For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Following The Clues - Research And Reflection

As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me:  grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall. 
Virginia Woolf

When I began this blog sixteen months ago, I was just about to start work on a new novel. The blog was intended to map this journey I was undertaking in my writing and to begin with it did. However, life got in the way as it so often does and a different but parallel journey began to unfold with its own plot line, turning points and character arc. My life underwent one upheaval after another, and I found myself on a roller coaster of change. During this time I stopped work on the novel but despite this the blog found its own voice, always linking back to story and the creative process yet drawing from experience and the philosophies of esoteric traditions to explore revelations of self and individual growth.  

Now that the dust has settled I find myself in a very different place, physically, psychologically and spiritually. I have worked through a backlog of projects and been awarded a literature grant to assist with the writing of this new novel, Falling Between Worlds, so I can no longer avoid it. Indeed, as Virginia Woolf describes so beautifully above, this novel has ‘grown heavy in my mind; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall’. Yet now that I am here I am afraid all over again. What if it has become overripe, has already fallen and now lies rotting on the ground, irretrievable? What if I have grown out of this novel in some way? Alternatively, what if I have not yet grown into it? I am suddenly overwhelmed with all the potential novels I might write. Ideas flicker in and out of my mind, different approaches, styles, points of view. . . Then again perhaps I am following the wrong path altogether and there is another novel out there waiting for me to stumble over it and bring it to life.

Filled with all these doubts, I have sat in front of my five thousand words and read them over and over, seeing the faults (only the faults), even seeing where I might go next, but the words are not coming. I can’t continue exactly where I left off because I am not the same person I was sixteen months ago. It is always dangerous to stop and start a project like this because it becomes stale and we lose the magic and excitement of telling a story that is in part telling itself. I’m trying to find my way back in. I have been through my journal, marking all my old ideas, quotes, research notes, anything that might lead me back to my story. But I am detached from these ideas now.  Before I left Tasmania, as part of my field research I visited the forest protest site that will feature in the early part of Falling Between Worlds. Welcomed by the protesters, I was given the opportunity to see how it worked and to imbibe the atmosphere of the camp and the old growth forest surrounding it. An arsonist has since burnt down this encampment, though I imagine it will be rebuilt because these protesters are patient and committed in a way that is a joy to see. In the upheaval of the past year, this visit to the Upper Florentine Valley has become a distant memory and I have almost forgotten the intense stillness of the forest, the rich smells of damp hummus. . . Perhaps given time I can sit with the memory of it, re-inhabiting the experience and weaving it into my story. But I’m not yet still enough to sit with my memories, quietly waiting for a breakthrough.

I wanted to sit down at my computer and just start writing where I had left off but that has proven impossible. The commitment isn’t there yet and the words I need are missing. Somehow I have to find a way to step through my fear and immerse myself in the story again, reacquainting myself with the characters and their needs. To do this, I must engage in more research. In Story, Robert McKee wrote that ‘research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression.’ Research, enables us to find our way out of writer’s block and into our stories, helping us to establish a convincing setting, characters and plot. However, research is not an alternative to the creative process, a way of avoiding an engagement with the story. Ideally we fuse fact based research with our imaginations and our memories, drawing on what we know and what might be. This new knowledge allows us to step into the shoes of our characters and understand how they will respond to the story in which they are situated. As McKee wrote, ‘creation and investigation go back and forth, making demands on each other, pushing and pulling this way or that until the story shakes itself out, complete and alive.’

At its best, research will feed the story and the story will guide the research, a symbiotic process that is quite magical. At its worst, research will halt the creative process indefinitely, or take over the story; in the process squeezing it dry and leaving it wooden and formulaic. Nearly every story needs some factual research in order to construct convincing settings, characters and plot but the skill is in finding the right balance. When I was immersed in writing Gathering Storm I suddenly came to an abrupt halt and could go no further. Realising that in order to know my protagonist, Storm, I had to learn more about the Romany world from which she was descended, I reluctantly began researching Romany customs, history, language. . . making notes from books and the internet. Then just as suddenly the writing began again and my characters were enriched by my new knowledge, the information feeding into and motivating their actions, ultimately helping me to create a story that was convincing on many levels. During the writing of Flight, I also came to an abrupt halt just as I was introducing a major character in the story. He needed to talk but I couldn’t hear him. In this case factual research was no use; instead I had to stop and consider who this character was and imagine what motivated him. In the end I discovered a good deal about his past, simply by asking him questions. In listening to his answers I also discovered how he talked and once again I found a way forward. Remembering these examples of blocks and solutions reminds me that I have solved these problems in the past so it is likely that I will do so again with Falling Between Worlds. With that knowledge I can feel the fear receding.

Agatha Christie once said that ‘the best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.’ The same goes for ironing, knitting, swimming (none of which I can do), walking. . . or anything that occupies our bodies and yet is relatively mindless, leaving us free and open for inspiration and mental planning. For me it is walking that provides insights into my writing. As Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways, ‘the compact between writing and walking is almost as old as literature – a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.’ When I am writing, walking helps me to find my way through the maze of potential pathways in my stories. It helps me to understand what I am writing, to solve problems and to make links between theme and plot, or plot and character development or motifs and theme.

What I am just beginning to understand is that I am trying too hard to reengage with Falling Between Worlds. Instead I need to slow down and read, muse, dream, make notes and walk, all the activities that in my new and busier lifestyle, I had begun to see as self-indulgent, as non-work rather than as research. I had almost forgotten that everything in life feeds us. We aren’t machines that can crank out stories on demand. If we don’t allow ourselves the time to meander and meditate, to read and to ponder, it won’t be possible to create anything that is not simply mechanical. So, I will slow my racing thoughts and begin listening once again to my intuition. And I will amble along the maze of pathways in this beautiful Welsh countryside, climbing over stiles and marching through the clinging mud, savouring the scent of gorse and sheep manure and wild garlic, as I follow the clues that will lead me back to my novel.  

Copyright (c) 2013 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website: