What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing

Progress report: I started writing The Jane Austen Project in the start of 2008. It is now, as I hardly need point out, more than halfway through 2010. I had hoped to complete a rough draft by the end of 2008. So much for that!

I have just finished Chapter 26 and am starting work on Chapter 27. In the “big file” where I combine the chapters (each chapter is composed as an individual Word file, as it seems less cumbersome that way) I have about 127,000 words or 371 double-spaced pages. My guess would be that 27,000 of those words are excess, but the number could well be higher. A harder question to answer is how badly flawed is it structurally (for that it is flawed is not in question). How much work will it take to get into the shape I want, assuming I get to the end? (I am pretty sure I will get to the end, which is something I have doubted from time to time.) And will I know “in the shape I want” when I see it?

If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.

Lady Catherine’s view of music was more or less my own view of novel-writing, perhaps less baldly expressed, until I actually came to try it. Now I know better. How do people actually manage to organize their thoughts, marshal their energies, keep their metaphors in good repair, and sustain this effort for several hundred pages? Having a computer certainly makes things technically easier — I read once that Sonya Tolstoy copied out War and  Peace for Leo seven times, for he not surprisingly kept making revisions — but the basic problem is the same.  How do you keep it all in your head as a unified work, unruly enough to be a living thing and yet controlled enough to be readable?

I wrote from childhood. It seemed as natural as reading, as breathing. But now, when I think about it, it does not. It seems absolutely terrifying. What do I mean by terrifying? I will try to explain. It’s like a long walk in a dark wood, Blair-Witchy, night sounds all around you, cobwebs in the dark, twigs snapping under foot, a sense of barely reined-in fear. Each step is manageable, but then there is another one after that, and another. You’re very alone, and it’s dark. To turn back is impossible, to keep going seems unimaginable, but you cannot stop either. Speared on the horns of this trilemma, you proceed. Step, breathe, proceed.

I kept thinking this dark-wood sensation would leave me in time, that after a while the process of writing, of finding out what it is I am going to come out with next, would start to seem less dark, less mysterious and unpredictable and scary, but 127,000 words later, it has not, and I begin to see that it must be part of the experience.

Or not. Maybe other people know what they are doing in a way that I do not?


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