the next step

‘Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.’ -Chuck Close

Halfway through last year I started work on my second book. The first book was out of my hands while  it was being edited, laid out and designed.

I had some notion of what I wanted the second book to be all about. Books begin with opening a new document on a word-processing package, so I opened one, gave it a working title and got started.

I have written about a third of it. It is not going where I want it to go. It is not the book I had in my head when I opened that new document. This is a common experience.

‘A poem that doesn’t get out of hand isn’t a poem.’ -John Hollander

The writing has been lurching off into strange side-alleys and cul-de-sacs – uncomfortable places.

I don’t want to write the book that the book wants to become.

‘She’s lost control again’ -Joy Division

Last week I hit a bit of a wall with it and thought I should give up writing. The writing life is hard, harder than you might think if you are outside looking in. I feel vulnerable and tired. I get sick of getting rejection letters 70% of the time, of missing out on funding. Keeping writing going in my life is a fight. Fighting takes a lot of energy.

The new book is telling me this: Drag it out into the light. That is this book’s imperative.

This post sounds a bit mental – like I’m hearing voices. What can I say? This is how I experience my writing self, my writing life.

I feel like I’m fighting with myself. It is a violent fight. People are getting hurt.

Everything I write lately is tangential, difficult and odd.

‘Sentimentality – that’s what we call the sentiment we don’t share.’ -Graham Greene

A friend told me to ‘stop second-guessing yourself.’ Whenever anyone tells me to stop doing anything  it makes me do it more. The elephant is in the room. The emperor is naked.

It is good advice.

I feel extremely confused about who I am as a writer right now.

‘Find out who you are and do it on purpose.’ -Dolly Parton

My friend Pip once interviewed David Vann and he told her that tragedy is when a protagonist is forced to make a choice and whichever way he chooses, he loses half of himself.

I love imperatives and maxims and bold assertions because I feel so unsure of anything lately. Experiencing life as all nuance, all complexity, all ambivalence, all sensate and half-truth and murmur and roar and silence and spiritual nihilism and nothing that ends with an ‘ism’ makes certainty so attractive.

I’m so hot for other people’s certainty.

‘Poetry springs from something deeper, it is beyond intelligence. It may not even be linked with wisdom.’ -Jorge Luis Borges

I am going to keep writing. I feel as weak as a new-born kitten as I type that.

I get more courage from THESE PEOPLE than from anyone who ever taught me writing.

‘Writing 101: moral courage is seldom the subject, but it is often the prerequisite.’ -D.A.Powell

11 responses to “the next step”

  1. “Everything I write lately is tangential, difficult and odd.” Embrace that oddness! I thought writing about executions was a terrible idea, but I had to write those poems, and they changed my writing forever for the good.


  2. Yes, I liked that ‘tangential, difficult and odd’ sentence too. What can I say? It is such an uncomfortable, scary business, and (I believe) most good writing, perhaps all really good writing, is not under the writer’s (conscious) control but is prompted by something way less conscious. Something that wants to be born or brought into the light. Agonising at times and then at other times suddenly it all just flows and feels completely right. I think trust it and stick with it, as much as you can. Kia kaha!! xxxx

    (Really good blog post by the way.)


  3. Kia ora Helen, thanks for writing this. I have compare-myself-itis, and unfortunately, my writing group is as awesome as yours, and I often come off not so good, in my own eyes. I have less than zero certainty myself 150% of the time. Where are these certain people? I love you and your work. xxx H


    • Thanks, Hinemoana! I love you and your work, too! You published me in Kaupapa at another time when I felt on the verge of quitting and that buoyed me up for a good year or two. xxx Helen


  4. Oh Helen, I know exactly what you mean. Writing sucks. And being a writer (trying to be a writer / pretending that I am in fact a writer) blows.

    Except …

    (Remind me again what the “except” is?!)



  5. I have lots to say about this Helen, and some of it I think I’ll save for an email, which I probably won’t write to you tonight because I read your blog post to procrastinate when I really have to be writing something else by midnight. But basically what I want to say is – you do not have to keep writing, it’s your choice, you’re a grown up, but I want you to keep writing because I love what you write, and I think the world would be a less-rich place without your voice. And I’m interested in where you go next.

    Also, I think you’re saying what we’re all thinking. Writing is really hard, and it’s like putting little bits of your soul out into the world and then sometimes they get stomped on, or they don’t seem as shiny as the little bits of other people’s souls, or we don’t even know if we even like our own souls. More and more I’m realising that most writers have frequent attacks of self doubt and lack of confidence. I find that comforting. Like Hinemoana said, ‘Where are these certain people’. Some people (and I suspect I probably appear like this sometimes) seem to have complete self confidence, but I’m sure if you scratch the surface they’re freaking out too.

    When I have those regular (weekly?) attacks of self doubtI try to keep on focusing on writing as my own creative activity, that only I can do my way, and I try to do it as well as I can as myself. And also trying not to not get distracted by playing the literary game, but also appreciating the genuine connections I have with other writers and people who like my work. And you have a lot of people who love your work and support you. I’ve been really blown away (and a little bit jealous) at how much goodwill you have out there in the world (and those people have been buying your book, which is of course very pleasing to me).

    I think I’ve ranted enough. I send you much goodwill and many hugs.


  6. Also, rereading your post – I think in the midst of your self doubt you’re come upon a rich vein of something very cool. I hope you will mine it, because I want to read more.


  7. Thanks Helen! Wow, ‘goodwill’ – I never thought about it like that. That is a lovely notion.

    I’m feeling better this week (a little) – I think this post was like lancing a boil or some equally painful yet cathartic thing! Also, it has been interesting that as well as the above comments, people have privately contacted me to say that the post has articulated how they are feeling about writing. Why don’t we talk about this stuff more? It seems like when someone DOES bring it up, people DO want to talk about it. Is it because we are ‘supposed’ to be all level-headed and private about our writing angst? Ah well – writing this post has ended up being a really good experience – lots of supportive comments (thanks for yours) and interesting conversations privately, too. You’re so right, lots of us are suffering. Somehow that makes the individual suffering easier. x


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