Well, if you’ve clicked through to this page its probably because you’re the web police and want to know why a page has been called “under construction.” Or perhaps, like me, you have some nostalgia for those websites in the mid nineties that announced “site under construction,” presumably because publishing workflows hadn’t been invented. I remember one friend had a page that happily said, “no this page isn’t under construction, it’s just crap.” Fair dos.
In fact this isn’t under construction in that sense, not as a page anyway. More of a construct if anything. That is, I don’t imagine either coming back to it regularly for changes or leaving it in this state with a nice excuse hanging, like those 90s single page hand-coded websites with their two blocks of rough-hewn html and an airbrushed jpg.
Bear with me, as well as the rambling prose, i’m hoping to pull together tips for writers and something vaguely philosophical about writing. Have I used “writing” enough to get a google trace, maybe, writing writing writing.
Now where was I…
I guess one slightly obnoxious point, if we need one, is along the lines of how does our work exist before completion?
Do we dare to start, or are we too precious about the onward pace and the need to finish?
Are we scared to commit, to commit ideas to the page or to commit our work to critical eyes?
Do we dare to finish? To say this is done, it is no longer part of me. My story must make its way alone.
What is it to finish? What is it to travel hopefully? And are amateur writers more likely to ditch their projects because the journey is no longer enough fun to bother with.
Committing to the start, preparing and then ceasing to prepare – changing into the doing mode. That isn’t always easy.
Starting to write…again
There was an interesting case with an individual I know who requested a website for himself and a project. He asked for 100 pages to be “created” to begin with, ready for the content to be put into them when the time was ripe. Some explanation was needed. Pages don’t need creating ahead of time. There’s no wood pulp needed, no bleaching no drying. It’s digital. Just launch yourself into it.
But maybe, for those who have lived through the printed paper phase and watched the world gradually become digital, there is something about the preparation of the platform on which to write. There is a need for the deep breath before beginning. There’s a need for that blank page, to know its there and that there is space to write.
I’m reminded of that terrific image from Virginia Woolf:
“she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.” [Mrs Dalloway]
The beginning. That moment before it is all under construction. The moment when waiting stops and excuses start. That moment when the end begins stretching horribly away from grasp.
Real feel – does it help you begin?
Stepping back more than a few years, I recall what seemed to me a sudden opportunity to type onto a white screen in black type. Of course I found out later – actually by reading Sephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles (super book, buy it and read it regularly) – that the marvellous apple™ company were doing this way ahead of anyone. Nonetheless, the power of the phantom page, the ache to be creating a book with Times New Roman on a white page-shaped rectangle on the screen, that was what motivated me. In fact,not having access to the proper equipment was enough to put me off, being lazy to the core, and unable any longer to stoop start writing in a green typeface on black screen. Better not to start and instead to concentrate on making endless cafetieres of coffee and being grumpy.
It is a seductive thing, knowing that your preparation must be done carefully, so carefully in fact that the real work needn’t begin for a while. If you’re really, really lucky someone else can be given the major preparatory work, the paper making, the quill sharpening, the website building, the sacred creation of that tabula rasa before which to stand in awe of the creativity to come. Cue Virginia Woolf again.
There’s a popular type of scene in novels or films which has a would-be (I’m avoiding the odious “wannabe” expression and hope to repopularise “would-be” as a phrase) a would-be creative, in the first throes of their work and, of course, finding – to wonderful comic effect – that they are so busy preparing the background to the publication that they can’t get on with the task in hand.
This seemed to be a problem even before the green type on black was there to provide excuses.
Keith Waterhouses, Billy Liar (Michael Joseph, 1959) has a great example reworked in the film of 1963 and if I can sidestep copyright law for illustrative academic purposes, it would be good if you could home in on the scene in question. Not least because it is a bazzing good scene and worth trying to get hold of:
Billy Fisher, full of grandiose promise and self-delusion, is beginning his novel while at work. He writes the title, writes it again, writes a large “by” and then begins inventing names for himself. After a while preparing this header to the work he types a sentence and then scraps the sheet, ripping it from the roller of his cast iron Imperial with a sound you just can’t get from the delete button on a Mac.
