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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

My obviously never to be published novel

Only as I compiled these last diary entries for publication did I realise an extraordinary coincidence: when Nèlleke de Jager of Kwela phoned to accept my novel Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart for publication on my daughter’s birthday, 10 September 2010, exactly a year had elapsed since I started writing it on September 10 2009.

11 June 2010
I have got as far as “new message” in Outlook Express, and have rejigged my introductory letter to suit a UK rather than an American reader, but doubts are creeping in. Maybe the book is a failure. I have also been wondering whether I shouldn’t eat humble pie and approach [-], the agent I met two years ago when he was in South Africa, and who said (not sincerely, I thought) that I should send him my next book. He was the one who suddenly lunged across the table to take a praying mantis or a bug off my cleavage and then said “My wife’s not with me on this trip.” And then I left very shortly afterwards, saying I needed to fetch my daughter from school. A last resort? Not a resort at all. (And I gave that dress away, too.)

15 June 2010
When I have finished writing this, I’ll send a sample of my manuscript to the Dorie Simmonds agency mentioned in ND’s email. I was invited to do so yesterday following my email of enquiry and introduction. (After sending the sample, I received no further correspondence from this agency, hence no further reference in my diary.)

2 July 2010
Last night I was at a party filled with publishers, writers, artists and altogether gentle people. It was pleasant, but I felt the strain of socialising quite acutely — especially speaking to new people. I know that this social awkwardness, the result of a feeling that I’m not truly communicating myself as I stand there with a glass of wine thinking of my next polite question, is in fact what drives me to the page. I must communicate, and the more I fail at cocktail parties, the more I want to succeed in books and poems.

19 July 2010
My computer has just arrived back. No novels lost. When it wouldn’t come back on after Thursday’s power cut, I thought the worst. Two entire unpublished books, neither properly backed up. My computer man said “the news is not good” when I phoned, but then went on a tangent about other computers he’d fixed recently so that I was left imagining a total wipeout of my data. I got down onto the floor of my study while he spoke, ready to faint if I heard that the C drive was gone. But “the bad news” turned out to be only the parts that needed replacing, and an apology for the expense.

2 August 2010
At T’s party I spoke to K about my book — about how I don’t know what to do next — approach more agents (having heard no reply) or choose a South African publisher. K said he had one piece of advice for me: “Remember that not making a decision is also a decision”. So I have decided to go through the manuscript one more time and then blitz about 5 agents all at once. Lots to do.

11 August 2010
I need to stop feeling so apathetic and send my novel to people.

12 August 2010
I probably wouldn’t approach Jacana — more likely Kwela or Jonathan Ball since I already know the publishers there.

Yesterday evening B and I went to an exhibition opening at Kalk Bay Modern — ceramics and various types of etchings, aquatints and drypoint on paper. G’s friend [-], who makes ceramic plaques with doll figurines emerging from them, and who likes to press doilies into wet clay, was prominently displaying his status as artist by wearing a kind of cockatoo wig. He gabbles away, saying anything as long as he can fill up the space. He says he likes to get visits from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses whom he then lectures until they itch to get away. He tells them he is the incarnation of the Doily Lama.

It’s as if spring has arrived — beautiful clear weather, with the mountains cut out in all their detail and not just some distant hazy mass. A lazy whale waves at us.

13 August 2010
I felt quite depressed yesterday. [-] came in, crowing about his wonderful new carefree life and his plans to travel. I know I’ll get out of this slough and see the bright side again. I need a big job or contract or at least an offer for my novel — which means I must send it out there.

17 August 2010
Yesterday I read through my (mostly readable) novel again, made a few changes and sent it to N at Kwela. It has some strong parts, some good things, felicities even, and a slightly intractable wodge of badness somewhere in the middle. Some of the links are weak. I have decided that I can’t face the experience of sending sample chapters to multiple overseas agents who have never heard of me and who are being inundated with manuscripts anyway. N is at the Joburg Book Fair, so I’m not sure when she’ll get a chance to print the book or even if she’ll do the reading herself. Maybe I’ll even be rejected by my SA publisher who knows me.

That took most of the day.

18 August 2010
My book has gone to a reader, says N.

25 August 2010
Tonight I rehearse with J. No news about my book. I fear failure.

8 September 2010
I’m dreading a photo shoot with [-] magazine, the people I avoided last month. They tracked me down in mangled English, demanding that I pose for them in Simonstown, and bring “lots of options” for clothing changes, “neutral shades — white or beige”. They will provide a make up artist. I hate, hate, hate all this image manipulation. I hate being treated like an object. It’s so strange because in my obviously never to be published novel, my character goes through all of this, plus a visit to this very spot in Simonstown. Life imitating art. Now I can’t have my morning walk because I can’t arrive with windswept hair.

10 September 2010
I bought cake ingredients and delicate cake decorations (little bees, a flower, lettering, numbers) and B and I made a birthday cake for her to take to school today. The cake decorating shop is in Fish Hoek, and as I approached my car with my little polystrene tray of sugared letters, a gust of wind took a letter “E” and blew it down the drain. I stood there saying “Oh no, oh no.” A man came by and stood next to me, also staring into the drain, and said, “I’m sorry I’m too old to help you.” He thought I’d dropped my keys down there. I went back to the shop and for 50c got another E.

While we were baking, N from Kwela phoned and said they would indeed like to publish my novel.

Well, what can I say. Thank you SO much for sending us your new novel. I finished reading it in one sitting, and absolutely loved it. (So did our one outside reader; still waiting for feedback from the second reader). So, yes, definitely, Kwela would love to publish it. I do think there is some work needed still. But we’ll talk about that in more detail later.

That’s it. Except it isn’t. The book that will reach the shelves in May 2011 isn’t this book exactly. The process of editing and proofreading was yet to come.

Front cover of Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart

A Few Brief Notes on Rejection

I’ve just received a mail from Georges Borchardt declining to represent my novel. It seems to be a form letter – “we do not feel quite passionate enough about the material”.

I wrote that diary entry on the 10th of June last year. After receiving the email, I did nothing about my book for several weeks. I’d had my heart set on breaking into the UK or US book market, and sent my work off ill-advisedly to an agent who did not know anything about me or my work.

Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Agents, publishers, friends, readers and reviewers are all liable to reject us. If only there were someone who would say to us very simply, genuinely: “Carry on”.

4 May 2010
I don’t know how to let myself go, to lose myself in my own book without thinking, “What if no one likes it? What if it never sees the light of day?” But I’ll try again today.

In the meantime, I have been encouraging my students, who write to me about their dashed or raised hopes, their first published poem, their writer’s block. One chap was devastated to be rejected by [-]. He sent me the rejection letter and his feelings of despair. I wrote to him suggesting a regime of reading before starting to write again, and offering to read his new poems before he submits his application again. He wrote back: “As always, you are hugely encouraging … no, downright invigorating. You have the true teacher’s ability to motivate curiosity and aspiration, and you have made me feel I can take my first deep breath for three weeks.”

