Rachel Joyce on Overcoming DoubtNov 21, 2021
Rachel Joyce is the Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author of six books, including The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy and Miss Benson’s Beetle.
From the desk of Rachel Joyce.
If you are reading this, you are a writer. I say that not because I am flattering you, but because you clearly care deeply enough to want to find a way of finishing what you are working on. So I am going to be really frank with you – one writer to another.
My feelings about our craft change all the time, but there is one thing I know for certain: it is necessary. Even when I was a child, I wanted to write – and not just for myself. I wanted to write stories that other people would read. I sent off my first book to a publisher at the age of twelve. I called myself Mary Thornton, partly because I thought all good writers had a pseudonym and partly because it sounded more writerly than Rachel Joyce. I still have the letter of rejection.
My feelings about our craft change all the time but there is one thing I know for certain: it is necessary.
Stories are how I communicate with the outside world. Through stories, I ask questions, I educate myself, I give shape to things that appear to have no shape, and are sometimes so large I might get lost in them. And yet after my failure as Mary Thornton, it took me a long time to write another book that I would try publishing. By my mid-forties, I knew a few things – about children and school runs and laundry, and feeling unseen. I knew real grief and happy love, and I knew sad love too. I had written a number of radio plays. But something in me knew I hadn’t done the thing I wanted to do. I hadn’t published a book. And it wouldn’t exactly have been a wasted life if I hadn’t got published, but it would have felt a waste if I hadn’t at least tried. So that’s what I did. And it is what I still do.
I write every day. You keep a story alive by being with it. Even when I am not writing, the thing I am working on is with me. You wouldn’t expect an athlete to run a marathon without some serious training and a decent pair of shoes, and it’s exactly the same being a writer. You need to put in the time and you need to learn what enables you to keep at it.
I write every day. You keep a story alive by being with it.
I keep a journal. Not every day, but a book isn’t where I want to air my small, daily disappointments. A journal is always useful when you want to remember how it feels to be lying beneath a scorching blue July sky when it is in January and you can’t see for rain. It’s also a good place to discover who you are as a writer – the things you notice, the things that move you, the sentence rhythms that come most naturally.
I think that’s something to look for in your writing, by the way. The thing that gets you. In your heart.
When I first begin to work on a book, it always feels like finding a house in the middle of a wood – a quite magical house – that I really want to enter, but there are no doors and no windows. There is nothing. I can see there is a book I want to write (the house). I can sense there are some people inside I would like to know (the owners?). On a good day, I can hear they are asking questions I want to ask too. But that’s all. The best I can do is go round and round and round that house, circling it, touching the external brickwork, until I find the smallest hairline crack, and gradually bit by bit, it opens to maybe a finger-sized crack (at least I think it might be) until eventually I begin to see something that could become my way inside. You might get impatient and want to pick up a sledgehammer but a sledgehammer will not work. The way in is only really by staying close, and pacing round and round and round.
During this time, I make a lot of notes. I find quotes and ideas and photographs that appear to belong to this house. I begin to write little unconnected scenes. I don’t even know what they are, or whether I will use them. They are just moments or conversations that float into my consciousness. I try not to judge them. (Ha. As if.) I find out who these people might be – who they like, what they want, what they don’t have and what they hide beneath the bed.
I also think a lot about what the story might be, and what it is trying to say. The story is the walls and foundations of the book – it is why someone picks it up and keeps reading from one page to the next – but the fittings, like wallpaper and beautiful mirrored candles, are the questions the book is asking.
I know too there are beats to a story that I want to hit because when as readers we find them, it’s like a delicious feeling of landing (or maybe it’s the opposite, maybe it’s flying) but when a story does that, when it hits those ancient beats, everything in the world feels right. So I know how to start a story with an inciting incident, and how to write the end of Act 1, as well as a great midpoint and the famous ‘all is lost’ section. (If you don’t know about them yet, I really recommend finding out. And you can do it right on this website.)
There are beats to a story that I want to hit because when as readers we find them, it’s like a delicious feeling of landing (or maybe it’s the opposite, maybe it’s flying).
Once I have all those little scenes or snippets, then comes the process of trying to stitch them together. I will already have a sense of how I want it to hang but it may well surprise me and not hang the way I hoped. So one of us has to adjust, and it is often me. Sections that I really liked may have to go because when I begin to put the book together, I see they’re holding us up when we need to accelerate, or they’re too similar in tone to a bit that’s gone before, or maybe I just need to make a jump and shake things up a bit. Part of this process has been getting to know the characters and the story, and often you only find out what works by finding out what doesn’t. I accept now that I make loads of mistakes. I honour the waste paper bin.
Somewhere around this point I look at my book, my beautiful book-house, and all I can see is carnage. A building site. And I wish I had chosen another house, or another wood, or – even better – a book that someone else has already written. I say this because I don’t want you to be surprised when it isn’t easy. I suffer doubt. Oh, such crippling, awful, nasty doubt. But I have learned something about doubt: it is part of being creative. So I sit at my desk and I think, This is awful! Why can’t I write better? And then I think, Oh hello doubt! Take a chair but we have some work to do if you don’t mind. And on I go.
I have learned something about doubt: it is part of being creative.
I say all this not to put you off but to remind you that writing is a slog and when it’s difficult that doesn’t mean you are not a writer. It means you are getting in there and things are a bit messy and scary but this is how it should be. So don’t stop.
Find time every day to write. It might only be ten minutes but that’s okay. Find your writing time. No one else is going to say to you, Would you like to write now? So you are going to have to be brave and say it yourself. Find out when is your good writing time. (Mine is very early in the morning. It’s like secret time.)
I light a candle when I write. It’s part of my ritual. And some days I put on a pair of cloppy shoes because they make me feel a bit like someone who knows what she’s doing, but that’s not necessary. Find out what keeps you company.
Buy a journal. And I don’t mean a crappy notebook. I mean a lovely one because this is really important to you.
And lastly, because you are taking yourself seriously as a writer, you must dare to dig deep. It’s not enough to cast something off and think, Oh I have had enough, that will just have to do. It is up to you to challenge yourself, and to be honest about the places in your writing where you know you are just getting by. Don’t let something go until you know you have caught the story you want to tell.
Honour the writer in you. Don’t be Mary Thornton. (Unless by some bizarre chance you are called Mary Thornton.) Be you.
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