Diana Evans on Instincts in WritingDec 12, 2021
Diana Evans is the award-winning, bestselling author of Ordinary People, The Wonder and 26a. Her prize nominations include the Guardian and Commonwealth Best First Book awards, and she was the inaugural winner of the Orange Award for New Writers. A book of the year in the New Yorker, Ordinary People received the South Bank Sky Arts Award, and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.
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From the desk of Diana Evans.
One of my favourite Tracy Chapman songs is ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul’, from the Crossroads album. It’s about a person realising the essentialness of self-connection, and that sobering yet calming title phrase is always in the back of my mind when I am writing. It helps me when I am adrift, looking outwards rather than inwards for navigation, and it reinforces itself when I have taken a risk and broken through something, untangled a thread that wasn’t working and tried a different, more instinctive entry. Those times can be very scary when you are writing a novel, because a novel is nothing until it is finished and every wrong turn seems a threat to completion.
I was eager to meet my thousand-word target for the day and tried to ignore the fact that I didn’t know what to write next.
Recently at my desk I had one such minor crisis of realignment. Flailing around as you do (as I do at least) in the last quarter or fifth of a novel-in-progress, I was eager to meet my thousand-word target for the day and tried to ignore the fact that I didn’t know what to write next. Surely it didn’t really matter? I consulted my neat A4 plan. It lacked specifics about that particular part so wasn’t much help, but I knew the general gist of where I was heading and had a galvanising consultation with my notes in my divider folder about the overall value of what I was writing – plus read a few pages of James Baldwin for good measure. Then I went hurtling down an empty wooden track of inexcusable blandness and realised I was getting properly stuck, like when you put your arm into the ripped lining of your coat instead of into the sleeve. There would be no coming out the other side, no alleviation of blandness. It would only get worse.
The author is in control of the characters. But they do exist, and in existing they reveal to you what they might do.
In the preceding sentences, before the misturn, there was a tiny flicker of light, a clue. It was almost too small a thing to notice yet somehow obvious at the same time. Go this way, it said in a low and natural voice. It was an internal voice, connected to my characters. They wanted to go for a walk and spend some time together. Now, when it comes to that popular esoteric notion of characters speaking to their authors and writing the story for them, I tend to side with Nabokov: the author is in control of the characters. But they do exist, and in existing they reveal to you what they might do or would do in a given situation, and that is a form of guidance, divine guidance when you are lost. So I took them for a walk. They had a long conversation by a pond where I felt my arm coming out of the ripped lining of the coat, even felt that psychedelic thrill that happens sometimes when writing is going well. I had followed my instinct and it had freed me. There was Tracy again singing in the background, All that you have is your soul.
The best moments, the very best days in writing, are the ones when we are released from order into the wilderness.
The best moments, the very best days in writing, are the ones when we are released from order into the wilderness, when we are taught that fear can be a route to a desired yet undefined destination. I have written at my best when I am most terrified, when I cannot see the way but am opened by nauseating fear and absolute commitment into the immediacy of the present page. At the beginning of a novel there are plans, lists, pictorial diagrams. There are little bits of paper which amass to the requirement for a container, then the container needs a matching lid. I have used flashcards. I have made my own uniquely sized flashcards and laid them out on my carpet when I am in the throes of deep procrastination because I am too scared to face the shameful literary mess at my desk. I read and read and read and make more lists, then staple the lists together to make them neat. Everything is a desperate lean towards order in something that wants chaos. It takes quite a long time to see that in order for the novel to be written I must loosen my grip and risk a great fall.
In order for the novel to be written I must loosen my grip and risk a great fall.
'Why are you doing this to yourself?' is the look that appears on the faces of my friends and family if they ask about my work and I say too much. They sense that I am involved in a cryptic, convoluted, painful and lonely-making activity that does not help my life skills or my eye-health – all of which is true. Or they tell me they too would like to write a book or used to want to write books but haven’t got round to it, and I sense that in hearing from me it no longer seems much of a utopia. The people who know the writer well do not know the writer. They know the outward version of them; the inner version should be kept enclosed, saying little and revealing little, observing the world around them yet reserving energy. It is indeed lonely work and implies we must keep ourselves apart from the fold, but the impulse towards seclusion already existed in the first place, and made the writing appealing or even necessary. Isolation is valuable in the writing process because it keeps us connected to our instinct. ‘Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple,’ Tracy sings, and I take this to mean anything that quashes or blinds the soul in the midst of the work, like talking too much.
Isolation is valuable in the writing process because it keeps us connected to our instinct.
After the last couple of years working on my fourth novel, though, I am ready to spend some time away. The year is drawing in. It’s almost January, the ideal time to start writing a novel. As for the ideal time to finish a novel, I’m not so sure. It’s over when it’s over, and the fact of being over will define your experience of the season. Summer will be brighter. Autumn will be goldener. Winter will be bearable, because you have managed something you thought you couldn’t do, you have overcome the wild doubt and embraced the optimism of uncertainty.
You have managed something you thought you couldn’t do, you have overcome the wild doubt and embraced the optimism of uncertainty.
Until then we must take our rest when needed, gather strength and listen to the wise songs. Writing can teach us how to live and vice versa.
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