Reading that made me feel strange, because right now I’m the one who needs invigoration and aspiration. Physician, heal thyself?

Maugham’s notebook has been on our shelves all my life and I have dipped into it several times. Yesterday, because P mentioned it, I took it off the shelf again. It is my mother’s copy, which she inscribed Nov 9th 1949 (Johannesburg tour of “Present Laughter”) To remind me that acting is not the only thing. Maybe that’s where I learnt to write down everything that strikes me. Maugham:

I forget who it was who said that every author should keep a notebook, but should take care never to refer to it. If you understand this properly, I think there is truth in it. By making a note of something that strikes you, you separate it from the incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye, and perhaps fix it in your memory. All of us have good ideas or vivid sensations that we thought would one day come in useful, but which, because we were too lazy to write them down, have entirely escaped us. When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would … The danger of using notes is that you find yourself inclined to rely on them, and so lose the even and natural flow of your writing which comes from allowing the unconscious that full activity which is somewhat pompously known as inspiration.

Maugham writes elsewhere in his Preface:

There are not enough book-buyers to go around, and the success of one author can greatly attenuate the success of another. It is a struggle to get known; it is a struggle to hold one’s place in the public esteem.

He was speaking of France. In England, Maugham believed, any writer, “if he has any gift at all, in any direction … can earn an adequate income.

I have been thinking of embarking on a search for books I consider “missing” from my collection — books I’ve always wanted but never had, classics, and favourite books lent out but never returned. What happened to my copy of Henry James’ What Maisie knew? Why don’t I have a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems? Why have I never bought a book by the world’s greatest travel writer Leigh Fermor? I would like to have a few shelves devoted to my 100 favourite books. In the meantime I am reading another of my mother’s book’s, Leon Roussouw’s biography of Eugene Marais.

5 May 2010
My revisions got back on track yesterday, and by yesterday evening were going well. But this is still the first half of the novel, which is less full of gaps and faults than the second half.

7 May 2010
Yesterday I spent a rare day in bed feeling sick. I woke up with the room spinning but thought a shower and morning coffee would sort me out. I nearly collapsed in the shower. I staggered up to bed and drank a fizzy vitamin C then tried to come downstairs again — violent vomiting. The world spun around me. I gave up and asked R to take B to school. I slept and slept. As long as I kept perfectly still, there was no dizziness. At 2.30 I was well enough to get up and have toast and marmite. I spent the rest of the day in bed in the TV room watching Bleak House (brilliant!), B and Tigger snuggled beside me. It was a horrid, rainy day, so no sacrifice.

11 May 2010
I’ve just received an email from America – the author who is kindly liaising with me says that Georges Borchardt is willing to read my manuscript.

Yesterday afternoon I was in despair again about the middle section. I changed something and then took the ms to bed. Reading it lying down, I thought it read well – funny and engaging even. But now the pressure is on to clean up a final ms to post. But pressure is good, as long as it’s not in the ears.

12 May 2010
People sometimes suggest I should become a crime writer or a writer of chick-lit, but I don’t want to – I only ever want to follow my inner baton. I feel at sea when people suggest otherwise. I felt as though they’re saying: “Why don’t you write differently from the way you write?” which for me is the same as saying: Why aren’t you someone else? I would love someone to say simply, genuinely: Carry on.

14 May 2010
I’m perplexed as to why this book has been so much more difficult to write and to complete than the others. It must be because the book itself has become the baton, regularly instructing me to change things. Yesterday went well up to a point and then crash! The conductor was unhappy, and rightly so. But HOW to fix things? I have decided to sketch my problem out in summary form in longhand – look at it as a design error – before I go back.

18 May 2010
The book cost R380 to send airmail. I lay awake in the middle of the night scrolling through it in my mind. Creatively, I feel quite drained. I don’t know how I wrote three novels or any poems – that part of me seems like a miraculous visitor, now long gone.

Printing and parcelling took up the entire morning. At the last minute I changed a character’s name from Wiseman to Mandla. He doesn’t play a big part — he’s the guy behind the soundproof glass at the controls when my main character does her graveyard shift radio broadcasts. I changed his name partly because I had another minor character called Truman — it wouldn’t do.

10 June 2010
I’ve just received a mail from Georges Borchardt declining to represent my novel. It seems to be a form letter – “we do not feel quite passionate enough about the material”.

“Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns” he said

Yesterday I got to the end of cutting out the dead wood of my novel, so today is moving straight forward into the last 5000. Feels like a Tennyson poem, or was that “Forward the Light Brigade rode the 600”? This book is much more complex, for me at least, than the first two, mainly because there is not just one central character in the first person, but six characters (including one who could be considered “main”) all of whose thoughts are recorded in free indirect speech – third person narration, but almost all conveyed through individual subjectivity. It’s not Joyce or Woolf – I’m too kind to the reader for that.

That’s my diary entry for 14 April 2010, with the end of my novel in sight. The entries in this post show that I’m more and more aware of the book as a whole; I’m able to summarise its structure and give it a title – Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart wins over the more obscure Solifluction. Also, I’m starting to think about how to publish the book, and whether it might be possible to break into the UK market.

2 March 2010
I didn’t try to work on my novel above the noise of the gutterers’ equipment and Tigger’s indignant barking – just paid bills, answered mails, did the laundry.

I’m here alone. Peaceful rather than lonely. I’ll have a good soaking bath and find a book to read. Sometimes the old ones are more comforting than the new releases.

5 March 2010
Yesterday I went to Home Affairs to apply for a new passport, not that I have any travel plans. Today I will try to get my driver’s licence renewed. That will make it a week of not writing, but quite a lot of maintenance to show for it: new gutters, teeth done, massage, passport, licence, C’s chores in addition to mine. All executed in sweltering heat.

And Dalebrook pool closed with a big sign saying Polluted Water.

I dreamt that my mother was talking to me, holding forth in that astonishingly charismatic way she did. G too is in my dreams, but quieter now, like someone just living, observing, co-existing. No more desperate pleading to wake me at midnight.

23 March 2010
Good work on the novel on Friday and yesterday, also two hours of waking novel thoughts at midnight last night. What was the jokey name P and R had for the Sotho cattle rustlers?

24 March 2010
I am despondent again about the book. I wonder if I am plodding on just to finish it. Readers pick up plodding very quickly. I have about 5000 – 10 000 words to go before a first draft is complete. Not good to be feeling this way now.

26 March 2010
I did solid work on the novel yesterday and the day before. I feel OK about it, though there are many, many details I still want to get right, in addition to actually finishing it. I have a hangnail on my right index finger, which is making typing difficult. Or rather, the plaster is.

29 March 2010
I’ve had two bad nights with a post nasal drip that creates coughing spasms whenever I lie down. Now I feel a bit spaced out from the cold and flu pills I took to get some sleep.

I’m on 52 000 words, very close to a first draft. I had good ideas and impetus this weekend, but yesterday B eventually just came and sat on a stool behind me staring at the screen so that I gave up.

When I have finished the novel I must actively look for work.

