It’s the soul-searching question that every aspiring writer ponders, and every seasoned writer attempts to answer over and over again: what motivates and inspires you to write (and finish) a novel? Of course, the answer differs from writer to writer, and evolves throughout a writer’s career.
I turned to writing novels after decades of telling myself I was too busy raising a family and working sixty hours a week to ever have the time. Eventually I had to admit I was letting my dream slip away. Anne Lamott’s words resonated within me when she said, “Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written…it’s gonna break your heart.”
I knew I needed to make time and space to write, but when I did manage to finagle some alone time, words and ideas didn’t flow onto the page as easily as I’d foolishly hoped. I soon began to understand that I needed time to think and plan and dream before I could write. As Joyce Carol Oates so elegantly pointed out, “novels begin not on the page, but in meditation and daydreaming—in thinking, not writing.”
After much contemplation and musing I felt I had a solid idea for a novel – one that I would actually want to read myself – and I sat down to write the story that was starting to come to life in my head. I was determined to follow Ray Bradbury’s suggestion to “enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, by reading your story, will catch fire, too.”
But writer’s doubt, which I’ve found to be more debilitating than writer’s block, crept in as I read over my first 95,000-word draft. I was sure that no one would want to read it. It’s a lonely feeling to have labored long and hard to produce something you are unable to share.
Franz Kafka’s insight that “writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself” seemed disturbingly true to me at that stage, but I forced myself to revise the draft and sent it to an editor for feedback. It was hard to hear that my labor of love was deeply flawed (as are most first drafts), but I learned that a novel isn’t born pretty. It comes out raw and red and needs attention. You have to edit and revise (and revise and revise) to make it ready to take out in public.
In the midst of many rewrites it was reassuring to read the wonderful John Irving admit that “half my life is an act of revision.” I suddenly felt like I was in very good company. All the fabulous writers that had inspired and thrilled me in the past had also slogged through endless edits and rewrites. The knowledge made me feel slightly (undeservedly) smug and decidedly less sorry for myself.
Once I held an author’s copy of my finished book in my hands, I relished the gratifying feeling of achievement. I had finished and nothing could take that away from me. It was the blissful moment just before I asked myself, “Okay, what should I write next?”
As for the inspiration used to write my other novels (and any novels I have the privilege to finish in the future) I rely on Isabel Allende’s admonition to “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
Melinda Woodhall is the author of the page-turning Mercy Harbor and Veronica Lee Thriller series. She also writes women's contemporary fiction as M.M. Arvin..