When I sent my publisher a Word document called Marthamanuscript.docx, a little over a year ago, it was a note assuring her not to worry – I already knew that these hundred pages were not the makings of a novel, so she didn’t have to think of a nice way to tell me they’d never see the light of day, surely the hardest thing about being a publisher or first equal with all the other hardest-things.
Almost as soon as I’d started working on it, six months before, I could see that this sort-of love story, or one woman’s coming-of-age story, except not because she’s 40, was too peculiar and experimental and too different from anything I’d written before to be the book I was contractually-obligated to provide and a year overdue in providing.
The problem was, as my note went on to explain, “it all just sort of fell out this way when I sat down”.
And in my defence, I never meant for it to see the light of day. It was only ever for me, something I had been working on without telling anyone, as a way to put myself back together after spending the past year on manuscript which, after thousands of hours of writing and rewriting, and misery and tears and missing things, was unbearably awful and beyond saving.
It was my publisher who told me, then, after I decided to abandon it, that if I was going to try again (she hoped I would, I absolutely promised I wouldn’t), I had to start by rediscovering the joy in it, the reason why I wanted to do this, and only ever this, to begin with.
Because writing is hard, she said, but it shouldn’t be joyless.
You won’t always love what you write but you should love the writing, the working and working and working away at something and then, all of a sudden, the simple but magical coming-together of words that make a sentence, which forms a character, who tells a story, that might speak, one day, to another person.
As all writers and would-be writers must, I just had to find a way to quiet the legion of imaginary critics, ignore my mythical but fiercely disapproving audience, to stop striving to Write a Novel (and telling people about it) and just simply write, and then – my publisher was sure – the magic would occur at some point and the joy would come back and I would remember.
The way I found to do it, which seems ridiculous and quite unbelievable to me now, was to write – before any actual words – a list of rules, falsely-cheerful affirmations and personal encouragements which truly scraped the bottom of the barrel in terms of showing self-belief but that’s all I had.
They are entirely too shaming to share (fine, one – such a great font choice!) but I taped it to the wall next to my screen and read it every time I started to lose my nerve.
And in the little bubble of protection it gave me, I started again and for the first time in my writing life, I didn’t worry about what readers or critics or future one-star-reviewers on Goodreads might say.
If I thought something was funny or sad or interesting or true, I put it in. I didn’t try and make it clever and thesaurusy, I just – as it were – wrote down what happened, what the characters did and said and then said next.
And that is why Sorrow and Bliss, or rather Marthamanscript.docx, was peculiar and experimental and different from anything I’ve ever written before.
And my publisher, after she read it, agreed.
But my not-caring or at least my effort not-to-care also made it the truest thing I have ever written and the experience of writing it, pure joy and that is why I’d sent her the note and those hundred pages in the first place.
And maybe, why she only – and thank goodness – disagreed on the “to ever see the light of day” part.
‘DEVASTATING AND HILARIOUS’
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, published by HarperCollins Australia, is out now.
At heart the story of a romance, critics have called it “a brutal, hilarious, compassionate triumph”; “timely and dark and poignant and funny” and “as devastating and sharply witty as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag”.
Tell us what you think at The Sunday Book Club group on Facebook.
Our Book of the Month is The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman — yours for 30 per cent off RRP at Booktopia with the code PAGES.