Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a novel. I was working in West Africa as a midwife and I wrote in the evenings, by the light of a kerosine lamp. In a notebook. Several notebooks. Cheap school exercise books bought from the market. In longhand. With a biro. Lots of biros.
In my memory, the words just flowed, thousands and thousands and thousands. (In their rejection letter, Mills & Boon said my story was too long.) I cannot recall ever sitting there chewing my pen, gazing into space, finding excuses not to write.
It probably helped that there were no emails to check, Instagram to update, Tweets to compose, headlines to catch, blogs to write. It helped that domestic distractions were few, relationships were remote, work was uncomplicated. It perhaps even helped that my only source was my imagination; no recourse to Google for verification or inspiration – and, similarly, no exposure to the confidence-sapping genius of others, to accounts of failure and the statistical improbability of getting published, to reminders of just how many writers and books there are out there and unlikelihood of ever producing anything remotely interesting or original.
Writing was pure and pleasurable and (in memory, at least) almost ridiculously easy. And never to be that way again.
So what has changed?
Pressure of time: a quarter of a century lived and never to be regained, a feeling of now-or-never to fulfil a dream – no, more than a dream – to fulfil the sense of who I’ve thought I was or, at least, could be, one day. And a change in expectations: the need to not just write well (my little doctor-nurse romance was surprisingly well-written, even in critical hindsight) but to write very well, to write elegantly, to write in a way that will not only carry people along with the story but paint a vivid picture, invoke emotions, leave a memory. And so I am writing again – but slowly, painfully, ponderously; striving for perfection in every phrase.
Yet in my mind – when walking, falling into sleep, driving – the story flows again, characters live and conversations flow. Until I sit, once again, before my keyboard – coffee made, desk cleared, fingers poised – and story stalls, my beloved characters fall over like cardboard cut-outs, and dialogue dries up.
So it was with gratitude I heard of the concept of the Dirty First Draft. Forget the careful crafting, forget about getting published, just write the story that’s in my head, any old how, total rubbish, just effing write. Like jumping in and swimming across a lake; never mind style or even speed, just keep doggy paddling and splashing. I can make it look good later. (That’s the easy bit. I’m a good editor of other people’s stuff.)
That’s what I’m doing now. The dirty, dirty first draft. Most of it is not even sentences – just notes, words, snatches of overheard conversation. It doesn’t matter if my hero’s eyes change from blue to brown mid-paragraph, or whether there were cars in Cornwall in 1912, or the name of the prime minster at the time. All that matters is getting across that lake.