Updated: Oct 18, 2021
While I’m still in the process of getting my first novel out into the world, I wanted to make sure I always had a ‘big’ project on the go so I had something to focus on rather than obsessively checking my emails to see whether publishers or agents had got back to me. To that end, I’m in the process of editing a memoir I’ve written (well, at least the first draft is done) on travelling the world with a baby.
Writing is a big, long road. Chopping it up into projects helps to keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
It’s tricky. I haven’t written non-fiction on this kind of scale before, so I’m trying to get my head around how best to write it. One of the things I’ve been doing to help me is reading lots of other books about women seeing the world. So far that’s included The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, No Hurry to Get Home by Emily Hahn, West with the Night by Beryl Markham and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I’ve also recently started a structural analysis of Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This is a process I started when I did my Masters at City University, and one of the things we were asked to do was to reread certain books and analyse them for things like plot and structure. I came up with what (I thought) was a rather ingenious way of analysing structure.
As I read back through the book, I make a note of what each chapter contains, what its function is, and any comments I have about it. For the purposes of this analysis, I’m also focusing on the split between the ‘present’ moments of her trip and the memories that led up to her being there. The reason for this is that I’m discovering that far more pages of my book are taken up talking about my past/being a mum/why I’m doing the trip than writing about being on the trip itself.
Noticing things is an act of creativity in itself. There’s definitely something to be said for letting your feet do the thinking for a change.
I suspect that the act of writing it may have turned into some sort of introspective exercise, where I’ve splurged onto the page all my feelings about being a mum and being in the world (hint: there’s a lot) and I now have to pick back through it to figure out where the story about travelling got lost. So I decided to get back out into the world, to see if it could help me with my editing issues.
I had my very own ‘wild’ experience last week, in more ways than one. I had a few days without my daughter. She’s been having all kinds of fun with her grandparents while I’ve been able to write, sleep in and do things we can’t do when she’s here. At the weekend that took the form of two very snowy walks in the mountains. The first was shrouded and mysterious, cocooned in clouds while strange shapes loomed at us from the whiteness. The second was brilliant and bright, a difficult trudge up a very steep path followed by a wander in snow-soaked woods which made everything look magical. We also saw a mountain goat, stilled by our presence, its furry brown legs skipping back up the slope (how do they do that?) when it decided we were too threatening to stick around for.
After seeing so many animal tracks this was my assurance that we were in a truly wild place.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt physically tired like that. Not the standard head-tired I get from stress or over thinking, or even the weary-tired I get from entertaining a three-year-old. This was the bone-deep ache of having walked a lot of miles in deep snow after a few months of very little exercise.
Cheryl Strayed notes that, although she expected revelations while undertaking her amazing feat of hiking, at first all she gets is a tape-loop of songs in her head. That definitely happens to me. I remember when we were travelling and I thought I’d end up with profound thoughts about the world, and I had ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ on loop through an entire trek of the Costa Rican rainforest. In the same way, on the mountain I veered between ‘You Can Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac and ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys. These snippets accompanied me all the way up and back, four hours of trekking in total (including stop-and-breathe and stop-and-eat time). So much for flashes of ‘how I’m going to structure my book’ insight.
Wide open spaces will always lead to clarity, even if it doesn’t arrive until after your muscles have stopped aching.
It’s hard to give shape to your life. After all, it’s just a thread of random events, not a carefully thought out narrative structure (I have SO many plot maps for my first novel). The book, like this blog, will need to be a careful selection of elements that I think makes narrative sense, strung together to create some kind of meaning.
Until I find it, I like being able to think back through our adventures. Be struck by vivid memories and surprised by things I thought I’d forgotten. Taking my feet and myself out into the world has gained a new significance in the last year, but it will continue to be a time for building strength and finding beauty. It will hopefully also be a kind of thought factory – giving my body over to its physical self in order to let whatever clicking and whirring needs to happen behind the scenes in order to turn this jumbled collection of thoughts into a book.
Let’s hope that the structure of my book gets a little clearer than this…
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