Good scene. A classic for writers who fail to start. There’s the grandiosity with which the title and the opening paragraph are felt to herald the entranceway to a masterwork. Then the need to go over it again and make sure that entrance way is properly formed, with bells, and buzzers, and cherubim. At this point the beginning takes over. I’ve seen it plenty of times, someone with a film or a novel or even a story, and what they’ve really got is an opening chapter, or opening scene or line.
(Another nice example from David Nichol who in One Day has a not dissimilar chuckle at seedling creativity. High-minded and expecting to change the world, Emma Morley has her first go at novel writing and offers a marvelously naff half page, again with the title and the word “by” together with much agnoising over the potential pseudonyms.
[Writing exercise 1: construct a scene where a would-be creative gets overpowered when trying to begin a new work.]
Writing, possibly more than many other hobbies, passions, callings or whatever you wish to call them, seems to encourage this. We want to begin, we want to tease out a thread that will seem like a starting point. Writing a story, whether based on something that has befallen us or that we wish or dread to befall some invented other, is a powerful motivation to sit down with whatever implement is to hand and to promise ourselves that we will begin at the beginning and, with some meandering through sagging middles, will arrive at an end.
Can we end, are we like Eyore who points out wisely in TH@PC “I would like to begin again but it is easier to stop.” Stopping is not easy. Nor is it easy to erase what we have begun with: “the moving finger writes” as Fitzgerald has it in the Rubaijat, and not that the past is done and we move on, but that it is there for us to live with. Unable to stop we must press towards the end. If our story has proved too much for us, so way too much that we are not able to finish it but cannot bear to destroy the work, then it does seem easier to leave it until later, wait for the muse, or maybe do a bit more preparatory work, a bit of preparing of the Booker Prize acceptance speech, a bit of work on the font we should have for the cover, a bit of work on the dedication…
A philosopher equal in many ways to Eeyore, Gerard Genette points with adroit wisdom at the impossibility of beginning a narrative, looking to complex restarting as “mimicking as it were, the unavoidable difficulty of beginning the better to exorcise it.” Narrative Discourse trans. Lewin, Cornell UP, p.46.) We organise our every thought into narratives of being and the compulsion to write is the need to find meaning through organisation, through example, through the hope to find a beginning and to head towards what can be satisfactorily thought of as an end. “Closure” seems to be a word that has gained ground through American politics as much as through narratology, and while we look for this in some instances, there is the pull of the need to end against the need to be alive to the ongoing pursuit of that end, something worth pursuing, via Walter Benjamin, through Peter Brooks’ ideas that “narrative has something to do with time boundedness, and that plot is the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” Reading for the Plot, (Harvard, 1992, p.22.)
Ultimate excuse #1 – “It’s not finished yet” aka work in progress
There’s another scene of would-be writers that springs to mind. Isn’t there a Comic Strip Presents episode when Dawn French is a lonely writer, typing away at her book and getting shirty with anyone looking over her shoulder – “it’s all changing, I’m changing it all, it’s not finished” or something of that nature – and over her should you see her writing “run spot run” or some other 6 word todder book – great scene and one that You Tube has failed to pitch up for me. Never mind. The impulse is there to hide the work, deny the creative process and to believe that it’ss possible to begin again. The classic riposte from the challenged creative. My work is in progress, don’t judge me yet, let it be known that this is under construction and is mine, still mine. You can’t have it yet. It’s not ready to go off on its own.
How long have you been meaning to write, or meaning to finish or meaning to start again?
Of course I’m aiming towards amateurs and hobbyists here. Professionals don’t do this as they are given deadlines by others who depend on their work, or at least they don’t do it much.
I often wonder, did Isaac Walton ever complete the Compleat Angler, or was it a work in progress?
So, why is this post “under construction”? The clue is probably in the opening to this post. Fear to commit, fear to share and be scrutinised. Fear to finish. In such circumstances, give your post a title no-one would ever want to read.
Tips for writers
- Accept the possibility of what Anne Lamott hails as those “shitty first drafts” (Bird by Bird) whether you end up flushing it down the pan or keeping it for a bit of further modelling, there’s a lot to be said for actually having the shitty draft there to deal with.
- It’s not yours. It only completes itself in the mind of a reader. Know how to let go.
- Invite others in to see your work in progress. Prevent yourself from being precious around what is finished and what isn’t.
- Write towards getting an idea into the open rather than filling space or filling time. Don’t worry how many words, megabytes, hours have gone in, but what you’ve managed to bring into the open.
Who knows, maybe someone will read it.