FAQ: Does it get easier with each book?

The short answer is, NO.

A longer, more elegant answer: I experience each book as an interior journey. In The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life (HarperPerenial 1999), John Tarrant describes “…the interior journey [as] a spiral stair. We come again over the same landings, where the same issues appear before us,” and quotes a composer: “Whenever I am composing a new piece, it is the same. I have to go through the agony of not being able to do it. After I’ve suffered for a while, the piece opens up. I keep trying to cut out the stage of incompetence and misery, but it can’t be done, and I’m not sure that I would want to do it. The blackness is the door of the creative process.” (163-4) Each book is a new experience, a fresh challenge. I know this. Yet each time I begin a book I move from the euphoria of the exciting idea to the frustration of countless false starts, and each time I’m surprised by how hard it is to begin. I’ve been slowly rereading Tarrant’s book this summer as I work on a 3rd draft of the first of two planned novels about Joan of Kent, and when I reached this passage it struck a chord. I particularly like the realization in the last line quoted, that the very darkness is the door into the creative process–when I let go of the effort to force my idea onto the page and just sit with the discomfort, time and again I’ve come to a new perspective that is far better than my original idea.

That’s how it is for me. Possibly not for everyone. A fine and very successful novelist once told me that he begins with a first sentence, and that sentence never changes. I asked him to clarify—you mean literally the first sentence of the book, and you never revise it at all, nor does it ever becomes the first sentence of the third chapter. That’s what he meant. I won’t mention his name, because it’s the sort of thing one says at cocktail parties that comes back to bite you. But as you can see, I’ve never forgotten it, and it comes back to haunt me with each new beginning. I wonder–did he not call all the initial churning part of the writing process? Still, even when I’m truly in the flow of the book, the beginning keeps changing.

T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets, Little Gidding V, wrote:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Again, the spiral.

By the way, John Tarrant is not only a Zen master and Jungian psychotherapist, but a poet, and this book is so evocative of my experience in writing that I use it as a guide when I need encouragement. I agree with what past poet laureate Robert Hass says in a blurb, that it “inoculates one against the wish for a quick fix in the spiritual or imaginative life.”

2 Comments on “FAQ: Does it get easier with each book?

  1. I have read all the Owen Archer books several times now and as I live in West Yorkshire and know York really well I can visualise the area’s described in the books. I look forward to each book I have been rereading the Apothecary Rose to go through the series again. Each time I read them I find something new. I hope there will be a new installment in the lives of Lucie and Owen soon.


  2. Thank you, Margaret! As soon as I complete the new Emma Campion about Joan of Kent’s early years, I’ll return to the 11th Owen Archer, which has grown richer because of some of the issues I’ve been exploring in Joan of Kent’s story.


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