The Mad Middle

Writing is strange business, and writers are strange people. And no time in writing is odder, at no time in writing are you any weirder, than the middle of a first draft.

The beginning is fun. The end offers satisfaction or, at least, relief. In the middle you must hold the thing in your head at all times, an unfinished mess of ideas. Every sentence becomes immensely complex, requiring a dozen different calculations of narrative and character. Everything is begun and nothing is resolved. It is constantly threatening to come to pieces – only your concentrated will and imagination are able to keep it together.

There is little solace away from the book. Talking to people is very difficult. Every day functions like cooking and cleaning become meaningless. Other recreations do not affect you, unless they are extremely physical, like climbing, or sex. The world does not make a great deal of sense, has very little importance, because it is not your world. Your world is in your head. You can only seem to communicate by writing, though music becomes very important, because no matter how much you write, words are not helping. You are going, in a quite controlled and deliberate way, a little insane.

It is strange time, but not an unhappy one. How can you be unhappy when you are ceasing to exist, becoming, for a few months, little more than a machine that eats and sleeps and produces a novel? You are confident that you will finish, because that is the only way you will be free of the thing you have created. You know you are working hard, that your mind is at full capacity, so you can have confidence the book is as good as you can make it.

And some day, in a few months, perhaps, you will finish write the last sentence of the first draft. The book is nowhere near being finished. The real work will be about to begin. But, at least, the strangest and most difficult part will be over. You will be able to let the story go, because it will exists outside your head. You will begin to live again.


The Price of Admission

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, Letters of Note is a marvellous corner of the internet. Perhaps especially so for writers, when it regularly throws up gems like this Fitzgerald letter, written in response to an aspiring novelist.

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

He captures the sense that I have had so many times on reading people’s work (and indeed my own), but have never quite found the words to express. When I find that my own writing is wanting, it is usually because I have not raised the personal stakes enough, that I have not found the courage to pay that high price of admission.