‘Anatomy of a first draft’ or what can our body teach us about writing?

October 2016/ writing and living advice / reading time: 19 minutes (4800 words)

I’m obsessed with the body and how it guides or obstructs me in my writing. So I got ten amazing writers to tell me about their bodily experiences during 8 stages of writing a first draft. I told the writers that I’d write it all up in this blog post. I got everything back from them, fascinating stuff, but there was one problem – I had no idea how to write it up. I was stuck.

Last night I stayed up late trying to put it together. Still getting nowhere. I fell asleep on the couch in the spare bedroom I use as an office. When I woke up this morning I found the following scrawled in barely legible writing on some pieces of paper on the floor.

I’ve assembled it and typed it up everything I can read here. I swear I didn’t write it. It’s not a summary of these ten writer’s bodily experiences while writing.

It’s their body’s response to them.

 

 

 

 

Results:

Dear writer,

About [illegible] time !

About [illegible] time you thought a little about me while you’re writing these books that are so important to you!

Sometimes I swear I wish you’d just [illegible] .

Sorry.

It’s just I feel like I’ve been cooped up for so long. Am a little ratty. Besides it would be physically impossible to [illegible] .

I read what you said in your surveys about writing that first draft. And I hear it, I hear it, but I got a little something to say too. Maybe my own take on it, because I was there with you all through it.

I was there with you when you first got the idea for your book.

1.Moment of getting the idea

Do you know, this is my favourite part of the writing process? This is when you and me work the best together. Why? Because you listen to me, you wait for me, whether you know it or not. You don’t even take all the credit here. You share a little with me.

At this stage of writing you can be smart in how you work with me. You know that you need to give me a little room to manoeuvre to let that idea out. You know to go travelling or just move around a bit. Not keep me all cooped up. You know to give me space to let the ideas come out unhindered.

ciara-o-connor-ear

Yeah, like you say, movement is a kind of meditation and meditation is all about spending time undistracted with me.

So, yeah, when we’re warm, when the blood is circulating, shoulders relaxed, then I’m always gonna be more open to letting us get that idea. Just like your girl or your guy is always gonna give you what you want if you give them a little massage, play the right music. You know what I mean right? Right? When you want a little [illegible] .

Sorry. Got off topic there.

So anyway you go for a run or a walk. You let me loose a little and suddenly BOOM you get the idea. It ain’t just from me, but it ain’t just from you either. It’s our little baby, but I tell you that it’s the right idea, the one you need to give a year or more of your life to.

I tell you it’s the right idea by flooding our body with excitement. I get our stomach leaping. I start up the ache in our chest. We get a big adrenaline rush, our heart speeds up, making us energised, elated, wide awake. Sometime everything seems to stand still.

You’re happy and giddy because I’ve given you the signals that you’ve got your idea, and you listen, damn do you listen! You know you’ve hit the mother lode!

And you’ll do anything to get that idea down. You rush to your computer or try to remember it. You’ll ignore everyone around you as you think about it. I help you do all that. I manage all the physical stuff, let your mind work on the idea. I know it’s important to you. It’s important to me too. It’s our idea.

But I need you here to keep me in check. Sometimes I get a bit giddy. I just wanna start writing immediately, my fingers are itching to type, but you resist me. Rightfully so!

You slow me down, let my power build, we can develop the idea.

  1. Developing the idea

There’s all sorts of ways to do it, all sorts of ways to skin a novel.

It’s like we’re cooking together. We gotta let the idea simmer away till it starts boiling. You think about it for months, maybe years, until you feel that boiling feeling in me. That’s another signal from me that I can’t keep holding the novel in me anymore, that you need to start typing.

 

We’re scrawling notes, mind mapping, letting all the different details of the idea flow out onto paper or the screen. We’re going for walks, walking, running, driving, cycling, playing righteous music on our headphones. I’m loving it. You’re flowing with me. Even if you’re lying still in bed or having a shower, you’re giving me space and I let the ideas flow out like [illegible] .

I speak as directly to you as I can when I got more plot or character details for you to write up. And you do listen at times. My legs, I set them a shaking, like some dog dreaming on the rug. We feel the tightness in our chest as you wrestle with the idea, feeling it in our arms and legs like we’re tackling a giant jigsaw.caroline-mcevoy-the-novel-project-hand

And [illegible] well you know when you feel the tingling in our fingers, an unsettled feeling throughout us. You know that the idea is already in us and you gotta get to it, let it out.

And that’s fun, it’s like we’re dancing together, my body and your mind, all dancing together late at night in a club while everyone stands back and stares at us. We’re looking good!

