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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“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.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 9th, 2011 @15:40 #

    It is proof of Finuala's talent that diary entries about fixing gutters make for utterly absorbing reading. Full of pithy little verities: "There is something about tooth trouble that leaves one feeling powerless and depressed."

    Oh, and I remember that CD. I was asked. I said yes. I booked off two days. I was hugely excited. They changed the date. I made time all over again. Silence. I followed up. Sorry, the sponsors had rejected my poem for being "too risque". No, they hadn't seen the necessity to tell me, a freelancer keeping two days open for them. So imagine my glee at reading it's "because women keep having to do things for free ... that they need a CD of inspirational poems".


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