We went to see The Railway Station on Saturday – excellent I thought, though Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer acted the young couple off the screen. I liked the fact that Tolstoy’s wife seemed both utterly sane and quite insane, depending on whose point of view you adopted. And the delicately drawn contrasts between ideal love/spiritual love versus the hard tack of family love.

6 April 2010
I have made good progress on the novel, both moving forward and going back chopping and cleaning. I’m working through a list of things that need doing in the story, things I still want to include.

9 April 2010
Another nightmare last night, of the house burning down. I could analyse the dream for what it says about my fears and insecurities (and hopes), or I could accept that last night’s curry was too strong.

Today I will write again. What I’ve been doing is an odd little game. I’m keeping the word total at 55 000 – about 5000 short of a complete novel. Every time I add words, I subtract the equivalent amount from the bits I don’t want that are just sitting there taking up space. I don’t want to delete them all in one go and sink under 55 000, because that will make me despondent, and we can’t have that.

12 April 2010
Despite the class and the lunch, I managed to keep up work on the book, as I hope to this week. There are some areas which need very attentive revision, and I hope I have the surgical skills for it. Perhaps not today – I’ll do simpler bits today.

13 April 2010
The beach yesterday was wonderfully wide and flat. I feel my fitness (such as it is) has come back after the long cold and sinusitis. I slept well too – no bad dreams. There is a man of about 70 who walks his four dogs, throwing them a ball from one of those long plastic scoops. When he goes into the water himself for a dip, the three Labradors follow him, unconcerned about the waves, still playing tug-of-war with a piece of seaweed, occasionally looking over their shoulders at their master. But the tall black poodle is afraid – he stands in the shallows and looks yearningly after the swimming man, willing him to come ashore.

14 April 2010
Yesterday I got to the end of cutting out the dead wood of my novel, so today is moving straight forward into the last 5000. Feels like a Tennyson poem, or was that “Forward the Light Brigade rode the 600”? This book is much more complex, for me at least, than the first two, mainly because there is not just one central character in the first person, but five characters (including one who could be considered “main”) all of whose thoughts are recorded in free indirect speech – third person narration, but almost all conveyed through individual subjectivity. It’s not Joyce or Woolf – I’m too kind to the reader for that. For me, much comedy is revealed in the contrasting thoughts of characters who are close to one another. I think I’ve enjoyed that the most. The other difficult thing is that I dip into their lives for only a day or so over a period of about four years. Two days from 2006, from 2007, 08 … So for the old, old character approaching death and the young, young teenage girl, you get a contrasting sense of one entering life and the other leaving. I’ve had to try to keep a kind of grid going of the changes. But for the middle-aged characters, the changes in time are more minor adjustments in circumstance. I have the tiniest references to developments in SA politics over the period, but perhaps readers won’t even pick that up. There are two possible titles. I thought of calling it “Solifluction” to suggest the way a topography may look unaltered on the surface when there are big movements underneath. But I think that will be too hard for the public, and that I may call it instead “Homemaking for the down-at-heart”, which is the title of a book the old, old character wrote in her day.

19 April 2010
My novel is 350 words short of its goal, but in fact much more work is required – both words and reworking. Things that I wanted clear and beautiful, or funny and recognisable, are not so. Especially in the last section. Perhaps I will start fresh again this morning, in this rain which insulates my office from the world even more. It was too much to expect that I would be able to finish with a fine flourish on a late Sunday afternoon. I woke at 3.30 am for an internal pow-wow on the subject, and dropped off again only just before the alarm.

Martin Amis is not a writer I’m able to appreciate or enjoy. I ordered and bought Money because it was on a list of the 100 best 20th century novels. I didn’t get past the third page. I hate violence and rudeness and to have them in a book that I will read in the precious moments before I drop off to peaceful sleep seems like a home invasion. I write or try to write comfort books, consolation for being human. Some tears and lots of laughter. Books for other tender-hearted but also satirical, jokey women like me. And for men who are more secretly tender and funny. T loves the title I have chosen, calls it “inviting”. But then she is right at my side as I reach the finish.

It’s good that I made the progress I did because Friday produced very little. I should never have meetings early because that’s my best time for writing.

B entertained her aunt with a rendition of my Friday scene with the wine-of the month delivery man. As we pulled up after school, I could see the man leaving without having been able to deliver my box of wine because no one was home. There followed a desperate flurry as I tried to pull up alongside him on the hill, gesticulate, shout and open the electric window all at the same time. B thought it hilarious that her mother would stop the traffic for her precious bottles of alcohol. Her boyfriend apparently said: “Ja, my old man also likes his dop.”

20 April 2010
I went into a state of depression and anxiety yesterday. What I had done (stupidly) was to go onto the websites of various literary agencies in order to decide who to approach with my manuscript. They are obviously inundated with letters from aspirant (and clearly often clueless and illiterate) authors seeking representation. I found their advice patronising and discouraging.

I was unable to work on the ending because of the funk I got into about my worthlessness and the sheer difficulty of breaking into the UK market. All these agents go on and on about the necessity of having a cracking good plot, which I don’t have – things just evolve. But then later the feeling lifted and I reminded myself that at least there are SA publishers interested in my book even if I can’t find an agent, and that I shouldn’t feel despondent about rejection when I haven’t even sent my query letter off. I reminded myself of the uniqueness of my book (a word that of course covers a multitude of ills.)

I woke up in the middle of the night with my mind dictating a long series of detailed corrections which I hastily scribbled down in a notebook I found in my handbag. How quickly the mind works! I had trouble writing fast enough.

21 April 2010
I have wondered if my difficulty in getting this novel finished and off is related at all to the fact that when I do I will, for the first time in years, be without work. I could go ahead with another creative project – attempting the Millay play, for example – or I could solicit a text book commission. At last Hamlet has brought in its first tiny royalty of R1 800 (they only print it on demand).

I have put in good work on the novel. One of my characters is a stand up comic and I have found it very hard to write his routines, even though he’s not meant to be at the top of his game and there’s lots of room for him to be lame and to miss the mark. But I didn’t want him to be a failure in the sense of not being funny, more that he is inspired but not always in tune with people. Yesterday I wrote his closing scene with its sequence of jokes and I was pleased with it. I’m feeling more confident about it today.

22 April 2010
Yesterday on the beach a young and very fit man was walking in the softest sand with alpine sticks. Training for who knows what. A plump middle aged man stopped me to say “That’s fitness for you” and also described some of the stepping exercises he’d seen the young man do. “I just thought I’d share that with you.”

It was a day of work, with much writing, also helping B with a drama assignment and then making a prawn and calamari Chinese noodle stir fry for supper. L phoned in the morning to help me with one of my character’s musical preferences – Strauss’ Last Songs, Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine. I felt I had the discipline to continue writing for longer in the afternoon, but that my spirit feel drained. So I lay down for an hour with the Emily Dickinson biography. She would have been weeded out by genetic modelling – a tiny 100 pound epileptic, the “partially cracked poetess” as one of her correspondents described her.

