Oak-aged

The other day I looked at my grey hair and receding gums and thought, I’m sure I was about twenty last time I checked. Or thirty. Either way, this weird little middle-aged face is something new. I also thought, it’s been an age since I had a story published, and I should get on with it.

I’ve been writing as ever, behind my somewhat quieter blog, but in the last couple of years I’ve very purposefully slowed down my submission rate.

I started writing fiction in late 2009 and, for a year or two,  churned out short stories for publication. I enjoyed being published. Then I went on maternity leave, with all the joy that brings (and no time to write at all).

When I came back, I realised how much I dislike most of my old stories. If they aren’t clunky, contrived, self-aware, expository, naive, boring, sloppy, pretentious or, worse, didactic, then at best they aren’t “me”. 

I want to change that;  to submit work that I like rather than just something “good enough to publish” (or both, of course). I want to savour the writing, layer it, and fully enjoy it for its own sake. I think a lot of people make that transition the other way around, but I don’t want to get stories published for the sake of it; I want to build a body of work that fits together as an integrated whole, perhaps with a view to publishing a collection, or collating shorts into a novel. I don’t know how realistic this is, but the only way to find out is to try. 

The initial result is that I’m writing almost exclusively for my bin. I’ll draft something, have an honest re-read a day or two later, and smack the delete button so hard it hurts. That accounts for 8/10 stories. For the remaining two, there’ll be an edit, followed by cold storage, a further re-read, and one more binned. The last story will be edited a third or fourth time before being binned. Once every four or five rounds, a story will emerge that doesn’t make me wince, and I might submit it. At the moment, that’s about two a year, about 2% of the stories that I start.

It’s painfully slow, but I’m trying to see it like whisky — you can chug back a cheap blended whisky with coke, and throw it back up when you’ve had too much, or you can sip an oak-aged malt, savouring the peat, wood and smoke of decades. They aren’t the same experience, in the distilling or the tasting.

So that’s why no one has heard much of me this year, but I am still here, and I am still writing.

Meanwhile, I’ve been interested to read other writers’ views on the writing process, and the percolation of stories over time.

On her blog, Alison Wells has written a series of posts about slow writing and quality. This month, Valerie O’Riordan blogged about her writing process. Just now, Marcus Speh has taken it a step further and speaks of a transcendental process in his writing, along with the interplay between different languages (and a McCarthy quote that I wish I had found). These people are great writers, and they are all advocating slow writing. Maybe there’s something in the air — or maybe ‘slow’ is just a good thing.

I’ll add more links as I find them — later, though, because I have to dash now. My writing process might have slowed down, but the rest of life is still zooming. I have children to entertain and a house to clean, before my hair goes white, my teeth fall out, and all the stories rot out of my head.

 

4 comments

  1. I love this post! I feel as you do, that time is creeping up and you see it in the mirror, and you try to gauge from the eyes who you actually are. You try to figure out what it is that you actually want to be remembered for when you leave this place – average work that you can churn out tons of, or something special and worthy, which may take more time.

    Over the years, your writing style can change. I know mine certainly has, and things I wrote ten years ago make me cringe with embarrassment. I have learned a lot.

    I am only just really starting to dip my toe into the competition pool, and that is a massive learning and practising tool for me. Short stories are helping me to tighten my style and to make me “tell the story” with much less fuss but with more imagery, clarity and efficiency.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. Blogging can sometimes be a distraction from your “real” work, but ultimately can bring its own rewards.

    Good luck in your endeavours and keep us posted!

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    • TU says:

      Hi Debbi, thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts. I hope my writing style can evolve. I use the competitions as a meter for whether I’m producing anything functional because I can’t tell myself, but when I look back at even those stories, I feel as if I haven’t found my own voice yet. I read THE HAGGARD by PG O’Connor the other day and it’s so rich and bizarre, so strong, and I couldn’t have written it. I think you need a confidence to write like that, and it should be easy to be a confident writer, because what is there to lose? It’s just a story, right?

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  2. Marcus Speh says:

    I agree, as you knew I would because I said so elsewhere (thanks for finding and sharing) and it’s quite miraculous that a bunch of us seem to entertain similar ideas and engage equally low gears. A garage full of unused racing cars to quickly get around one’s story kingdom…or a horse, better even: a stubborn, old mule, to meander seemingly without aim…though you articulated one, and a lofty and grounded barrel both. I like it but at present I’m still too enamoured by my own state of being lost…I’ve given, it seems to me, far too little time and space in my life to just be and wait. Good luck on your path!

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    • TU says:

      Hey Marcus, wonderful to see you here. I’ve dialled back my presence on social media — to save time during the baby years — and I’ve missed chatting with you, Michelle, and so many others. I really enjoyed dropping in at your blog the other day.
      I love the idea of being lost inside a story kingdom — I always think that lost people are the ones who step over the boundaries that shouldn’t be there, creating new spaces, in the same way that naive people have the best hopes. I look forward to seeing where it takes you.
      Over here, my stories have entered a dark world — if you look at Almost, that’s where I am with my writing (but longer!). I’m still nurturing a half-dead novel, but also have a collection of short stories growing very organically in the background. I’m having enormous fun with that (also very dark) material. I have one out on sub at the moment and will share if it gets published. Just the one, mind… slow, slow…

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