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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 1st, 2011 @13:07 #

    Intriguing window into what for many is a mysterious and scary process. Looking forward to next instalment.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    February 1st, 2011 @15:04 #

    This has inspired me to be more organised. My notes end up everywhere except where they should be.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    February 1st, 2011 @15:27 #

    i've written three comments and deleted all of them. struggling to convey how much this resonated with me.


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