Updated: Mar 9
WRITING MY FIFTH NOVEL
How do you introduce yourself? And does your identity change according to the person you’re talking to or the place or mood you’re in?
For a while, I was tempted to introduce myself as an equestrian vaulting acrobat or occasional bank robber, so utterly fed up I’d become with the silence and baffled looks I would get when saying that I was a fiction writer. Most of the time, as you’ve rightly guessed, I was answering the ever-so safe question ‘what do you do?’, statistically the first thing people ask when meeting a person for the first time. Unsurprisingly, for most of them, identity is entirely defined by the work they do.
Having killed many conversations with what I felt was a fairly mundane answer – after all, there are many of us, fiction writers, out and about in this world, albeit in disguise – I started wondering about my own identity in relation to what I spend my days doing.
I am a teacher. Teaching came naturally to me and I love it. But writing is my vocation, my passion, the air I breathe. My identity is wholly defined by such a vocation, not by my work, however much I enjoy seeing my students grow into confident speakers or writers. Writing, to me is sustained effort, a marathon, a test of resilience and determination, at times, but it will never be work.
You won’t surprised to discover that I never ask people I meet for the first time what they do in life. In fact, I ask few questions. I listen, mostly. In all fairness, it does help that I happen to have one of those faces inviting confidences (sometimes, too much). When writing novels though, I become a questioning machine, though not with others. While lately I’ve been asking people around me how they introduce themselves to others, keen to see what would come first (their nationality, their work, their relationship status, their family?) and their answers have sparked many fascinating conversations, the bulk of questioning I do is on paper.
I’ve filled the pages of my notebook with questions, 67 to be precise. A personal record, quite possibly, though it's not easy to confirm since I don’t keep all of my notebooks. Those questions are as much about the theme and sub-themes I’m interested in exploring, as about the format, the time frame, the central character, the secondary characters, etc.
When it comes to novel writing, there’s no such thing as too many questions.
Why? Because it’s the most efficient way to explore the theme/idea you want to write about and, in the process, find the direction and shape your story is going to take. A novel doesn’t come to you, you come to it by engaging with the world, by feeding your writer’s brain, by writing many pages, most of which will not make the final cut, and by asking yourself many, many questions. And, crucially, by accepting the fact that some answers, though not all of them, will come at some point in your writing process. Writing is exploring. And as Toni Morrison rightly said: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”