I’ve been trying to think of a good metaphor for the strange journey I’ve had as an editor starting to write; for the process of moving from teacher to pupil; from feeling like I know all about my subject to knowing I know nothing.
Unsurprisingly, I binned my first, oh, 20 or 25 ideas.
Then I hit on it. Imagine a midwife who’s spent her life delivering babies, who understands babies and mothers almost better than she understands herself, who plays her part in the birth, but is only ever behind the scenes.
She gets pregnant. Everyone she knows trills, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright! This must be a walk in the park for you, lucky thing.’ She nods and smiles, digging her nails into her palms. She knows she ought to be the best mum in the world, but inside she’s so terrified of getting it wrong that she’s suddenly paralysed about the simplest of decisions. Home birth or hospital? Disposable nappies or organic palm-fibre pants? Pink or Blue? She gets to the point where people asking her about the baby makes her heart lurch.
Because everything’s different when it’s your baby.
I have always had huge admiration for anyone who finishes a novel. Editing requires a similar level of focus, and it can also be a very creative process, but even with those projects you feel most editorially involved in, there’s always an element of detachment because ultimately it’s not your creation. But a calm, capable editor doesn’t necessarily translate to a confident writer.
Personally, my writing process goes something like the following:
Have an idea. Fall in love with it. Rush to get something down before it disappears. Start writing in a pink haze of passion. Finish a chapter. Re-read.
Spot all the things that aren’t perfect (which I think of as ‘mistakes’ even though rationally I know that at this stage they’re a perfectly natural part of the creative process). Edit.
Write a bit more. Re-read. Spot all the other cock-ups. Edit. Re-read.
Feel sort of satisfied.
But by this time I’ve lost momentum. The initial excitement of the idea has receded, giving me time to GET SCARED. What if it’s not good enough? What if I’ll never be able to finish it? And of course, the mere act of thinking all these things is enough to make them come true. I file the idea under ‘to be continued’, and I hide under my bed for six months hoping that no-one will ask me about it.
You can be the best, most fastidious writer in the world, but it means nothing if you can’t finish the blooming thing. And at this early stage in the writing process, I need to learn to set perfectionism, self-doubt and fear aside. One author I know has a sign on her computer saying ‘Write Crap’. Maybe I need one of these.
Anyway, the more I think about my metaphor, the more I realise it is true. Ideas are like babies, in so many ways. They’re messy, beautiful, flawed and fragile, and they need time and understanding – not just criticism – to flourish.
Kathryn Robinson is Managing Editor of the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy