I have a theory: anything that we do on the outside has to have happened first on the inside. Before I could go to graduate school, I had to become the sort of person who could go to graduate school. I’ve always found that the internal change precedes the external one. When I tried to go to graduate school before I was ready, it didn’t work.
I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.
I’ve had such a ridiculously busy week, and I’m so ridiculously tired, that I don’t know if I’ll be able to express this in the way I want to. But first you have to become the writer who can write a novel — any novel. I’ve seen friends of mine try to write novels and fail, in part because they didn’t believe in their own capacity to do it. You have to believe in your ability to complete a significant process. You can’t psych yourself out. There’s a certain level of confidence you need to write anything of that length. I think what convinced me I could do it, more than anything else, was completing the doctoral dissertation. If I can do that, I’m pretty sure I can write a novel.
And then you have to become the person who can write that particular novel. For the novel I’m writing, that means in part being a person who has done her research, who knows that particular time period. I got that from my PhD: I studied late nineteenth-century England. I know what people were wearing, what they were discussing. But the process of research is ongoing. There is so much I need to know, in order to move my characters around in that world convincingly. And then, I need to become a person who can write about young women who are social outsiders, who have family problems, who have problems with self-image and self-esteem. There’s no way to research that. It’s all knowledge I have from growing up in a certain way, in a certain family. From having been the person I am. But also from having become the writer I am, which is a writer who is aware of those things, who has thought about them, who can translate them into characters.
Writing takes a strange combination of arrogance and humility. I’ve seen writes so humble that they don’t believe in their own abilities. Some of them are very good writers who have difficulty completing longer projects. I’ve also seen writers so arrogant that they are not able to see outside themselves, to truly understand other people. Some of them are very good at completing projects, but not actually very good writers. Both arrogance and humility can be learned, and I think becoming a writer means learning whichever one you’re missing. I know that, in order to write this novel, I need both.
I recently saw and reposted this photograph:
I think it’s an excellent image for what it feels like to write a novel. You have to trust that the birds will hold you up, even though there’s no ground under your feet.