A little while ago, I had half a novel completed. I had thoroughly enjoyed the first half, but had reached a point where I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, and then life got in the way, and it started to feel more and more difficult to sit down and write.
I kept coming up with excuses. My life was so busy! There were columns for The Lady that needed to be written! The house was too cold to get out of bed! My hair was the wrong colour! Clearly, my excuses were no longer working, and I needed to make a change.
Years ago, before I started writing, I thought that my muse would strike on a daily basis. I imagined writing to be the most deeply romantic of professions, presuming I would leap out of bed from time to time, inspired, spending the rest of the night huddled in front of my computer, typing furiously as the words flowed through my fingertips.
There are, admittedly, some days like this, but after twenty three years of writing novels, they are few and far between. Also, it has never happened at night, probably because I like my bed far too much to leave it for anything other than a couple of barking dogs who some children have forgotten to lock inside for the night, and even then, I tend to lie there for at least ten minutes, praying that they will miraculously shut up all by themselves. I do keep a notebook next to my bed, just in case brilliance does strike, but usually, when I read it in the cold light of day, it is nonsensical. Truly. The kind of gobbledegook you can only write when you are actually still half-asleep.
What I have learned, after all these years, is that the only way a novel gets written, even when (perhaps especially when) you feel stuck, is to sit down and write it. And so, a few weeks ago I left my house every morning, drove to my office, left my phone (the distraction to end all distractions) in the car, and wrote.
I wrote even when I had no idea what I wanted to say. I wrote when I thought my characters had run out of steam. I wrote because writing is my job, and couldn’t procrastinate any longer, and I needed to feel the high of having written, rather than the constant guilt at putting it off.
And, as always, the magic happened. The characters woke up, as did I. Their lives got busy, and it became a pleasure, coming in to the office every day, looking forward to seeing what they would do next.
Towards the end, I started tearing up, which is when I know I have something good. When I get emotional at something my characters are going through, I know my readers will too, and last Friday, when I finally typed The End, I felt enormously proud of myself for finishing my twentieth novel, even when, at times, it felt like I didn’t know what to say.
Of course, the work is only beginning now. I am taking a week away from the manuscript so I can return with slightly fresher eyes, and then the edits will begin. I will read through and check the rhythm of the words, build up one of the characters, move a dramatic plot point to earlier in the book.
But I am almost there, and the having written, even after twenty novels, is just as sweet today as it was all those years ago.
The piles are threatening to take over my house. I do not think of myself as a hoarder, and I very much like living in a space that is clean and tidy, but I don’t seem to have any control over the piles of papers that accumulate in every room of the house.
Nobody would ever think it, looking at pictures of my perfect kitchen counters on Instagram. They have no idea that seconds before I shot the picture, I slid everything on the counter three feet to the left.
Stan the rabbit is not happy with his confinement. He has been living very happily on the porch these last few months, coming into the kitchen throughout the day to play with us, and the cats, tearing off into his porch when there is too much activity.
We had high hopes of him being a house bunny, before we realized that house bunnies eat everything. Three of the lamps in the living room do not work as Stan has chewed through the cords, and we have thrown away four iPhone chargers for the same reason. Although he is semi-litter-trained, it turns out rabbits mark their territories, much like cats, and so, after dry-cleaning the sofa cushions twice, Stan is now banished from all but the kitchen.
I have just finished writing my nineteenth novel. For years people have asked me how it feels when I finish a novel, and I haven’t known how to answer them. In the old days, it felt wonderful, knowing I had achieved something so big. A great weight would be off my shoulders, freeing me up to enjoy life for a little while without a cloud of guilt following me around if I hadn’t written that day.
Then I moved to a different publisher, and found myself working with a very talented editor, who didn’t like the kinds of books I wrote. She wanted more suspense, more drama, more plot. I stopped trusting that I could write books by myself, and would deliver first drafts that I knew needed work, knowing that she would require me to rewrite huge chunks of each book. Finishing a book meant the beginning of a grueling round of edits, sometimes up to five, always with large rewrites.
When I was a teenager, I distinctly remember spending hours on the phone. At some point I was lucky enough to have a phone in my bedroom, and I would sit on the floor, leaning back against the bed, twirling the cord around and around my fingers as my best friend Harriet and I talked for hours and hours about everything under the sun.
Later, as a single woman living in London, Saturday and Sunday mornings were spent lounging on a sofa drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking endless cigarettes, as I worked my way through my phone book, calling everyone I could think of to catch up, or make plans for the weekend.
I went to my friend’s house for tea last week, and as soon as I walked in her kitchen it was clear we both had a case of the blues.
“No,” she said. “We’re not going to go down the road of self-pity. Tell me something good.”
And so I told her about The Rower, who has been gone all summer, and who, after bringing home the bronze for the US in the World Rowing Championships (just in case I hadn’t mentioned it three thousand times already), is now home. The Rower hasn’t really spoken to me for about two years. I get the occasional grunts, and requests for food and money, but a miracle has occurred since he has been home.
Beloved and I have great friends who are very involved with the American Ballet Theater, and every year they invite us to join them for the gala, and occasionally for a performance throughout the year.
A few weeks ago we were invited to join them for Romeo and Juliet, with the prima ballerina, Alessandra Ferri, coming out of retirement for the occasion. It was spectacularly beautiful, and afterwards, as we joined the throngs of people moving slowly out of Lincoln Centre, I overheard a distinctly English accent saying he was going to get the train to Westport. I turned to see a rather handsome, elegant man, with swept-back grey hair, in a very smart suit. He looked very interesting, this debonair man from my town, and I was intrigued.
Hours spent having massages: 1
Hours spent having room service: 7
Hours spent enjoying meeting my readers: 46
Hours spent writing: 0
Every summer I leave the comforts of home, and set off on the road for book tour. It’s always a hard time to leave – my house is never more beautiful than in summer, and best of all, at least three of the children, sometimes four, are off doing some kind of camp-like thing, leaving my husband and I to lounge around our swimming pool by ourselves, and have naked hot tubs at night. I shall say no more about that.
I am just back from a trip which was supposed to be with my husband, except it turned out it was on a weekend during which he had planned to visit eldest daughter at University, and so I decided to bring one of my best friends, aka my gay husband, instead.
I was ever so slightly nervous, because it has been years since I have travelled with anyone other than my husband. If I get moody, or tired, or overwhelmed and a bit tearful and shouty, he forgives me because he loves me. My gay husband loves me too, but in a different way, and I had a vague sense of anxiety that I might somehow facilitate a huge row, for which I would apologize, and he would forgive me, but things would never be the same again.
Hours spent driving children here, there and everywhere: 2
Hours spent worrying about where the children are: 0
Hours spent berating teachers for giving children bad grades: 0
Hour spent writing: 17
I have spent the last few days trying to come up with the term for the anti-helicopter parent. I haven’t yet thought of anything clever enough, but I keep thinking what essentially abandons their offspring, leaving them to fend for themselves. I have thought about trees, about acorns sprouting into oak trees once they have fallen. Perhaps I am an Oak Tree parent, producing acorns then allowing them to fall away and grow independently into the oak trees they are destined to become.