So, how do you pick yourself up when it’s all gone catastrophically wrong? What can a writer do to survive disaster and develop resilience for whatever might happen next? When Words Away regular and historical novelist Emma Darwin spent three years trying to write fiction about her famous ancestors she found herself hitting a wall time and again before finally admitting defeat. She drew on that experience for her new creative non-fiction, This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin: a writer’s journey through my family. We had a full house for the salon and writer Caroline Green joined me as guest co-chair. We talked about the evolution (see what I did there) of This Is Not a Book as well as exploring ways to navigate the peaks and troughs of a writing life.
This Is Not a Book… , was published in February. Emma’s also published two historical fiction novels, The Mathematics of Love and The Sunday Time Best Seller, The Secret Alchemy. Her blog This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. She mentors and tutors writers and has a PhD in Creative Writing.
Emma descends from a clan with their origins in the eighteenth century Midlands who all had a habit of marrying each other, (for more, read Jenny Uglow’s, The Lunar Men.) The family grew to include many significant figures from the scientific and intellectual worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Emma is the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgwood. Many of her famous relations tend to show up in other people’s biographies and are well documented in countless works of non-fiction. This, it transpired, was Emma’s problem, “the tangle was in the topic” leaving very little space in the family tree for her fiction making. She persisted because she’s always had an interest in the intellectual and social history of the family.
After her first two novels were published and she was trying to write a third novel which she and her agent agreed wasn’t working, she had to think of something else to write. While she’s always been aware of the value of her surname, her upbringing meant to talk about it more than acknowledging it was “showing off”. Cashing in on the family name was unconscionable. She knew there was no novel for her in Charles and Emma (which would have been the perfect sale), but she decided to go away and dig around in the rest of the family. She settled on the generation of Charles’ grandchildren and invented a character that could slide in amongst them. No matter what she tried - it didn’t work. Cut to three years later culminating in a cardiac episode and hospitalisation, the ordeal left Emma low on confidence. Luckily she recovered and took stock. With her health fully restored she threw the family out of the novel but still couldn’t make the story work. Turning to creative non-fiction, where boundaries are not fixed, Emma found a form for her material. She described This Is Not A Book… as a sort of “appliqué”; constructed in pieces from novel fragments, notebook scraps, images, footnotes and writing forum extracts.
Emma talked about writing in a “state of hope”. You have to believe that what you’re writing is worth it to keep going and make the piece better. Caroline likened this to living in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance. The inner critic says, “this writing is rubbish” while the other part says, “I’m going to do it anyway.” One of our salon audience added they started listening to their critical voice and noticed that it always piped up at the same time of the day, at 10pm. She now takes it as a signal that she’s probably tired and stops writing.
We chatted about the sheer boredom and hard graft of writing a long project. Don’t confuse a numb bum for boredom. Put it away, for a day or a year, if need be. Write something else for a while. Ask yourself, are you glad when you come back to the project after a good break? Writing is hard work - it demands a lot of thinking. Write what you are passionate about but beware of the danger of mistaking boredom or physical exhaustion for the wrong project. Have some faith. Writing a novel takes a long time and is relentless. Get back to the desk and stay there - be stubborn and don’t stop until it’s proven that you can’t fix it.
How do you know when it’s not working? For Emma, the words on the page are usually fine, but if the overall story is not compelling enough, i.e. there’s not enough at stake - then she knows she has a problem. It’s essential to believe that what you say has purpose and function. The work is only half finished until somebody’s reads it. What can you do when your writing has been rejected and the bubble of hope bursts? Emma recommends acting as if it hasn’t. Fake it till you make it. Have a break, recover, act as if you’re enjoying it and keep going.
If you’re overwhelmed by a project or have lost heart in your own abilities let yourself off doing a lot and do a little. Find beta readers. Make notes. Write a list of what you love or hate about the writing. Clarify the pros and cons or likes/dislikes, your fears and hopes. We also talked about some of the suggestions put forward by previous salon guests like Michèle Roberts (interrogate the problem head on and free write) and Claire Fuller (put the problem in a bracket, keep writing forward and address the issue later). Caroline recommended getting the problem out of the mulch of your head and on paper. Sometimes fear packs it bags and wanders off, especially if you’ve had a break. You may find you return to the work with a different mind set.
Emma spoke warmly of the importance of her writing friendships. Early in her career she established a strong network of writing friends via an online writing forum. Having peers who are at a similar stage has been a source of great support. It’s crucial that the group is a private place so you can establish trust and feel safe. Build a network by finding writers with similar aspirations through doing courses or workshops. Caroline noted, that it’s important to remember that even when you’re published you’ll still be vulnerable to highs and lows. Also don’t forget that the public impression you gain of an author’s life is highly curated. No one wants to put the negative stuff out there.
As Emma said, if one form of writerly courage is to be willing to kill your darlings another is to give birth to monsters. She used to tell her Open University students she’d rather see a “heroic failure than a cowardly success, because no one ever got better by only doing things they already know how to do.”
I loved our discussion and hope I’ve conveyed the essence of it. With thanks to Emma for her bravery and candour and to Caroline too for bringing her experience to the platform. Also a big thank you to our audience for being so engaged and involved.
In other news I’ve finalised our summer season. Check out the website for salons details at the Tea House Theatre Cafe with some brilliant writers, including Antonia Hodgson, Candy Gourlay and Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. Our final salon before the summer break, (SUMMER!!!! Yay), is on Mon, July 8th, so please save the date - all will be revealed shortly. We’re also running some day-long masterclasses at the London Bridge Hive led by the fab Andrew Wille. On May 11th: Density and Speed: Crafting Space and Time In Writing and on June 15th, The Craft of Revising: A Masterclass on Self-editing and Revision. Each class features a Q&A session with an industry insider.
Hope to see you at an event or around and about soon!
Links & References
emmadarwin.com, Emma’s blog & a fab resource for writers: This Itch of Writing, Caroline Green, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810 by Jenny Uglow, Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, Hilary Mantel, Joanne Harris, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Agony and The Ecstasy: Writing Sex In Fiction with Michèle Roberts, How Memory and the Past Drive a Narrative with Claire Fuller