If you’re feeling brave or maybe foolish or just don’t any other way to write that works for you, you skip all of this. We jump right into writing without any planning or notes. We’re brave explorers tunnelling deep into the darkness, we’ll find out where we’re going as we see what we’re writing together.

And we do write it together! Don’t fool yourself that you ever do any of your writing on your own. Because reading your survey, it did get to me that you’re already starting to bitch about me. You’re forgetting how we found the idea together and we’re developing it together.

Already you’re complaining about concentration headaches and sore wrists. Do you not think that maybe I’m giving you a little message that you’re getting something wrong? Telling you to take a break? Telling you I might have some emotions piled up in me that you need to attend to?

Do you need a [illegible] carrier pigeon to knock on your window with a note around its leg or something?

Still, if you don’t listen to me now, I can always get louder. I usually have to, especially once you get started writing.

  1. Starting writing

This should be the good time, shouldn’t it?

You’re drinking lots of tea, eating biscuits and listening to music. You’re writing fast, thinking you’re laying down the most important words since God wrote the ten commandments. And soon your word count is higher than his! And I know it’s all about length with you… all about length… now me, I prefer [illegible] and a good sense of humour.

olive-collins-fingers-edit3

 

But we’re really feeling that story too as it unfolds. We’re feeling each up, each down in the plot. We’re living this book. It’s wonderful and terrifying. You and I and the book are one.

Still, writers are a crazy, neurotic bunch. You couldn’t be happy if you tried. So even now at the start, you’re nervous, trying to find the right way to start, then worried you’re going to mess up later if you do get it right now. Plus you’re worried it’s the wrong project entirely.

And you feel those fears in me, in the tightness in our chest, in our general discomfort. We’re restless and easily distracted, feeling hot, tired, with minor aches and pains, even headaches. These are my signals! Hot damn, they’re my messages to you!

And when you get into the writing, then I gotta send you even more messages. If our bum goes numb from sitting in your shocking-pink IKEA saddle then, yeah, that is a message from me too. If our right hand goes freezing cold and our elbows get swollen, that’s a message from me. If our back hurts, that’s a message from me. So please listen to our hand, our elbows, our back! Listen to our bum, ya bum!

So if you’re just starting, maybe there’s something in me you need to attend to before you can really get going. And if you’re writing lots and lots of words, covering huge word counts, that’s great, but if our jaw and our neck are hurting and locking, that’s a signal from me that I’m in pain and something’s got to give.

Credit where it’s deserved though, after I shout loud enough you do usually negotiate with me. You fight with me first, then we compromise, then we get back on the right track.

So you know well I got all our emotions trapped in me. All our fears and hopes about writing. If you take the time and you listen to me, maybe even talk to me, then we can get writing together. If you’re exhausted, I appreciate it when you wait till I’m all recharged before going back to battle with our book.

I’m not looking for anything from you. You promise me a coffee when you get a certain number of words. Or we go out to the theatre or gardening or anything you know that’ll relax me. You get me comfortable and set me up with pillows for back support, provisions (sparkling water with elderflower – wowee!), fresh flowers and a scented candle. I like all that. Oh I do!

It’s all good when I know you’re listening to me, it helps our writing go well.

  1. Writing going well

Some of you are writing at night after a full day at the day job, happy with a thousand words a day. Some of you write full time, getting multiples of that down. But whatever the word count, at this time, we feel alert, focused, sometimes excited and energised. Or we feel like we’re lighter and our head feels empty, but in a good way.

We’re warm with flutters of extreme optimism in our chest, our fingers float over the keys. It’s like there’s a motor in us that purrs beautifully, right down to our finger tips. We feel so comfortable in our little writing spaces and can stay sitting there writing for hours. Our metabolism is working well and we’re sleeping well.

clare-green-elbow-edited

 

And if the writing’s going well, you’re not doubting yourself as much. The inner critic’s switched off. There’s a lovely warm feeling of comfort through us, accompanied by the thought: ‘this is what I should be doing with my life’.

We’re writing together – it’s a wonderful [illegible] -ing thing!

But even now, as we get that warm glow, I’m starting to feel some pain and I want you to know about it. You feel me signalling you in our lower back pain. You feel me in our breathing taking a beating till our poor fingers go stone cold and grey. Our eyesight blurs, headaches creep in and we feel constant pins and needles.

And if you haven’t learned to type properly, you feel me in our right index finger and aching, cramped fingers in that hand. My message to you, oh wise writer: Learn to [illegible] type!