30 April 2010
The weekend in a wood and tin cottage high in the mountains above Montagu was wonderful – hot, sunny days and cold nights. Three long walks a day, in the kloof, on the plateau, down towards a distant government dam we never actually reached, bundu bashing. We brought Tigger and Jozy, and were joined by the four farm sheep dogs who guided us and tried unsuccessfully to herd Tigger. And oh, his happiness at these companions, and the freedom, and our togetherness. Can a dog’s bottom be said to be happy? Well, Tigger’s dimpled behind was, as he flew over the fynbos and bulleted along to keep up with his lofty companions. In the evenings we sat on our long stoep admiring the stars and the view of the valley, drinking, talking and playing scrabble by lamplight. We laughed a lot. The girls talked non-stop. In bed I wore a miner’s lamp to read the Emily Dickinson biography.

I read my own novel too, which is finished, but still needs work.

When I got back I found that two people I’d contacted asking for help in finding a literary agent had responded. I will follow up their suggestions and perhaps also make a cold call or two based on my Internet research.

“I’m outside your house: Do I need a ladder?”

I woke up to thunder and occasional lightning flashes. It’s raining now – bringing some relief to the baking February heat. I hope it will bring relief too, to my writer’s block. I’m very anxious, unable to do anything but cut bad or overwritten bits out and rue the ambitiousness of the novel’s structure and character trajectories. I know that I will keep trying – I have endurance in me, and perseverance – but I feel like a miserable failure.

That’s what I wrote in my diary almost exactly a year ago today, when I was halfway through Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, to be published by Kwela in May 2011.

I’ve drawn the title of today’s post from the sad lament of the guttering man who visited us at about that time. He gave me a $$$$ quote too, but I prefer his quote about needing a ladder. Writing a novel is only partly about inspiration, intuition and creative surge. Much more emphatically it’s about hard work and preparedness. Don’t pitch up to work on your novel thinking it’s going to be a neat, single-storey bungalow you can re-gutter in two ticks using your grandfather’s old wooden ladder. Go to Mica hardware and have a good, long look at those retractable aluminium ladders, and imagine what you’ll feel like when you’re perched at the top of one of them, all stretched out to its full height, with a light south-easter blowing through it.

5 January 2010
The book is at 32 472 words. I have been through troughs of despair since I last wrote here. I can only see a few lines ahead, and sometimes barely that. There have been two days where I couldn’t write AT ALL. But in each case, once the 24 hours have passed, I am able to start again. Last night I dreamt that I had to explain my new book to an interviewer, a confusing experience that got mixed up with missed trains and bank queues, crowds of people and a geological exposure of caves beneath Fish Hoek Main Road.

It is set to be a scorcher today – 37 degrees. I’ll be down at Dalebrook soon, hoping for a swim like yesterday’s, when the fresh tide washed away the stagnant pondweedy effects of Christmas’s lows.

[-] told me about his brilliant novel, in which he is doing something that has never been done before. Apparently it will sell more copies than Harry Potter.

Ma seemed to have another mini-stroke over the weekend, but was better yesterday evening: chatting in her own language, grabbing mashed potatoes with her fingers, and even trying to stand up. The strangest thing: her two bottom front teeth have fallen out, but we don’t know where or when.

6 January 2010
I only managed 500 words in yesterday’s heat. I mustn’t fret or give up. Slow and steady.

7 January 2010
I managed only a few hundred words yesterday. I chose to work through the novel from the beginning, something I haven’t done much of – it involves intensely close reading and a few finicky insertions. I realised something about one of my characters, and wanted to embed that background knowledge. I felt happy knowing this thing, and inspired. It will change the title of the novel, perhaps. But then I went off and inexplicably decided to scrub the bathroom with Vim, and also clip the creeper that pokes me in the eyes when I empty the bin.

This exhausted me, and I had to lie down and read. I’ve been reading a hilarious novel BR lent me called Beyond the Great Indoors, translated from Norwegian.

I worked again for a short time until T came to tea, to say goodbye to us as she is taking her students to the Transkei today in a huge Quantum.

I haven’t heard from MO, so I assume I’m off the hook as far as the planned writing retreat is concerned next week. Which means I’ll have another week’s writing time before UCT’s summer school kicks in – I’d like to be over 40 000 words by then.

7 January 2010
I’ve scraped in at over 34 000 words today. It feels fine, though I wish it weren’t so slow. I was delayed by fetching and carrying B and by what appeared to be a go-slow at Pick n Pay. There is quite a lot of dialogue in this book, and even more internal thoughts. I hope that’s going to be OK for the reader. It’s what I need for my characters.

C reports that the nurses struggled to get Ma up for breakfast today.

When P fixed the hosepipes, what did he use? He may find his pipe repairs immortalised in fiction, if I ever manage to complete this behemoth.

11 January 2010
I managed to get over a difficult patch in my novel yesterday, despite being distracted by B who wanted to move a desk upstairs to her room.

P says baling wire – good.

Ma’s fever disappeared on Saturday, thanks to her body’s own efficiency as it sweated and shuddered to cool itself. She remains in bed, being turned by nurses who stick to a chart. Her breathing sounds shallow and phlegmy. She held onto me tight, one hand on each of my arms, when I visited on Friday. She smiled at some nonsense R was up to – massaging her toes and keeping up a running commentary. I stayed a long time on Saturday. She slept mostly, but occasionally had a coughing fit, and seemed to have some trouble swallowing (kept liquid in her mouth for a long time and then allowed it all to flow right out again). She started a few sentences, which she didn’t finish. Two of them began “If…”

C has contacted the bishop to administer last rites when they’re needed.

20 January 2010
Ma died today just after noon. I was driving home from UCT after my Summer School class, felt a sudden urge to visit her, and was there for her last few minutes.

I’d always assumed that death would be a peaceful slipping away, but I see now that the body fights for its breath; it only knows how to live.

7 February 2010
I have very slowly been inching my way back into my novel, starting from the beginning again, reading and adding and cutting.

10 February 2010
I woke up to thunder and occasional lightning flashes. It’s raining now – bringing some relief to the baking February heat. I hope it will bring relief too, to my writer’s block. I’m very anxious, unable to do anything but cut bad or overwritten bits out and rue the ambitiousness of the novel’s structure and character trajectories. I know that I will keep trying – I have endurance in me, and perseverance – but I feel like a miserable failure.

11 February 2010
Yesterday I made small progress and then tried to draw myself a diagram to show how things would shift and connect. But I think the book’s strength still lies in occasional vignettes and momentary scenes or turns of phrase – it lacks wholeness. The skein is weak.

