Thursday, 21 November 2019

Writing and typing

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.


Cheryl V. Thompson said...

Dear Penelope, at last I found you! I just learned that you have this beautiful blog and I love it.

Three years ago The Hour Before Dawn fell into my hands during a desperate moment in my life and it was such a calming and steadying presence. The community around Father John at St. Alcuin taught me how to live in the midst of family crisis, how to beg forgiveness when necessary, and how to bear with circumstances I could not change.

I now own the entire Hawk and Dove series of books and perpetually re-read them. Before I discovered your books I was already drawn to monastic life rhythms and had written a small devotional book about practicing the Divine Hours as a Protestant lay person. I was thrilled to find your books because they have helped fill out the picture of monastic life for me.

Your blog is as wise, gentle and instructive as your books. I’m so glad I found it!

The Rev. Susan Creighton said...

How nice to find a kindred soul who appreciates the value of solitaire. I play it a lot, too. And lately find that the jigsaw puzzle Microsoft so generously puts on my laptop is even more conducive to reflective thinking and meditation. The only problem is, I'm more apt to think of things to add to my "to do" list of necessary chores of maintaining house, kittens, finances, health, etc., rather than contemplating the deep life of the soul in God. Ahhh...perhaps one of these days God will remember me, and stir my thoughts to something deeper than dentists and plumbers.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Cheryl — waving! Nice to meet you. What you said there — "how to live in the midst of family crisis, how to beg forgiveness when necessary, and how to bear with circumstances I could not change" — that was exactly why I wrote The Hardest Thing To Do, and The Hour Before Dawn; working through such things myself. I'm glad you found it helped. Father John is a restful refuge, and so is William in his bonkers and unexpected way. It is when people find their anchor in Jesus that they become a living stream helping us to trace our onward way. May you be blessed, may you know contentment, may you be fulfilled.

Hi Susan — yes, it's interesting isn't it, how this peripheral occupation of the monkey mind leaves the deep mind free to go exploring down. I think that's the wisdom underlying the rosary.

Anonymous said...

To borrow from another tv detective, there is a scene from the series Miss Marple in which her nephew, Raymond West, says to his impatient editor Marjorie, I am writing a book not baking a cake

Pen Wilcock said...



Anonymous said...

What I find amazing is how you can be concentrating on your (excellent; I own a few of your books) commissioned-with-deadlines writing and, at the same time, be putting together more than two lines for your (very welcome) blog posts!?? Mairin.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi, Mairin! Waving!

Julie B. said...

Most of us here know the happiness Cheryl commented on -- we found Penelope's blog! I remember the same feeling, many years ago.

I eagerly await whatever you write. I loved the peek into your writing life. And I had to smile a bit at the writing=typing thing -- if they only really knew.

Snow, snow, snow here today. Do you have time for a cup of tea? xoxo

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh my — the Minnesota winter has arrived, then. Keep snuggly and warm. xx