It took me over a year to write the first draft of my memoir. Perhaps I’d have completed it sooner if I’d had more time, but I believe the thinking time was a crucial aspect. I’m sure I wrote most of that first draft in my head, while falling asleep at night, or doing the washing up, and sometimes it spilled out onto my morning pages. Then I’d sit down and type – though not in a linear way.
My story formed haphazardly on the page, with odd scenes coming to life in no particular order. Apart from the first and last chapter, I had no plan as to how I was going to write the rest of the story. Sometimes I made lists of events, or vague suggestions for chapter titles, or if I was feeling particularly lazy, I’d jot down everything I could remember about a particular character or place I lived (I’d filter the details later). The main thing was that I needed to be in the right mood to tell certain parts of the story. When I sat down for my half-hour sessions during the day (my eldest son never napped for longer than half an hour until he was two), I’d see where the gaps were and make a snap decision as to where I would begin. The only rule was that I had to write non-stop for at least fifteen minutes.
I didn’t write during every nap time either. Often, there were chores to be done – milks to be made, bottles to be sterilised, washing up, cooking, tidying, and the odd sit down with a cup of coffee. I also tried to read as many books on writing and editing as I could, though there’s only so much you can do in a day, so I often saved the reading for bedtime, however tired I was after baby groups, weaning, nursery rhymes, board books, stacking cups and CBeebies. I always turned my bedside lamp off feeling like there was so much more I ought to have done, but I carried on regardless, making the most of those first months of motherhood, and discovering myself at the same time. Here are some of the highlights of my first year of writing:
Joining a writing group
I don’t think I’d ever have got my first draft finished if I hadn’t joined a writing group. I joined an online group called WriteWords, which was heaving with members when I first signed up. I couldn’t attend a local writing club, because I was wiped out in the evenings, after our son had gone to bed, and I really needed to be in bed with a book before nine o’clock. I knew I needed support and advice though, and WriteWords was full of writers of all levels – from complete novices through to published, well-regarded authors (some of whom I’d even heard of). I joined several of the groups on the site, and I’m still a member today, even though the number of members has declined since I first joined in 2012. Even today, I meet so few fellow writers in my everyday life, that I really value the contact with the friends I’ve made online, and we all keep each other writing, however diverse our projects and goals are.
Giving myself permission to write badly
This is probably the best advice I could give to budding writers, especially if you’re a perfectionist, like me. I always thought that when I came to write my story, I’d just write it in one sitting (!) and the words would all fall into place, as if by magic. However, if you try to let go of that desire to be instantly great, you might actually give yourself the chance to write something that’s probably fairly decent. I cringed and used the delete key so much to start with, and I cringe even more if I ever read any of that first draft. It was very rough, had so many pace problems, and was far too heavy on telling-not-showing. I learned early on to gloss over quite a lot and be a bit kinder to myself – it’s the only way.
End of maternity leave
This was the crunch time for my writing, sink or swim. I knew that if I let the muse go at that point, I’d let ‘real’ life get in the way and probably never write again. It was an emotional time in other ways too, as our little boy was going to be starting nursery, and I worried my special time with him would end. I knew I was being silly in that respect, as I only worked part-time to start with, and I always appreciated how fortunate I was, but it was a leap into the unknown nonetheless, though thankfully in retrospect, not a leap I needed to fret about. As it happened, our son loved nursery, and I enjoyed being back at the library again. It also turned out that I cared enough about my writing project to keep plugging away at it. My schedule required a little tweaking, but the passion was still there, and I held on tight.
When is enough enough?
This question kept me procrastinating for at least three months until I actually decided I’d finished the first draft, and that I ought to start thinking about taking a break before starting the editing process. It was a similar feeling to the way that I’d started writing to start with – I expected I’d just know I was finished, that I couldn’t possibly write another word. Obviously, ‘the end’ doesn’t come come completely out of the blue, but I think I’d expected some kind of sixth sense to kick in, or a fanfare, or something more marked than the kind of uncertain, fearful, anticlimactic, will that do? kind of thoughts that were going through my mind. I spent weeks not doing very much writing at all, until I finally decided that the first draft was complete.
Apart from the mind-blowing knowledge that I’d written the first draft of a memoir, the reality of pressing the last full-stop key (for the time-being) was fairly disappointing. I rewarded myself with a break from writing for a few weeks whilst I thought about how to begin editing. I had many dilemmas, such as whether to keep the story written in present tense or switch to past tense (I chose past tense in the end), whether to fictionalise the book or not (I chose not to), whether I was allowed to keep the 90s song lyrics I’d put in (not without huge expense). I also had so many questions, like how would I know if I’d got too many characters? How could I stand back far enough from my story to know what to cut? How do know if I’ve got the pace right? Is my story marketable, different enough?
I struggled with the last question, because I suspected my memoir wasn’t different enough, and I didn’t know what I could do to fix it. My dad joked recently that I need to add a hawk, like Helen Macdonald, but ultimately it was a problem I had no solution to. All I could do was to write the best second draft I could, and hope that by the end of it, I’d have more of an idea where I was going with the book. (Disclaimer: Although I have more of an idea what I’m doing with the book now, four years on, I still wish I had a story like Helen Macdonald’s.)
So, there I was with a first draft under my belt, some spare time on my hands and no idea how to begin editing. I worried that was the end of my writing career. Would I even have the courage to start writing again, after a break? It was an uncertain time, as my partner and I were talking about moving back to East Anglia again, and we were also thinking about having another baby. A move and another baby would put my postgraduate study plans back, too, although I’d always known a delay was on the cards. Again, thoughts of writing kept me going. I decided I’d learn everything I could about editing and apply it to my second draft. I was ready to start again.
Starting the second draft was almost as daunting as starting to write in the first place. But because I’d invested so much time, so much of myself into my writing life, there was no way I was ever going to stop.
I still feel the same way.