13 August 2010 3 Comments

In between the drafts

Rock musicians like to note that, had they not discovered their talents for destroying ear-drums, they’d have been criminals. It adds some edge to their pampered personae. Here’s my claim to edge: had I not been a writer, I’d have been locked up long ago, but not in a jail. At best I’d have been sedated.

I know this for sure, because when I’m between drafts of a novel I feel the old madnesses creeping up on me. The dark resentments whose origins I can’t quite nail down. The tension around the center of my chest and the heavy breathing and the tight jaw and the voice in my head telling me this isn’t fair, whatever it is. The flickering fantasies penetrating my mind when it lacks the focus that otherwise keeps it calm.

My wife sees all this before I do, at least consciously. “Maybe you ought to work on something else while you’re waiting to start a new draft,” she says, gentle and delicate, as if she were waiting for me to respond with an angry “I’m all right, dammit.”

I have to take a break, you see, because writing a novel requires for me at least 10 drafts. Read a book 10 times straight and see if you don’t get bored with it. Or really pissed off.

So when I get through a draft, I take a week or so before I get back into it. As the end of the draft approaches, I start to fret about that week. I can’t take an actual vacation, because I always tell myself that I don’t know precisely when I’ll reach the end of the draft and therefore I can’t book a trip in advance. I try to line up some reading related to the subject of the book, but sometimes the books turn out to be duds or I’m done with them in a day and a half.

This time, as I take a break between drafts of my novel about the Italian artist Caravaggio, I find myself sweating it out in the desert heat of Jerusalem. Enervating, indeed. I’m already a little fevered in any case, because I’ve been deep in the psyche of Caravaggio, who was both a brilliant artist and a duelist with an explosive temper.

In fact, when he wasn’t working, Caravaggio was liable to get into tavern brawls and raging arguments with everyone around him. That suggests I’m not alone in my frenetic between-drafts mental state. It’s a good job I can’t carry a rapier around Jerusalem.

I used to think that perhaps I just wasn’t that nice. My theory was that when I’m writing, or when I’m on a book tour talking about my books, I’m a very pleasant fellow, but take away the dope, as it were, of creative writing and I turn into the clenched up ball of resentments and violence that I used to be as a teenager.

I don’t think that any more. I’ve done enough meditation and other self-examinations (I won’t go into them here, but they’d all sound very new agey, I expect; never mind, they’ve been great for me) to know that the “real” me only emerges during periods when I’m working. My concentration at those times is deep. It’s as though I’m listening to my self, without judgment, just as one does in meditation.

When I’m not working, it’s harder to hear the voice of my self. I’m more likely to pick up other sounds, the psychological noise pollution that comes with minor confrontations on the road, annoying emails, vague slights from acquaintances.

So this time I’m writing a play about Gaza, before I go back to my Caravaggio novel. You might think Gaza isn’t a place to find peace, but I’ve always enjoyed a deep concentration whenever I’ve been there. To bring that concentration together with the tranquility of creativity ought to keep me sane until it’s time to get back to my novel.

Either that, or the next time I post to this blog it’ll be from a jail somewhere…

3 Responses to “In between the drafts”

  1. Martin Clemens 15 August 2010 at 2:32 am #

    Very interesting to read about this part of writing and the writing life, because it is more or less the main point for the direction (great, not bad, not that bad, could be worse) of a novel.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 16 August 2010 at 1:40 am #

    You’re right, Martin. If the period in between drafts works, the writer returns to his next draft with focus and a clear head. If it doesn’t work, well, he’s just screwed.


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