16 February 2010
Yesterday I asked C to phone some guttering people for quotes. The only one who came seemed obtuse and gloomy. He phoned from the street. “I’m outside your house: do I need a ladder?” I went down to his vehicle and asked him if he was joking since he could actually SEE the house. An old wooden ladder peeped out of the back of his pick-up, but he left it behind. When he came up, he gaped. He was openly horrified by the immensity of the job. I asked the neighbours if he could climb into their property to view the gutters from their side, and I heard him saying to our woodworking friend next door, that the job was “impossible”, you couldn’t put scaffolding up on such an uneven surface, it was dangerous and “I hope these people have lots of money.” He kept saying, “But how would you do that?” about topics such as fixing brackets (there is no fascia) and directing downpipes, and my neighbour offered a few solutions. I had to point out sections of gutter that he seemed to be missing as he made his measurements. Maybe he only works with neat, single-storey homes while the owner holds his ladder steady for him.

When C came back from the doctor, I told her about the gutterer’s uselessness and his pessimism. She immediately phoned another company and told them to come “with a smile on your face and a positive attitude.” Gutterer no 2 was keen to hear about how the competition had disappointed us. “Look if this work was easy we’d employ family members to do it,” observed the man from Skywash.

I managed to work on my novel, and to overcome a bad moment of despondency about it.

18 February 2010
Yesterday the back part of my lower front incisor chipped, leaving it looking normal in front but feeling rough and uncomfortable inside. There was no impact like a fall, so it must simply have been brittle and perhaps had a San Andreas fault in it. There is something about tooth trouble that leaves one feeling powerless and depressed.

I am worried too, about how slowly my novel is moving, about Saturday morning’s meeting, about a reading I have at a new bookshop on Friday, about a birthday I have to attend on Saturday night and a 40-page form I have to fill in, requiring information that only an omniscient narrator could know.

19 February 2010
It was a better day, all in all. I moved the novel along (I would like to know more about the game of darts, though). I made a delicious seafood risotto for supper. I felt my mother’s voice calming me.

Not such good news was a note from Penguin to say that all three titles I have with them — What Poets Need, Flyleaf and Doo-Wop — are now officially out of print. I will be sent any remaining copies. So now I am a writer without books. Only Dementia ward is in print.

22 February 2010
I love P’s description of the knife incident. He may have to give it to me.

I’ve had a quiet day, blank really, except for supplying Book SA with my 10 tips on novel writing. Ironic, really. I should have added: Don’t waste time composing lists like this one when you should be writing your novel.

23 February
Today I turned down a request from a magazine to record a poem for a CD to be given free to readers in the month of August. I would have to attend a photo shoot too, because they want a booklet with the CD. Even though it’s not to raise funds for charity, they wanted me (and 8 other SA poets) to do this for free. That’s probably two days’ worth of driving around town, finding the studios and being primped and prompted. “But it’s great publicity for you” they said. I said that I support myself and my daughter from my writing, so regrettably I can’t give my time for free. And if you really think about it, it’s because women keep having to do things for free that they’re so disempowered that they need a CD of inspirational poems.

25 February 2010
I have been fighting with myself, really battling. I believe my book is good, and at the same time worthless – beyond me. I work only a little bit at a time.

Too Dirty for Fingerprints

When things are going badly, I try to forget the whole canvas, just work on this one tiny section that is the problem. Sometimes even 40 or 60 words is enough to move things on, like guiding a sewing machine over a thick seam – you have to go very slowly or you’ll break the needle. Then I draw back and see how it fits into the whole.

That’s the last thing I wrote about my novel, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart (to be published by Kwela in May) before 2009 drew to a close. A mixed metaphor, I see now: sewing thrown in with an artist’s canvas. Yet both metaphors are about being willing to stare at a dense thicket of trees without worrying about a landscape view of the wood. (To introduce a third metaphor.)

It’s interesting, in this fourth month of the novel’s composition, to see the daily word count climbing from pathetic (200 words a day) to impressive (1 500 words). But then someone steals my number plates. There’s evidence of clairvoyance, and also a Garbo-esque longing to be alone, a wish happily granted by the arrival of a relative who rents a mansion in Cape Town for the festive period.

7 December 2009
I only managed about 200 or 250 words today – pathetic. And it’s been that way for a long time.

I told Ma she should eat her soup and fish first, but when my attention was distracted saying goodbye to a nurse, she got stuck into the chocolate mousse with her soupy spoon.

8 December 2009
I had a much better writing day. I woke in the middle of the night to receive notes from my novel. Simple things about what should happen next.

14 December 2009
I’ve written a few hundred words and been for a swim and put the laundry in and changed B’s sheets, inter alia.

BW’s hired mansion is a vast and tastelessly decorated white elephant. Everything is wrong, even though money has been thrown around. No working outside lights (no bulbs in) to light the huge garden and no light over the braai for poor M with his mussel potjie and tuna steaks. No artwork other than a repulsive and badly executed oil of the owner’s wife. A “library” consisting of Bryce Courtney and piles of women’s magazines. An unhappy pot-bellied pig locked in a dirty cage outside.

It was Ma’s birthday yesterday – 88 years old. I popped in during T’s shift and Ma was very animated by our conversation about the family and its woes. She added little sounds and sentence-like observations from the bed.

B has been with BW since Saturday morning, so I got in 1000 words yesterday. Now people are clamouring to see me – lunches etc – and I want to say NO. Last night I was planning a bowl of pasta and veg and another hour’s writing before bed. But [-] phoned from London for a loooong chat. The pasta was soggy, and I couldn’t get my mind to think straight afterwards. I dreamt of G again. I was being incompetent in the dream, but he was kind to me. Even so, it felt wrong. I wanted him gone.

15 December 2009
How happy I feel to be alone here this evening, after a day in which I was mostly left alone, and have managed nearly 1500 words, and don’t have to cook supper.

Thinking of P’s story about the dog chasing a rabbit. I identify with the hare – its terror in fleeing the dog, the way it doesn’t know how fast it is, can’t trust its own speed.

Though I am slow. Even now that I am managing 1000 words a day, I feel pursued by the forces that would stop me. B returned yesterday afternoon, feeling homesick and missing me. I hope she recovers her spirits today so that I don’t need to cook supper or stop off at all. I think she will. I also told [-] I could not see him. I don’t miss company at all and the thought of anyone touching me or taking up my time with chitchat makes me want to scream. I feel blanked off to anything but my characters and the delicate modeling I have to do.

Ma was very talkative and astonishingly mobile yesterday. She set off several times to walk, dragging her bad, inturned leg with her, and aiming recklessly at the door.

17 December 2009
All Tuesday’s joy evaporated when R told me early yesterday that my number plates had been stolen. There was a message under my windscreen from Mountain Men Security to say that at 03.45 two “Africans” were seen transferring the plates to their own Corolla. So that meant a trip to the Police station during my prime writing time.

At first, although I was the only person at the counter, no one helped me. An overweight officer was on his cell phone. Slowly he made his way to the counter, but sat down dejectedly and did not meet my eyes. Then he said in agony that his dog was sick. His daughter had just phoned to say that his dog was vomiting. That dog means more to me than life itself, he said. And now I am expected to work. He didn’t want to cry in front of me, so he walked outside. Then he came back and wiped his face and read my statement. You know what these guys are gonna do now? They gonna commit a lot of crimes with your number plates. All over the place. We have to fill in a docket. We have to open a case. He went out to the yard and found an illiterate constable who painstakingly transcribed all my neatly typed details onto an illegible form, complete with wrong phone number. Where I wrote “theft off motor vehicle” (a phrase I’d heard a policeman use before) he shook his head at my idiocy. Had I written this? Didn’t I know that it was not theft of a motor vehicle but theft FROM a motor vehicle? Tsk, tsk. Can’t even get my prepositions right.