We can feel a weird aching desire in our stomach, like the book is trapped inside us and pushing hard to get out. But that desire you have to get your book finished, to get it right, can get too much for us and tumble over into anxiety. And you can feel guilty because of life and work responsibilities that drag you away from letting that book out.

So, even when things are going well, you need to listen to my signals of all these things and work together with me.

Maybe now it’s time I tell you what you should know already. I am stronger than you and…

I am a god.

I am a god who loves you in a way that no one else ever will.

I love you whether you get published or not, whether the book is a hit or a flop. Whether you finish it or never do. I love you if writing’s hard because our shoulder is injured and in pain from the 1990s when you wore your heavy school bag with one strap in order to not get bullied like that girl who two-strapped it. (Those bullying [illegible] s, if I could get my hands on them…)

I’m your god. I’m always with you, through thick and thin, unlike those readers you’re courting. I’m here to support you. I want the writing to go well, and I want so, so much more for you in all aspects of your life.

I’m here speaking to you and helping you, if you’d just listen.

And I’m loudest when you’re stuck.

  1. Feeling stuck

Ugh. We know when it’s not working, don’t we? The Stuckness. It’s hell for both of us. And it’s when I need you to work with me the most.

We might go days, even weeks, without writing a word. We’ve got a tight jaw, neck pain, tingling in our legs, body feeling so heavy and sluggish we don’t feel we can get off the couch. Weirdly, it’s sometimes like a mild case of indigestion.

anita-cray-eye

You keep trying, but you’ve adopted the posture of a sunbathing meerkat at your desk, with our full weight tipped forward so that our thighs take the brunt. Later they hurt with a dull pointless ache.

It’s in your mind and our body. You’re worrying you can’t write. You’re giving yourself a roasting in your head; your mind isn’t clear, your writing’s sloppy; you’re tense and cranky. You’re frustrated, and I’m signalling you as loudly and clearly as I can with stress headaches, sharp pains above your left eye. You think it’s a carb craving and give into them,we end up feeling bloated and gassy. Self-doubt kicks in so hard that you feel like pressing the delete button.

You know my signals, don’t you? That’s me shouting at you. Smiting you, as is a god’s wont.

Eventually you give in to me a little. The same old things work, but you’d forgotten about them. I make you remember them. We read, watch TV, go for a run, do some gardening. A little yoga, a few more breaks, I get the space I need. You wait till we feel the hunger to write together again and the flow returns. You work with me, I’ll work with you.

If you got a fella or a gal or a few of them, you can go to them for reassurance or a massage, though what I’d like most is a [illegible] ­– that perks us right back up.

Or you realise that there’s no such thing as writer’s block – you just need to change your perspective on what you’re writing – and we go for a walk, listen to Massive Attack or whatever floats your boat. You skip to another section of the book and try something new.

Or else you just push on through it. Ignoring all my signals. You only notice me, because you think I got in the way of your precious book. How would you like that? Living with someone day in and day out, and they only ever acknowledge you to complain about you.

Please do not forget I am your god. I give you life. My heart pushes blood through your body. With every breath I oxygenate your blood. I give you the chance to achieve your dreams, then you complain of a sore neck, leg, shoulder…

But what would you care… you’re back on track.

6.Back on track

I pump your adrenaline so that you know that your new idea that gets us out of the Stuckness is the eureka one, and you come back from a walk or wherever, raring to write.

Now I energise you. It’s pure joy and anticipation, our muscles fired up and ready to go. The lightness returns, the sense of the purring motor returns, it’s back to being synced right down to our fingers. We’re giddy and excited, like children in a playground. It’s sometimes like we’re dancing the tango together late into the night on a busy city street corner in Buenos Aires!

er-murray-neck-edited2

But more often we’re dancing together, half in rhythm, half out of rhythm, to a dodgy pirate radio station that keeps losing its frequency. The backache I plagued you with is gone, but our breath goes haywire and we’re freezing. Our face ends up a murky mix of grey and purple, with shiny glazed green eyes. We have dramatic shifts of energy throughout the day. There’s a lightness to your mind, but our neck and shoulders still hurt.

And there’s more! You’re looking for flow, but our muscles are coiled with frustration and your mind is filled with exasperation over the time lost during the Stuckness. Our head feels weird, a sort of headache that won’t go away. The back of our arms, near our elbows, are getting sore from all the typing. You get carried away and overwrite, making it hard to start again the next day.

Why do you do it? Always go too far and forget me until I shout at you to listen?

