What I’m learning about writing: wordlessness – Anna Spargo-Ryan

What I’m learning about writing: wordlessness

What I’m learning about writing: wordlessness

I am in the grip of a wordlessness that is as profound as it is terrifying.  The fear of failure is compelling. I am expecting to be able to pick up a brand new book, with barely a skeleton outline, and execute it in a deft dance. The first book took two and a half years to finish, even though the draft itself was only 10 weeks. I mulled over that story for months, driving home from Neighbours down Ferntree Gully Road with Gordon and Meg in my ears, shouting about what I might do with them, how they might feel, who they might become. I felt Gordon’s whispered presence with me wherever I went, demanding attention in the line at the supermarket and in the darkness of night, write me down, write me down. Write my white stubbled face and write my strange little dog, we want to go walking down through the valley where purple flowers appear by a creek bed from nowhere. And Nina with her fat neck, trying to get my attention though unable to read or write, and No Eyes laughing shrill in the hallways.

The characters in that story felt as real as any person I had met. But they didn’t always feel like that. In the beginning they were just shadows, they were the notion of someone who might become something resembling a thing I had briefly imagined. They were little hints at personalities that I could identify in people I knew or people I had seen or people I had read about, but not in my own writing. Not in the beginning. In the beginning I had pencil drawings and stick figures, and I had to write them and then write them again and then again before they became anything more than that, before I could put them in a situation and know how they would respond and what they would say.

It is no surprise, then, that the characters I am imagining for this new book are also shadows, suggestions, fleeting notions. There is Leslie, a young solider returned from war but alienated by his father and wrapped in cotton wool by his mother, who has lost her two other sons. There is Edith, his future wife, whom he meets at the edge of the pool where the cold water shrinks into their skin, and she reminds him of his sister, and she teaches him how to laugh again. And there is another man, whose name I don’t know, and he returns from Vietnam and he is not the same person; where there was a young man who loved science and insects and lizards he found under rocks, now there is a frightened and disturbed man who struggles to readjust to his old life until he finds someone who doesn’t fit theirs either.

And they are fine characters, and parts of them are hanging loosely around some words that I have written in the middle of the night that don’t necessarily make sense (something about “napkins shaped like swans” and another thing that just says “Joe’s not here”) and I don’t know what these things mean yet but I’m sure that I will eventually, because that is the way that this goes.

I was lamenting my inability to construct sentences to someone last week, and they said something that resonated with me, which was: do you want to stop writing, then? Stop writing! Who could imagine such a thing? And that’s how I know I will keep going, and that I will write this thing and after that I will write another thing, but right now I feel like I’ve had a stroke and forgotten how to do it.

Lesson 7:

  • Mrs Fringe

    February 4, 2014 at 11:33 pm Reply

    Deep breaths for deep books, Anna. It makes sense for your characters, your stories, to define their edges and show shading. Thoughtful writing–which is what you produce–requires thought.


    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm Reply

      You are absolutely right, of course. Thank you for redirecting me! x

  • Jodi Gibson (JF Gibson Writer)

    February 5, 2014 at 7:08 am Reply

    Let it come Anna. What is now just a feint breath of breeze I’m sure will turn into a hurricane of words. x

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      February 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm Reply

      I hope so! I can feel the physical blockage behind my eyes. Brain! So funny.

  • John James

    February 5, 2014 at 7:40 am Reply

    I understand the whole “shadow-people” thing – my characters in my first draft of “TKATS” are still shadows, not quite fully formed… I can see them in my peripheral vision, but I know I haven’t captured them yet…

    This writing thing is a funny game, isn’t it! :)

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