Who pulled the plug out?

Last week, little more than two months after starting it, I finished the first draft of a new novel. At just less than 90,000 words, it’s currently shorter than some of my crime novels, and my editor may suggest that it needs more depth in some places, more background, more whatever. But that’s the thing about a first draft: you write and write, revising as you go, letting the original plan founder in the wake of what comes out of your head. And when it’s done you stand back and look at it from a distance. That’s the time too when you ask someone else to have a look, as you’re too close to see it clearly.

The draft was zipped off to my editor, after one last re-reading and some tidying up. So now, I wait. It’s a curiously flat stage in the process. Day after day for several weeks I sat at the laptop for every available minute. Night after night details of the plot, unfinished business, unresolved anomalies, all reverberated round my brain.

analysis blackboard board bubble


My sleep suffered. Sometimes by morning I could see a way through to the next steps, sometimes the dilemmas turned out to be non-existent. But the damn thing occupied my head almost without respite until I never wanted to see it again.


And now it’s gone. For a day or two I was still fretting about it in the night, but then that wore off and here I sit, waiting, like a deflated balloon.

ground orange balloon deflated

I’m trying to do the things I put to one side while I was writing, but nothing feels important enough to bother with. Days that passed so fast are now dragging, not helped by a tendon strain that’s restricting my walking and exercise routines. It’s only a week since let the draft go, but it feels like a month and I’m impatient for some reaction. I know there’ll be re-writes to do, but what and how is still to be decided. 

When the last book was heading towards publication this time last year, I asked myself whether I ever wanted to do it again. The same question is on my mind now. I know there are so many other things in life I want to do: getting older certainly adds a sense of urgency. But right now nothing other than writing seems to provide the sense of ‘flow’ in the way that Csikszentmihalyi defined it, a very satisfying combination of effort and focus, that makes the hours flash past. Fell walking comes close, and maybe I need to concentrate on my recovery and get the boots back on. With summer coming, that looks like a worthwhile alternative.

brown work boots



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man with the unprounounceable name, introduced us some years ago to the concept of ‘Flow’, defined in Wikipedia thus:

Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

This is what I want to think about today, sitting waiting for a cab to take me to the airport in Winnipeg and thence to Fredericton, NB, to start – hopefully – ‘flowing’ through next week. You would think that as a writer I would be extolling the impact of writing, making me feel fully immersed, etc etc. but during the past weeks in Winnipeg I’ve not been writing my fourth novel, I’ve been earning the money to publish it.

At least, that’s what I thought this work was for, but I’d forgotten what a challenge and a joy it can be to present ideas that are part of your life to other people. There have been times during this work when ‘flow’ exactly captures my state of mind. I’ve never done any extreme sports, but I think this may be the intellectual equivalent, using all your brain, senses and responses to get ideas across. No script, and several variables to juggle –  the prior knowledge of the group, the ways they learn, the ideas that interest them, time, lunch, the goals to be reached by the end of the day. You’re prepared, obviously, but what really prompts the words that come out of your mouth is ‘flow’, and when that happens you hear yourself making connections you didn’t even know were in your mind, remembering apposite facts and ideas from long ago and weaving them in, spontaneously.

That’s teaching. In my case it’s teaching adults. Subject knowledge is important only because it releases your mind from remembering things to the qualitatively different activity of making connections and adapting what you know to the particular circumstances of the moment. My subject knowledge is about teaching and student assessment, and it’s been accumulating over forty years. I should be pretty good at it by now.

But this wasn’t the plan. Six years ago I made up my mind to learn how to write fiction, and I’m doing that. I wanted to write a novel, and I did – eventually – and then I wrote two more and I’m slowly getting better. There are times in the writing process when I achieve that flow, when hours pass unnoticed, and I feel that same exhilaration as I’ve felt at times in the past weeks here in Winnipeg. But the difference lies in the very private nature of writing as opposed to the public nature of teaching. Imagine writing with the reader at your shoulder, thinking, asking questions, laughing, being moved, right there, on the spot. That’s what teaching feels like sometimes. And when I’m writing I miss that. It’s a lonely business, and I’m a social animal. That doesn’t mean I need people all around me all the time, not at all. I live alone, travel and work alone, and crave my own company from time to time. But somehow I need to bring the buzz of interaction into my writing life. Maybe that’s where I could run workshops about writing, but I don’t have the forty years accumulated understanding that my education life has provided, and which is so central to the ‘flow’ of teaching. Maybe I should just keep going with the education side of my life, not just to earn money to support my writing, but to reward myself with additional opportunities for the ‘rush’ of ‘flow’. I’ll have to think about that.