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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Nozizwe Cynthia</a>
    Nozizwe Cynthia
    February 2nd, 2011 @17:04 #

    I'm loving your posts - looking forward to Nov (curious to find out how long it took to write the novel!)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 3rd, 2011 @22:39 #

    The point about needing sleep and exercise to write hit me between the eyes. It's not just other people's deadlines that stop me (and lots of others) writing -- it's what we do with our days to accommodate those deadlines. I sacrifice sleep most of all, and it's fatal.


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