I love reading about how authors I admire write and deal with being writers, and this passage from Agatha Christie – whom I admire as a person and as a plotter -- is one of my favorites. I find it reassuring.
“…there is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, waling about, or casting yourself down upon the sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off. Then you interrupt someone who is busy, Max [her second husband] usually, because he is so good-natured, and you say:
“It’s awful, Max, do you know I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it anymore! I shall never write another book.”
“Oh yes you will,” Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first, but now his eyes stray back to his own work while he talks soothingly.
“But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.”
“You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.”
“It’s different this time,” I say with positive assurance.
But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again; such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that will be the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through. It is rather like putting the ferrets in to bring out what you want at the end of the rabbit burrow. Until there has been a lot of subterranean disturbance, until you have spent long hours of utter boredom, you can never feel normal. You can’t think what you want to write, and if you pick up a book you find you are not reading it properly…you are possessed by a feeling of paralyzed hopelessness.
Then, for some unknown reason, an inner starter gets you off at the post. You begin to function, you know that “it” is coming, the mist is clearing up. You know suddenly, with absolute certitude, just what A is going to say to B. You can walk out of the house, down the road, talking to yourself violently, repeating the conversation….you come home bursting with pleasure; you haven’t done anything at all yet, but you are -- triumphantly -- there.”
--Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
My favorite parts are her wailing “But this time it’s true!” I love that discounting of the past and even common sense, that total immersion in how she felt at that moment. But what helps me is the metaphor about the “subterranean disturbance” and her young husband’s (he was 14 years younger than she was and a brilliant archeologist) advice:
“You’ll just have to get through this phase.”
I really get into trouble as a writer when I try to skip that phase – when it feels SO uncomfortable to have nothing to say and feel like I never WILL have anything to say that I force the ideas, rush into writing before the scenes and scraps of conversation have appeared….before those “inner starters” Agatha Christie talks about pop into my mind, before I have that “inner certitude.” I hate that feeling – the feeling that my ideas are no good, that I have nothing to say --- so much that I used to just start typing (putting down words that may have sounded good but had no real inspiration or feeling behind them)—and then spend months and months rewriting to clean up the mess! Now, I wait. Or try to.
(To be continued: Next time I'll write about how I can and sometimes do encourage those "inner starters" and what I should do once they arrive....how do YOU get started on a big project?)