This is the time of year when the high wire act of balancing teaching and writing becomes most tricky. End-of-semester submissions have been handed in with another batch due at the beginning of May. This means I’m going to be marking, immersed in other people’s writing, for around six weeks. In addition to this, there are several deadlines for short story competitions coming up, competitions I’d like to enter (and win, it goes without saying).
Now, I’m a pretty organised person, very good at setting my own deadlines and sticking to them. While on the MA for Creative Writing at BSU my organisational skills earned me the nickname Paperclip Girl, so yes, I’m organised, some would say to the point of control freakery.
Over the past few weeks my aim has been to get two stories out to competitions by the time I started marking. Very doable, you would think. Just two stories. And I was half way there with the first one workshopped, redrafted and sent out by the beginning of April. Tick in the box (I love ticking things off a list almost as much as making the list itself), and Paperclip Girl ruled supreme.
And then I came to workshop the second story, just a week or so ago. The story itself has been troubling me for years. Or I’ve been troubling it, depending on your perspective. I knew it still wasn’t right but I couldn’t diagnose what the problem was. So I did a rewrite, hoping my (relatively new) workshop buddy would say yep, just rework this bit, add some sparky dialogue there, cut the final line and you’re good to go.
But no. The feedback was more damaging than that and particularly vexing because even though this w/s relationship is new, his judgement has been impeccable so far. So I knew deep down (and all you writers out there know I mean deep, deep down, at the point beyond your soul where you hide the things you don’t want to acknowledge in safe-like compartments with combination locks), I knew he was right.
The diagnosis, that the main character does not fit the writing style, is spot on. This is why the story hasn’t been working. For years. Two fundamental elements of the story don’t belong together. You would have thought after twenty years of writing I would have noticed this basic problem, it’s nuts and bolts, elementary school level, surely? That’s probably true, but while it’s frustrating in the extreme it’s also what I love about writing. I will never know everything. I will always be learning.
So the result of my w/s buddy’s annoyingly astute observation is that Paperclip Girl’s schedule is now seriously out of whack. What this story needs isn’t just a leisurely bit of tinkering over a nice cappuccino and a chocolate croissant. This requires a major rethink that will involve multiple walks, deep baths and several train journeys of significant length because basically, my main character has to be a different person.
There is a small, I mean tiny, possibility my OCD-style schedule will stay on track (this is Paperclip girl trying to assert her authority here), because I’m about to leave on a long journey today, in fact. I’m going on my first writing weekend in about ten years with the Wordsmiths in Herefordshire (http://www.thewordsmiths.org), and I’ll be holed up in a beautiful house surrounded by beautiful gardens. So I’ve been asking myself if I can use that long journey to figure out my character? Can I spend those free hours in the afternoons to shut myself away in a lofty room or a quiet nook in the garden?
It’s possible, but in truth I know what will happen. My good intentions will disappear as soon as I get there. I’ll be surrounded by other writers, I’ll be having writerly conversations, I’ll be thinking and breathing writing, and my character won’t get a look in because I’m having such a good time, meeting some really interesting people while eating an awful lot of cake. Writing Girl is stronger than Paperclip Girl, and if they ever get involved in an arm wrestle, I know which one I’d back.
So I’ve been mulling this over for the past week: marking, writing, cake, competitions, cake, weekend away, cake… trying to look for a way that I can do it all. And then I remembered why I’m writing this blog. I’m supposed to be embracing these conflicts to make the balancing easier. The centre of gravity, remember? So I looked at the bigger picture and decided to push my main character to the back of my mind (and Paperclip Girl off a cliff). The brain has a nifty way of figuring out problems while you’re not thinking about them, so while I’m driving on the motorway, having wonderful conversations with fellow writers, eating delicious cake and then getting back to marking, my sub-conscious will be doing all the hard work for me. And then maybe, when I do finally return to the story, my main character will be there, waiting to tell me who he is.
Either way it’s a win win situation… did I mention the cake?