Neil Gaiman calls it his ‘staring at the wall’ phase. Carrie Tiffany hosted a workshop at Faber Academy and described it as being like ‘a car without gas’. Kazuo Ishiguro writes like a madman before experiencing an almighty crash. I call it brain freeze; that time when you’re feeling all dense yet scooped-out inside, and the thaw seems like it could be months or even years away. When I’m like that, it’s probably more precise to say I don’t feel anything – at least, I couldn’t tell you what’s going on inside my head because there’s nothing much going on at all.
I think all writers must go through this process. That time after any period of intense writing where one feels totally and utterly spent. And not just writers; almost anyone after a huge project ends and before a new one begins.
That was a lot of last year for me and I was beginning to wonder whether I’d ever see my way through it. But I’ve realised they were all right; it does end, and all you can do when the car’s empty is fill up – totally gorge yourself on information and circle around, letting the ideas sift and settle, waiting to see which ones stick.
I’m not quite ready to write yet, not properly. I have a new notebook (a very pretty one from French artist Nathalie Lete, almost half-full already) with a new plot and many more discarded ones and various ideas which will never see the light of day, as well as some that will. Some may feed into the following book, or the one after that.
There’s almost a fated process at work now. Ideas germinate from even the smallest daily encounters and a conversation, news story or non-fiction read comes at just the right time. Sometimes it feels like such a perfect fit for my next book, it’s hard to believe it’s only a coincidence. This can seem like pure magic, if you believe in such things.
When I was writing the last book I visited the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Francis Bacon exhibition. I knew I wanted to feature an artist in the book but had all these stale ideas about who the character would be, and how they would fit in. Seeing the works and reading about Bacon’s life, I started to picture her more clearly; where she might have come from, what drove her and how her story was different from anyone else’s. Similarly, I’m now reading a non-fiction book called The Last Curtsey, about the end of the debutantes, and I’m starting to get a clearer idea of who my next character will be. I know her lifestyle and the times that shaped her, so she’ll be more than just a composite of someone I want to write about. This is making her feel real to me, almost as real as people I actually know.
Other seeds of ideas come in conversations with friends or new acquaintances, snippets overheard in cafés, or a look between two people that I witnessed. And they all feed into some of the broader ideas I’ve been mulling over for decades, mostly on a subconscious level. About how to behave, how to treat people, how families work or don’t work and knotty issues such as narcissism, sibling rivalry and infidelity.
Because what is a novel if not a manifesto of sorts? A moral code by which the book is governed? Authors tell you how they think things should be, not necessarily how they are, but there’s a lot of real emotion being poured into their work. Readers can only read between the lines.
I used to have an old boyfriend who wouldn’t touch fiction, saying he didn’t want to read about things that weren’t real (no, it wasn’t a perfect match). The novel might be an amalgamation of clever ideas and gimmicks sometimes – outrageous characters and scenes amped up for dramatic effect – but the book’s soul is a real thing. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t connect with it at all. It’s also hard to see why the writer would bother with such an undertaking in the first place, given the effect on our poor brains following a novel’s completion (please refer to first paragraph)!