Yeah, I know you’ve got bills, rent, mortgages to pay. Maybe you’ve got kids to keep in clothes or just me to keep in clothes. Sure, you’ve got all that, but you make them reasons to keep on writing and ignore all my messages to you and hurt us both.

Frankly I don’t care about all your bills and so on. I just want you to listen to me. You don’t have to do everything I say. I’m not always right, but don’t rush ahead and think that you can leave me behind. That’s not gonna work out well for you.

I’m trying to tell you all this, but you just think I’m getting in the way of finishing your book. You looking right past me. You’ve got your eye on the finish line.

  1. Nearing the finish

Sometimes finishing is simple. Sometimes it ain’t. Of course, you’re a writer, so it ain’t simple often.

If it’s simple, it’s a wonderful feeling – simple as that. We slow, we relax both physically and emotionally as we reach the finish line. Lucky you! Lucky me! I’m tingling with excitement, which always sounds good to me.

noelle-kelly-corpse-bride-arm2

But mostly it’s not simple, it’s a messy mixture of feelings. You almost forget to breathe, to eat, forget to mind me as you rush to try to get the ending right. I’m fizzing with energy and your mind’s all impatience and urgency at the same time. The tightness in our chest returns. We feel weighed down but unstable. Our wrist and necks are painful and we’re getting manic, vivid dreams and waking up feeling like we haven’t slept.

Sometimes it can be the worst part of writing the whole first draft. Cabin fever’s kicking in. We’re feeling claustrophic and you’re uncertain about our work. We’re heavy and exhausted, but you’re over-riding this, ignoring me. Our shoulder is killing us too, but your mind’s filled with excitement, because you’re about to finish your book.

Why is it so important to finish? Why the fear when you miss a few days writing to listen to me? Have you got some fantasy that being a published author or a famous author is gonna make all your fears and pain disappear and make your momma love you? Or even that you’ll finish the book and it’ll be ready and perfect and won’t need any rewriting?

That. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking writing is enough to help you escape the pain of living. Maybe you and I discovered writing as a kid or as a teenager. Maybe writing was the only place that felt like home to us, the only place that felt safe, but that’s not going to last forever. Writing isn’t enough to get you through life, it can never be enough.

I want to write this book with you, but right now, while you’re racing ahead towards the final pages of the book and ignoring me, I’m shouting out to you but you’re not listening. And this makes me [illegible] angry!

You don’t get it, do you? Me, your body, my job is to scream at you until you realise that you gotta find a way to live that can work long-term, that is [illegible] sustainable!

Yes, you writers need writing! Writing’s your particular strain of madness. But you don’t just need writing! You need the walks, the massages, the music, the friends, family, the lying on the floor – you need all the richness of life! You need to find harmony. Listen to me, negotiate with me, I’ll help you find the harmony to get us through anything life throws at us.

But if you don’t [illegible] listen to me, then you need to know something.

I am your god, but I am an Old Testament god! You ignore me too long and I WILL [illegible] STRIKE YOU DOWN FROM ON HIGH!

And you may be riding roughshod over me right now, always racing towards that finish line, but I’ll always catch up on you. Eventually you’ll have to listen to me.

Eventually.

But around now all of this is quickly forgotten – we’re finishing the book.

  1. Finishing / Aftermath

The exact moment we finish is wonderful. An ease sweeps through us, we feel at our most relaxed. We breathe easily. The sense of lightness returns. We do a ridiculous victory chair dance which only we know about, though maybe the neighbours hear our screams of joy. Or it’s more emotional than you expected, we’re sobbing, alone at your computer – that feels good too. We’re letting it all out.

But then comes the aftermath. It’s the book hangover, the chickens coming home to roost after being ignored for so long. You’re miserable, we’re drained and lacking in energy. Now you become aware of me, everything you’ve been ignoring, muscles tight, sore neck, wrist and bum.

clare-green-wrists-edit2

We slump. Your mind’s racing while I demand rest and exercise. You chew on your nails. You’re hyper, you find it hard to settle on tasks or relax in any way. Your book’s been everything to you and now you feel a little lost and restless. You feel emotional, likely to blub at anything.

And it’s bittersweet because you’ve been fooling yourself for so long. Now you know that you’re not really finishing. You know that you’ve got lots of editing ahead. You’re sick of your book, you want to run on to the next one and the next shiny idea and characters.

And now hopefully you come back to me. Hopefully experience has you that you need to put away our book for at least a month. You leave the book to rest and do something, the more physical the better. DIY, gardening, walking and thinking. You notice I want to just lie down and read and you let it happen. You let us chill out and switch off. Guilt lets go of you for a little while. You catch up with friends. You laugh a lot. If you’re a lucky writer, you even get into planning your marriage!

