I’m always deeply grateful to the writers who contribute to Writers in the Attic. Their words never fail to give me something to think about, or bestow a nugget of wisdom or just make me feel less lonely on this torturous journey to a novel.
Robyn’s piece did all of the above. Her post arrived as I was going through yet another moment of feeling defeated and deflated in writing my novel. Her words reminded me, once again, to let go and allow the story to become what it’s meant to be. To trust the process because it never lets you down.
Robyn Cadwallader lives among birdlife and vineyards in the country outside Canberra. She has published a poetry collection, i painted unafraid (Wakefield, 2010) and a non-fiction book about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages. In response the government’s punitive treatment of asylum seekers, she edited collection of essays on asylum seeker policy, We Are Better Than This (ATF, 2015). Her first novel, The Anchoress, was published in 2015 in Australia (HarperCollins) and internationally. Her second novel, Book of Colours (HarperCollins), was published in April 2018 and released in the UK in May 2019. Robyn is the reviews editor for the online literary journal, Verity La.
The Angel Among the Chaos:
Writing and Letting Go
One of the things I love about writing is that it’s such a fascinating mixture of hard work and mystery, of wrangling words and letting go, letting the story do its thing.
I’m generally suspicious of too much woo-woo, mystical description of the writing process, and I know that most of the words arrive because I make myself sit at the desk and put one word after another, often in ugly succession. But I often ponder the words of Michelangelo: ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it’, and, at another time: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’.
Aren’t they wonderful?! But that’s a sculptor speaking.
A writer doesn’t have a block of stone, and nothing more than a blank page or screen; every blank page, even in the most exotic notebook, or Hemingway’s choice of Moleskin, is still a blank page, and I’ve never seen one that says anything more than: ‘Here I am. I’m waiting. Now it’s your job to find the words’. And so I put them down, usually not knowing where I’m headed.
But even in a first draft, there’s a way of trusting to something beyond my determination to meet a daily word count. And that’s part of the letting go. What is this beyond?
I write historical fiction, and I can’t begin putting down words until I know the world I’m writing about so well that I can see it and see my characters in it: a street, a shop, a church, a village, a cell. Along the way, as glimpses of my fictional world flicker at the edge of my sight, the tenor of the story begins to develop; I still don’t know what will happen, but I have a sense of its general atmosphere.
For The Anchoress, it was a mixture of longing and the claustrophobia of the small cell where she was enclosed for life, and also the claustrophobia of her struggles to remain obedient. That’s not a plot, but it’s … I don’t know how to express it, but it’s the air the story breathes, perhaps.
When I’m tuned in, responding to that air, I’m able to let go, and the characters help the story to unroll, sometimes in surprising ways. At one point when I was writing The Anchoress, I sat down to write a scene where Sarah, feeling she has been disobedient, would admit her weakness and apologise, confess her sins and accept her penance. But when I finished, the scene was entirely different: she argued and defended herself, then became angry. It was a surprise, and exciting. I didn’t really know where that scene came from, but I knew then that the story was emerging as it needed to. It was breathing.
Often, though, my head gets in the way. Book of Colours, my second novel, is about the creation of a medieval book of prayers. These books were painted with sumptuous illuminations, but also with surprising, often monstrous, fantastical and bawdy figures in the margins. No one knows for certain why the artists painted them, or what they mean. As I researched I had lots of ideas about ways to explore the theories of why the artists painted the margins as they did. And I wrote that way. But what I had tried to write were only ideas, they weren’t air that the characters could breathe. As one agent said of the first draft, ‘That’s clever in an academic way, but however clever, in a story it’s dry.’ What wise and confronting words!
I went back to first base. Step away from the clever ideas, Robyn!
Meeting with a writing companion, telling him my woes, I finally said, ‘I need to let the story be what it needs to be’. As odd as that sounds, fortunately he understood. And I thought about Michelangelo’s block of stone. There it was, all 100,000 words of it, waiting for some air to breathe, for the dross to be chipped away and set free of my clever ideas that were stifling the story.
What did I do? Lots of hard work. I despaired, doubted, and wanted to throw it all away: the usual writer’s struggle. But when I tuned in to the tenor of the story, it was a relief to think that I didn’t have to lead the way anymore, that I could stop fretting about whether I’d made my point, and could just let my characters live their lives.
I really believe that as I write, become absorbed in the characters and the place, the story begins to reveal itself. It has its own energy. There’s something exciting about letting go of control, not trying so hard to get it right, and trusting in something more.
I need to be aware, listening, allowing it to happen.
For me as a writer, Michelangelo’s block of marble is the mass of words that I’ve written, a mass that is often the chaos and the confusion of a story that isn’t really working. And that’s a good thing to have, because it’s then I can begin to look for the angel in the block of marble.