The day wanted to defeat me. P gatecrashed my morning swim.

I forced myself to find my rhythm once more. I sat here till I squeezed out 1000 words, by 7.30 yesterday evening. I’d been invited to an open house party at PN’s house, contemplated attending, but chose writing instead.

18 December 2009
The detective who came yesterday said my car was too dirty to reveal any fingerprints.

I did manage a thousand words. I could have done more since J was having a hectic day and our lunch turned out to be a one hour sandwich break, but B returned and I spent the rest of the afternoon with her. Today I have another rehearsal with L. I’ve also been battling with a sore neck and a headache lodged behind one eye. Those are my excuses. 0 words so far today. I hope to catch up on Saturday and Sunday.

20 December 2009
My headache and neck ache have cleared. I am sleeping well, swimming, taking an afternoon nap with a good book (Matisse sadly finished – a biography of ee cummings now, as well as a wonderful collection of poetry by Jane Kenyon called Otherwise).

In answer to P’s query, I don’t think my own aching body would cause me to be harsh on any of my characters. If anything, I am too gentle. I try to understand everybody. I have another G-character, a somewhat down-and-out stand up comic. I write him as his ex-wife and his daughter see him, then write him from inside himself. Everything drains out of me as I do this, but I’m quite pleased with the effect. Which probably means it’s not very good at all and that nobody will believe it.

I am at 23 000 words and hope to reach my notional halfway point of 30 000 words by the year’s end. I have been doing my usual thing of alternating between despair and euphoria. Despair when I fear that the novel is too slow, too detailed, lacks incident and plot, and that I have set myself an impossible task. Euphoria when the style throws up gems, when the themes effortlessly (ha!) unfold, when my characters help me by providing their own lines and actions. It is certainly easier to write when B stays the night with her cousins and I am alone here with no one to cook for. I had a poached egg on toast at 7pm.

What I am really finding hard is the empathy required to enter all my characters’ consciousnesses. What a word – ridiculous in the plural. Also, apart from the basic division of the novel into (I think) 4 parts, it is all one huge wodge of text. I will leave it that way until a solution occurs to me.

When things are going badly, I try to forget the whole canvas, just work on this one tiny section that is the problem. Sometimes even 40 or 60 words is enough to move things on, like guiding a sewing machine over a thick seam – you have to go very slowly or you’ll break the needle. Then I draw back and see how it fits into the whole.

Like Making Chicken Pie

I made a chicken pie yesterday evening. All this labour of love – simmering the whole bird, deboning and skinning; making the sauce, rolling out the pastry, fashioning decorative leaves. The family loved it, but it took a chunk of time.

I wrote that diary entry on 12 November 2009, about two months into the composition of my third novel, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, which Kwela will publish in May 2011. I was talking about a real chicken pie, but now it strikes me as an apt enough metaphor for the act of writing a novel. Except that, unlike a novel, chicken pie seldom leads to despair. Reading over the November 2009 diary entries, I was tempted to give this post the title “Sinning against the Holy Ghost” (since despair, one of the six sins against the Paraclete, is the one most often committed by novelists) but the chicken pie title is more comforting.

4 November 2009
I am keen to get back to writing, but I still have nine poetry portfolios to assess. Luckily I’ve seen most of the work before. It is ironic to me that the two humblest students are the best – a shy, awkward boy facing great poverty because of his father’s unemployment, and a pale, freckly girl with braces. … How they blossomed when I praised them. They had friends in the class and yet there was also an apartness about them, a not-completely-belonging. They write only and strictly from the heart, only about what they know and with great wit, imagination and compassion. No butterflies or rainbows. I am fed up to the back teeth with butterflies and rainbows.

The water was lovely this morning – perfect temperature and softly undulating waves. Then, as I got out, a crab grabbed my heel in the shallows. Such cheekiness! Another swimmer said he’d also been pincered – had dived under the water looking for the culprit, wanting to “bite it back”. But crab was too wise.

The swim was particularly good because I felt low blood sugary and low blood pressure after disturbed sleep. I tossed and turned in the night and eventually dreamed that a God-like figure was telling me that G (alive in the dream) had to die. I cried and even remonstrated. It was a relief in a way to “feel” the pain and grief that have eluded me in waking hours.

I’ll have an early night and hope to start early, fresh and untroubled.

5 November 2009
I swam this morning in the rain and drove home shivering with my heater on. By afternoon, the clouds had cleared and the weather was so hot I could not imagine a car heater.

It was a good writing day, with the words flowing easily and the characters standing by, offering themselves to me. I slept well last night. I hope for the same happy rest tonight, though I’ve finished The Anthologist and am moving uneasily through Raymond Carver’s poems, so how will I drop off?

9 November 2009
I won’t swim this morning. It’s still raining, and Friday’s swim was so icy that I am still recovering from my own sheer force of will in going in and staying in.

Yesterday I wrote my novel in the morning (with difficulty) and then corrected the Hamlet proofs in the afternoon. I had supper with PR but didn’t stay late because I had this sudden urge to be alone. I have had terrible moments of despair about my writing and about this book in particular. I feel hemmed in by myself and others, including the household pets. They all insist on cramming in here with me, smelling like old wet school blazers when they come in from the rain, and following my every move in case I am getting up to make their lunch. The old dog misses C, and so rubs her thick fur beneath my hand as I sit here, prompting me to pet her. The cat jumps onto my seat the moment I leave the study, so I am constantly shooing his fat bottom out of the way.

11 November 2009
A gale woke me after midnight and I lay thinking quite calmly, compared to the storm outside, about my novel. This morning I came in here and wrote some words with ease that had been denied me for days. I think my conscious mind is too self-aware of reception (How will the world read this?) whereas my subconscious is only interested in the characters, the message and the design. So I must remember to take little afternoon naps occasionally, and then come straight here afterwards to jot down things.

12 November 2009
I dreamt of G again, that he phoned me. The shock woke me. But at least the gale has subsided, so I only lay there listening to the quiet night – not even a wave break on the reef – till eventually, following novel thoughts and a few admonitions to G, I fell asleep again.

I made a chicken pie yesterday evening. All this labour of love – simmering the whole bird, deboning and skinning; making the sauce, rolling out the pastry, fashioning decorative leaves. The family loved it, but it took a chunk of time.

The Underberg – what would the typical shade tree be for farms in that area? Do the farms there have long approach roads lined with trees?

16 November 2009
A gale is blowing outside – after a week of solid rain, an equally unfriendly wind.

B and I enjoyed Julie and Julia, though I really only felt the Meryl Streep section was worth watching. We came home to make toasted sandwiches and ended up dancing to Golden Oldies in the kitchen.

