Like many writers, I’d been working on a novel for years. The idea for it came into my head, skittered across the page for a while, then exited stage right. I dragged it back on to perform, reluctantly, for many years – and each time it looked more awkward than before, and with increasingly palpable and self-destructive stage fright.
I so wished I had allowed the creative novel-writing impetus more time and space in my life while it was fresh and energetic, rather than cowed and defeated. Six years on – and already six months into the grace period of my extended Creative Writing MA deadline, with very little developmental or restorative work on my manuscript – I was considering asking for another extension.
Except that this time there was no further extension. I had to do it by a certain date or have to postpone the MA. Perhaps with no chance of ever picking it up again if so much time had passed and I was ready to collect my pension rather than open my ‘novel file’ on my laptop by a certain date.
That certain date was six weeks away.
Denial was over. This was now or never. These are the two decisions I made – or maybe they were forces for good that I succumbed to – that helped me decide to race to the finish line of my novel.
1. I had no more excuses. I could make up some reasons for the MA administrators. I could tell my friends that I’d been busy. I could tell my writing buddies that I wasn’t ready to send them three alternative first chapters to see which one blew them away. I could tell myself in the mirror that of course I was tired and had a lot on. But those excuses had become as tired as my inclination to finish my novel. What had happened to me? Why had I let my major life plan stagnate? Why was I getting distracted and putting minor, annoying stuff ahead of what is meant to be my most important achievement? I didn’t have the heart to write to the administrators and tell them that I had failed yet again (so maybe there was an element of shame motivating me here). So, in the end, I decided to stick to the deadline.
2. I couldn’t face the smell of failure hanging over me for another 30 years. For as long as I can remember, I’d wanted to write novels. I wrote my first one aged 11, as a class exercise, and can still remember the thrill of having my little A5 pamphlet-book ‘published’ and shared around my family. [It was a murder mystery, as I was a huge Agatha Christie fan at the time. My grandad said he guessed the culprit by the beginning of chapter two. I still believe to this day he was just saying that – but was still chuffed that he’d liked my writing enough to plough through to the end.] And yet, all those years on, I still hadn’t finished a ‘real’ novel. It was as though the unfinished business of my novel pervaded every moment of my social life or down time: like a perfume that lingers, a smell that pulled me incessantly back to my vacuum of a desk. I swear my unfinished novel was a ghost that haunted every meal out, every party round friends’ houses, and every work function. It especially tainted every birthday, Christmas and New Year – which, by their very nature, mark out memorable moments on the calendar. So, I asked myself the question: for how much longer am I going to be a ‘novelist in waiting’? When is my writing going to be the leading lady on the stage of my creativity? And for how much longer am I going to blame my parents, my work, my child, my husband, my house, my car, the commuters, or the clutter in my kitchen for my non-written novel?
The answer was: no longer. So I sat down to write. I strutted back onto my stage with belief, resolve, a reinvigorated script and an unforgiving but eminently achievable deadline.