I’m talking about a novel but the same must apply to any of the arts; painting a picture, scripting a play, devising dance; a solo act. You are expressing ideas through your own imagination, a very personal act. Research may be involved, but the primary force of the piece is you, yourself, creating characters and plot, exploring themes and emotions. For this you need a good dose of self belief.
As I attempt to finish my latest novel, ‘The Greenhouse Legacy’, I am relieved to find that well-known authors struggle to banish doubt. David Nicholls speaks of the challenge of each book, that he is no more confident than when he started. ‘Writing a new novel was completely terrifying after the great success of ‘One Day’ but isn’t it always. In this case how do you repeat – the daunting prospect of failure isn’t good, isn’t funny’.
He managed to gather together enough self belief for ‘Us’, another great novel at the same time writing a prodigious number of screenplays. I look forward to reading his latest novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ which is already being serialised on BBC Radio 4.
I am also reassured when he says that; ‘It can be 10.30 in the morning and I don’t know who the characters are or where the story’s going and every book on my shelf is better than what I’m writing.’ I want to cry out, ’so true, so true!’ For that’s how I most often feel. Desperate for the boost of self belief.
There are times of purpose and excitement. ’The Greenhouse Legacy’ began confidently as a frightening incident in a greenhouse. This image was inspired and fostered by the paintings of Eric Ravilious. I came upon his work as a postcard picked out at the Tate, ‘The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes’. The innocent title of this painting doesn’t reflect, for me, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the intensity of the way in which each ‘room’ in the greenhouse is repeated as if there is no end. The tomatoes overhang, the pots are in serried rows as if waiting for something or someone. There is a feeling of loss amongst this ordered environment. What is hidden inside this place of beauty and peace?
Hence the opening of the novel in the present day where the deja vu recollection has a traumatic effect, forcing the woman, Gina, to think back to the people who were the cause of the event which brought this about. This led me to 1938, a young woman marrying a man that she hardly knows to ‘better herself’. The story follows the parallel lives of two women in different eras, both with desire thwarted – the illicit love affair between the older woman’s mother and grandfather, and her own love for her childhood friend who is gay. Then to my horror I realised that I was creating a family saga, divorced from my initial idea; the exploration of the effects of secrets and lies on loss and memory, memory as a healer and a destroyer.
Antithesis of Self Belief
This is where self doubt, always nibbling at my heels, felt as if it had snapped off my legs. Panic set in. I tried to change track, writing from the point of view of Gina in the present day and interspersing her mother, Elspeth’s story. That didn’t work as the immediacy, the individual voices, were lost. More panic for where to go next? Could I abandon my characters and plot, shred the 30,000 words already written.
Kate Atkinson writes in the notes to ‘Transcription’, amongst other advice, that she starts her writing day by ‘reading what she wrote the day before or even the whole novel so far’. But whatever she excises, often the favourite bits, she keeps in a folder; nothing wasted, no regrets. Could I excise or park all those words?
I went back and re-read all that I had written. Was it so bad? Self belief kicked in alongside the need to write, for once that bug has bitten, you are condemned to the task.
Chinua Achebe says that ‘writing for me is like receiving a term of imprisonment … you know what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes. So it is both pleasurable and difficult’.
My difficulties, therefore, had to be overcome which is when friends and colleagues were at my side with constant encouragement. They bolstered my self belief and gave good advice. Nothing huge has been eliminated and I am back on track. Two parts, with the original scene as a prologue, became the solution.
The novel is not complete. And at those times when self doubt and fear that it never will be finished or that what I’m churning out is rubbish, I am again reassured by other authors who have shared their struggles.
Tayari Jones who writes in the acknowledgements at the end of ‘An American Marriage’, her thanks to those who ‘believed in me during the dark moments in which I struggled to believe in myself’. That the novel won the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction proves how necessary friends and colleagues can be. It is a wonderful book which I will reread and recommend.
I look back to the other novels I’ve written, remember the same doubts. This boosts my morale, my self belief, for surely I can do it again.
And once more I agree with David Nicholls chastising himself in December 2017; ‘So I must stop whining and moaning, and just get on with it.’