But on Saturday a most terrible depressive mood came upon me. That’s when I smsed PR to cancel our date to watch a band later. I felt really really sad. I cried on my way to Frail Care. I actually crept into bed in the afternoon. Sleeping helped, and just deciding not to worry about my novel anymore. In the late afternoon, I got up and tidied my study, then watched bad lifestyle TV with B. I don’t know why Saturday was such a crisis for me. I think I’d been multitasking all week and not enjoying it, and feeling trapped by housekeeping and the rain. Then, too, Ma was so crushed and unhappy looking in the morning, all crumpled on her right side as if she’d had a stroke in the night, and completely unable to stand or speak. I had to fight to get a nurse’s attention as usual. We couldn’t get Ma onto the commode – no question of it – so she had her nappy changed on a plastic mat on her bed. But then she was so grateful for the comfortable mattress that she just closed her eyes and slept immediately. I tucked her fluffy green blanket around her. I came home and made spinach pancakes and tuna pancakes for the freezer so that there will be supper when I’m at Wordsworth books on Thursday. But the depression crept up and up until it caught my throat and I gave up on the day. It calmed me to climb right under the bedclothes with a biography of Nancy Mitford.

17 November 2009
It is hot and still here today. An evening for a G&T in the garden. Mmmm. I have returned to my novel. It needs something, but only by spending time with it will I find out what.

20 November 2009
I need a hand injury for a practical man. I need my character to have something like a bent thumb from an old woodworking or handyman injury.

Last night’s reading was pretty dire – a bookshop in a shopping mall, with scant audience. I fluffed, someone’s cell rang while I was reading. Poem after poem all sounding like chatty, chopped up woman-to woman emails. Yuk.

But the good thing is that as I sat there behind my co readers, a renewed sense of my own worth came upon me. The sublime will probably continue to elude me, and there are many jumps I will continue to shy away from, but my feet do not fall easily upon the mawkish or the clichéd. Go home and write, I promised myself.

When it Wakes you in the Wee Hours

I woke several times in the night with high anxiety, near panic, as the book rang me awake like a car alarm. My characters power their way around my head, jostling for position, showing me their hand. The structure firms itself. But many things could still change. I have been thinking of names for them. I may use my weekend time at De Hoop nature reserve to make long handwritten notes for each of them.

That’s what I wrote on 1 October 2009, some 20 days into my third novel, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, to be published by Kwela in May 2011. When I’m writing a novel, I depend on sleep and exercise. The novel continues to write itself in my sleep, and wakes me regularly. More consciously, I use the rhythm of walking or swimming to help me solve problems created by or discovered in the previous day’s writing.

12 October 2009
I have started to make small progress with my novel, but I’m not in love with it yet. I don’t know if it’s related, but I’ve had to train myself not to clench my teeth at night because I’ve been waking up with stiff jaws. It was a mistake to allow the book to grow in my head rather than on the page, because everything is less fluid when it must be set out in paragraphs that don’t actually creak and grind as I switch, connect, turn. I’m disappointed of course, by the discrepancy between my vision and the building site I now inhabit.

Thursday’s class went well. Baden Powell was open and the ride through was quick. I made a severely depressed girl laugh. She’d written to say she didn’t think she could manage a poem because she’d just started medication. I wrote to say I hoped she’d come anyway. I was commenting on R’s cute un-love poem, which was quite like Roethke in its playfulness, its simple yet winding language. It was about not wanting to wait long enough to find out whether someone is interesting enough to love. I said, “So R, you don’t believe what my mama said, you can’t hurry love, you just have to wait, it’s a game of give and take…” and I glided straight into the pop song. Poor depressed Z burst out laughing. She said to the boy sitting next to her: “I’m so glad I came – that made my day!”.

15 October 2009
It’s raining now, but yesterday I swam at Fish Hoek in perfect conditions: warm and windless with beautiful, gentle wave sets.

I wasn’t happy with my novel so I started again. I think I worry too much about being funny because people say that they love that in my writing, but I must just write and let the funniness come through naturally, organically, where it wants to. Also: take it very slow – don’t push characters around or reveal everything about them. Find them where they are and train the camera on them as unobtrusively as possible.

Today I can’t write because I must prepare my Stellenbosch class. All interruptions are regrettable.

19 October 2009
Yesterday I put in some good hours on my novel and then went for a walk with PR to Kleinplaas dam on Red Hill. We swam and then went back to his house where he made sirloin for supper – very delicious but perhaps not rare enough.

I dreamt I was balding on my crown and no one had told me about it.

20 October 2009
Something about L’s enquiry really helped me – though it’s difficult to say why. I think I agree with her that a book should, on a very profound level, be believable.

But then soon after I started writing again, I had a long phone call from BW, who’s had a lovely holiday in Italy, including a privately guided tour of Pompeii.

22 October 2009
I gave my last Stellenbosch class today – they applauded – and then I came home and went straight for a wonderful swim in big, warm waves.

I even wrote a little this morning, before preparing my class. It was a good day.

When the writing isn’t going well, I am lying in wait. I keep still and wait for the right phrase to come shyly browsing. One phrase – sometimes even one word, like “marshal” in the right place – can lead to paragraphs more. It could be like hunting, or like mining and finding a rich seam. I am very critical of myself. Sometimes I say firmly: “I will come back and fix this later, but I am moving ahead now”. It feels as though a flag has gone up.

I am thoroughly enjoying The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker – a nutty poet writing an introduction to an anthology while being distracted by sundry other thoughts.

I slept well even though the wind tried to shake my sash window from its grooves, and rattled its panes most perilously.

Now, after cooking supper and talking and drinking I am sleepy, in that good honest way of sleepiness, when you’ve worked and exercised and not drunk too much but enough.

25 October 2009
I have seldom had quite such a quiet weekend. We walked down to Danger Beach with the dogs – Tigger chasing a game Alsatian and Jozy mostly sitting but occasionally snarling at dogs that came close. I think her arthritis makes her testy. A lovely swim in the morning at Fish Hoek, and again this morning. Otherwise, making slow progress on my novel.

29 October 2009
We battened down as much as we could as the most terrifying gale shook us. On and on it went, with huge swells. The old dog Jozy hunkered down here and from time to time, the gusts at 180 km/h, looked at me as if to say “DO something about it”.

I tried to swim on Tuesday but the water was dense with chewed up seaweed and the waves were still in a mood for dumping. Yesterday the water was icy – I didn’t stay in as I knew I’d have other exercise at home, moving the furniture in order to dust.

I made good writing progress on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but yesterday after moving the furniture I went for a massage with S. She got into my shoulders in a big way and it was occasionally eina.

30 October 2009
It’s true that the notes P sent me yesterday were not quite what I had in mind – not that I would expect him at all to know what I have in mind when I describe it so poorly. My male character is about 60 years old and jogs in the morning the way I walk, but not the way P trains, and with no competition in mind. I’ve noticed that some runners move their arms more than others – is that a choice of style?

