Do you ever watch Murder She Wrote on the telly? The excellent and unfailingly elegant Angela Lansbury's character, Jessica Fletcher, is often seen hard at work in her occupation as a writer of murder mysteries. A frequent joke surfacing in the series is about insensitive interruptions and intrusions into her work. In an episode I saw this autumn, the sister of the local sheriff ran into personal difficulties and arrived at his office. The sheriff was naturally heavily occupied with his professional duties, so he had the bright idea of dropping his sister off with Jessica Fletcher, who was clearly doing nothing in particular. This is a writer's joke, and it certainly has a foundation in reality. It applies pretty much to everyone who works from home. But we the viewers knew Jessica should not have been interrupted. She was writing a book and had a deadline to fulfil. She was hard at work. At her typewriter. She had to stop typing to look after the sheriff's sister.
Some years ago I had a regular duty manning the premises of a sisterhood in a nearby town. At one point I excused myself from fulfilling this obligation, explaining that I was writing a book and had a deadline looming.
The sister to whom I explained this was puzzled. She asked me, "Can't you just bring your laptop and write it here?"
This is Jessica Fletcher syndrome, in which writing = typing. When someone is writing a book, they're hard at it, industriously typing. If they aren't typing, either they've finished or they're slacking or procrastinating.
I suppose everyone is different, but certainly in my life this is not the way writing books works at all.
Just at the present time, I am writing a book. I finished the last one in September or thereabouts, and started on this one in October. It's a short, devotional volume, not a massive tome, so only about 30,000 words. My deadline is the first week of January; my editor wants it on his desk when he comes back from his time off at Christmas.
I am never late with a manuscript, because I have a good grasp of how tight publishing schedules are, and how much pressure it puts on the editor and copy editor and marketing people and pretty much everybody if a book comes in late. Somebody has to absorb the hassle, so I try not to generate it. Besides, they've paid me.
So my aim is to have this book all done and dusted a month from now; sometime in mid-December or so. I'm well on track to achieve this.
And every day, since October, I have been writing this book. What does that look like? If you came in to the room where I am, would you find me assiduously typing, fingers flying across the keyboard as I sit in ferocious concentration at my writerly desk? If I have been writing it every day since October, surely I'd have knocked out about a hundred thousand words by now?
But writing, of course, is not like that at all. The well-worn metaphor of the iceberg will do just fine. Typing is only the very tip of the iceberg. Submerged below the surface where nobody can see it is the main body of the thing. Because by far the most time-consuming aspect of writing is thinking.
This book I'm writing has got to be good quality; that's what the publisher was expecting when he approached me to take on the project. Like all my work it's spiritual — Christian. It's written to bring to life, in the reader's imagination, the wisdom and truth of the gospel; to deepen and enliven faith. It won't do that if it's shallow tripe written in a spare moment off the top of my head.
So what I've been doing since October is going down deeper . . . deeper . . . deeper . . . into the reflective process, immersing myself in what I am creating, like someone going down into a mine.
I concentrate and focus and burrow down into the thing, searching and feeling for the right words, for ideas, for the right feeling. What I'm shaping has to ring true, to move you and surprise you and challenge you and sometimes make you smile. There's no formula or convention for it, nothing tried and true; it is in every sense original material. That's been the trademark of my work.
And during this time, there are moments when I've got it! When the thing I want to say and the way I want to say it all come together into something fresh and alive — and if I don't get it down right then, it goes stale, goes off like manna, and I lose it and have to patiently start over again. That's when the typing comes into the process; at such moments I need to be able to get to my laptop and really concentrate until I've got it down. Sometimes that's all of one day, sometimes it's eleven o'clock at night — but it's very often at three or five o'clock in the morning. I move out from sharing sleeping accommodation with my husband when I'm writing a book, because the writing process doesn't stop during the night. The subconscious mind, which is the dreaming mind, is where books come from, so often the most vivid thoughts and expressions occur in the middle of the night.
So that means, from October to mid-December I'm drifting, thinking, drifting, thinking, avoiding people and keeping a discipline of solitude. I never go far from my laptop, so that when an idea comes together I can get it down. But often I'm just waiting and questing and exploring. I play a lot of solitaire, watch a lot of short YouTube videos — things that keep me there and available but that can easily be dropped and left.
So I am using the keyboard a lot of the time — so much so that I've semi-frozen both shoulders and I'll be heartily glad when I've got this done. I'm also very tired — from thinking, concentrating, holding my focus in place. It feels like treading water but high up in the air; maintaining an orientation of thought. Quite similar to being bored or exhausted.
I'm just over halfway through, and it really is not easy. I find it's got harder as I've got older — harder to maintain the focus and the immersion, almost like holding your breath or something. Or stalking an elusive prey.
It's not the same as typing, anyway.