Still, new ideas for the book, for other books, start coming to you, start sneaking in. You find you’ve got a brain full of ideas ready to explode, so you find it hard to relax with me. You try to find an idea that I will tell you is the right one so you can start writing again.

And now that same [illegible] cycle starts again, getting the idea, developing it, starting writing…

And once again I’m remembered again, forgotten again, remembered again…

I keep shouting. Sometimes you listen, sometimes you don’t. You learn how we best write together as the years go by, or you don’t learn anything and I keep having to scream and scream until I’m heard, and that hurts both of us.

Look, I may rant and shout and fight. I may storm around and tell you I’m a vengeful, Old Testament god, but I’m not really angry at you. I don’t really want revenge. I just want what you want.

I want to be noticed, I want to be loved. I want to dance with someone. I want to dance with you.

You and I were born together and we’ll die together. We’ve only got each other. Like everything else, I’d like us to write our books together. We do that sometimes, but other times you write them in spite of me.

We should be friends, we should be a team, not just when it suits you.

Why can’t we be friends the whole time?

Your friend,

Your Body.

eve-o-donnell-nail-edited

Thanks to all the fabulous writers whose insights on their writing process are the heart of this blogpost. They’re great – check them out here:

Olive Collins –  Her novel is out now, The Memory of Music  – Twitter: @olivecollins

Anita Cray – I hate to talk about myself in the third person, so I won’t. Instead I’ll let my imaginary friend, Jiminy-Billy-Bob, tell you a little something about the real Anita: “A loner with ideas of grandeur, her nose is often stuck in a book, her head is always in the past and the Harry Potter merchandise obsession is slightly worrying for a woman her age. She calls me her friend but really she has me tied up in her wardrobe. Please send help”. Twitter: @Moonlight_Quill Blog: wistfullyidle.wordpress.com  Example of work: http://www.tlgmagazine.org/view-volume-four-issue-one.html

Kieran Fanning – By day, Kieran Fanning is a primary school teacher who enjoys helping his pupils to write, illustrate and publish their own books.  By night, he writes his own stories, and has published a series of interactive puzzle books for children, as well as school textbooks.  The Black Lotus, published by Chicken House, is his first novel. Website: www.kieranfanning.com Twitter: @KieranJFanning

Clare Green – I am a Tai Chi loving, busy mum.  I love to put pen to paper and turn any spare five minutes into fantasy and adventure for children to enjoy.  You can follow me on twitter @no1author

Noelle Kelly – Noelle is working on a supernatural YA novel set on Spike Island and Cobh. She loves horror, books and special effects makeup. Find out more about her by visiting her blog: www.bansheeirishhorrorblog.com. Noelle (AKA the Corpse Bride) can be contacted at  https://twitter.com/noelle_kelly  and  https://www.facebook.com/BansheeIrishHorrorBlog/

Eve McDonnell – Eve McDonnell is an artist and children’s book writer and is based in a little hollow in Wexford where she’s busy scribbling, reading or sploshing around in paint. When her head’s not stuck in a middle-grade adventure, she enjoys painting everything from rather grown up pieces to kid’s murals and helping out at arts and crafts workshops. Tweet a hello @evemcd999, email eve.mcdonnell@hotmail.com or view a sample of her art on www.irish-art.com .

Caroline McEvoy – Caroline McEvoy is a writer from Dublin. In her teens she wrote (mostly bad) poetry but some of which made it to publication with Poetry Now and in 2005/2006 wrote a number of plays which were performed in studio theatres throughout Dublin. She has a diploma in creative writing from Independent Colleges Dublin and has taken writing courses at Big Smoke Writing Factory and the Irish Writers Centre. She is currently writing her first novel and writes about this experience at thenovelprojectchronicles.com and as @novelchronicle on twitter and instagram .

ER Murray – E.R. Murray is an award-winning author of fiction for children and young adults, and she also writes short stories. She lives in West Cork. You can learn more about/contact Elizabeth at: www.ermurray.com , www.twitter.com/ermurray, www.facebook.com/ERMurray.Author

Ciara O’Connor – Ciara O’Connor teaches by day and writes Young Adult fiction by night. She blogs at ciararightnow.wordpress.com and on Twitter she’s @CiaraRightNow

Nigel Quinlan – Nigel Quinlan is the author of The Maloneys Magical Weatherbox and he tweets his tweetings @Nigellicus.

4 thoughts on “‘Anatomy of a first draft’ or what can our body teach us about writing?

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