The writing is so hard this time I think because of the multiple viewpoints.

I have my poetry class tomorrow, followed by supper with D. I’ll write on Sunday.

My next post will cover November 2009.

My next post will cover November 2009.

A Writer’s Diary, or So You Think You Want To Write A Novel?

In September 2009, after unavoidable delays, I started writing my third novel, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, which will be published around May 2011 by Kwela.

Extracts from my diary give some insight into the process of composition, my daily mood swings as the writing takes hold, and my struggle to interact with the real world as I create an imaginary one.

My first post covers September 2009, when everything about the novel was still quite fluid – I was working through rough notes and trying to transform the mere idea of the novel into actual words on the page. In Roland Barthes’ terms, I had completed the period of “notation”, the first stage of composition where material is amassed, and was moving onto the stage of “execution”. Just as Barthes’ lectures (entitled La Préparation du Roman) predict, this second stage involved three problematic decisions: the choice of a form for the novel; the challenge of reconciling the outer world with the inner, writing world; and the seasickness of being “out of time”, since the timescale of the novel one is writing is radically different from the calendar on the wall.

It’s not as if one can simply walk away from the outer world, go off on an extended writing retreat. As Barthes points out, the writer needs to remain a “secret sharer”, organizing her (in this case) writing life and space around friendships, family and chores. Does one carry on reading other books while engaged in the task of trying to write one’s own? At what pace will the novel be written?

I did not keep a record of the period of notation, when I scribbled random thoughts in sundry notebooks, or simply rolled thoughts over in my mind. The record thus begins as I enter the (well-named) stage of execution.

10 September 2009
B is sixteen today: no turning back.

We had visitors yesterday evening, though they kindly brought the supper – and kept filling my glass. I don’t have a headache, but I did suffer from nightmares, a long one in which I was chased on foot, in cars and trains by an aggressive man who said I wouldn’t dare leave him.

But in my waking moments, fragments of the novel I’d been mentally planning when G died came back to me. I thought it had gone forever.

I spent most of the morning washing up, cleaning and doing the laundry. By the time I’d done that, I had to feed the dogs and pick up the groceries, firewood and B.

But perhaps I can at least make some notes today.

16 September 2009
My shoulder stiffened and ached as I went through the notes I want to use for my novel – I had to take two Neurofen at bedtime. Thinking of P and his hilarious attempts to be stung by a bee. He mustn’t be surprised if that ends up in a book.

18 September 2009
I was less tetchy yesterday, despite the coffee and tea dates. The tension I’m experiencing might after all be directly linked to the immensity of the writing task that lies ahead – no one’s fault at all. It will only be eased once I take charge of the process, barring the door to idle social contact. I am a short woman getting ready for the pole vault.

I will keep going through my diary and extracting gems/germs, also making notes in addition to the handwritten notes I have dotted in various notebooks. I’ve started to list some of the characters and ideas I want to cover. I need to think a lot more about structure and technique (here I suddenly think of P and the rocks in his mtb path). Time is always a problem for me – how much time to cover and how. One idea, which I will probably discard, is to structure the book around four days separated in time. It would allow me to do both the intensely detailed, quotidian, diary-like thing I enjoy, but also bolster that with the architecture of years. More and more I lean towards using the third-person for the first time, though strongly sympathetic to the main character, and filtering her stream of consciousness rather than the other characters. I need a rough sketch only: blueprints are fatal.

22 September 2009
To my great relief, NELM came to fetch all G’s papers yesterday, so I no longer have to stumble past 8 boxes of his creative outpourings to get to my desk.

Ma wanted to talk last night, but no English came, apart from the phrase “In 1944 we”. She said some words in French, and then spoke what sounded like sentences, except they were not in a recognisable language. Her mind is like the mountain after a devastating fire – a few lone ashen tree trunks spike from the earth, which still wants to put forth.

23 September 2009
B breaks up today. We have been discussing her flying up to Johannesburg on Sunday to stay with C for 2 nights. I would like a few days off, to pretend to be a single person who only has to think, write, look after herself, and make toast when she’s hungry (and of course feed the dogs and that thug of a cat).

29 September 2009
I am despondent about my book, which will not settle down and feel comfortable about being written. I keep imagining what people – critics – will say if I construct it this way or that. I worry about what people want from me, but I know that the book will only be good if I do exactly what I want. I have wanted to be at this point for so long – all these years of slogging away at syllabi and textbooks. Now I am here, and it feels dense and intractable.

I fetch B today at 2. It would be nice to fight my way out of this thicket before then.

Have just walked to Muizenberg and back in the South-Easter. A warm blue day lies beneath the wind.

My next post will cover October 2009.

Finuala Dowling & Louis Zurnamer in Blood relatives and other strangers

A flyer for my latest

Poet Finuala Dowling &
Pianist Louis Zurnamer


Blood relatives and other strangers
(poems with piano)

Kalk Bay Theatre
52 Main Rd Kalk Bay
For bookings, phone 073 2205430
or book online at

Monday 21 December 2009
8.30 pm
Booking essential

Doors open from 6.00 pm
Meals available
(See menu at
Fully licensed

Blood relatives and other strangers mixes the rollercoaster pleasures of Finuala Dowling’s tragic-comic poetry with the exquisite sounds of Schumann, Satie, Chopin, Scarlatti, Albéniz and Ginastera, played by Louis Zurnamer. Louis has chosen piano pieces that speak to Finuala’s poems with witty underscoring, lyrical interludes and nutty improvisations.

About the performers

Prize-winning pianist Louis Zurnamer’s astonishing musical talent was nurtured at UCT by Lamar Crowson and Barry Smith. He has featured as both soloist and accompanist in concerts and seminars across South Africa as well as in Germany, Pakistan and Islamabad. Currently he is musical director, vocal coach and rehearsal pianist for Pieter Toerien Theatre Productions, having worked on musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and Cats.

Finuala Dowling’s debut collection of poetry, I flying, won the Ingrid Jonker Prize and its four impressions have sold out. Her second volume of poetry, Doo-Wop Girls of the Universe, was co-winner of the Sanlam Award, and her third, Notes from the Dementia Ward, was shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg and Herman Charles Bosman prizes. She is the author of two novels, What Poets Need and Flyleaf. She has read her poetry at international festivals in Cape Town, Durban and Aldeburgh. Finuala teaches poetry and writes English text books for a living.

Poetry Workshop Saturday 30 May

There are a few places left in the poetry workshop to be held at my house in Kalk Bay on Saturday 30 May 16h00-18h00.

May’s exercises are as follows (submit one or more):

1. Write a poem on the theme of walking the dog(s).
2. Write a poem offering proof that cats are intuitive.
3. Write a poem about the most egotistical person you’ve ever met.
4. Construct a poem around the use of irregular past participles.
5. What are you thinking?
6. Use the structure and/or rhyme scheme of “One, two, buckle my shoe”.
7. Write an elegy to an abstract concept (for example, “Elegy for silent afternoons”)

If you would like to attend, contact me at The cost is R90.