told. You find yourself amazed to hear your own voice describing characters who have sprung up, unbidden and from you know not where, and engaging in the most surprising acts. John Fowles, in his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, mused about the fact that sometimes his characters did things he really hadn’t expected as if they were independent beings rather than creations of the writer’s own mind. It’s true, and it’s a rather wonderful phenomenon.

There is an oft-cited quotation about why you should stop just thinking about a project, and instead, start it: Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it. Begin it now. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. These words come — sort of — from the German poet Johann Goethe. They’ve been modified over the years to suit the needs of other writers, but the basic sentiment is pretty much spot on. John Steinbeck once wrote, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

So, if you happen to be an aspiring author, the trick is to sit down and just write. If you don’t, all those ideas hiding in your head will likely never see the light of day. But if you do, the most amazing things will often come out of nowhere and leap into being. Call it Muse or call it Magic, but somehow it happens — and it’s exhilarating when it does.

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island. His novel “Jack” is published under the pseudonym Phillip Boleyn (and yes, it’s available on Amazon).


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