I’ve been trying to write a book for almost twelve months now. It’s a book that tells the story of when I had cancer in 2003. When I started, I was so full of ideas and knew exactly what I wanted to say. But as the months have gone by, it’s become harder and harder to write anything for it. I’ve made dozens of new beginnings, written hundreds of chapter drafts and have plenty of actual material. Regardless, I’m at a place now where I could pretty much begin all over again without even thinking twice about it.
I’ve asked for and received some excellent advice. I’ve had people I trust implicitly read chapter drafts and give me feedback on what I’ve done so far. I know what I’ve written is good writing. But I still can’t go any further. I’ve hit a brick wall. When I read over what I’ve written, it often sounds pretentious and lacklustre to me. It’s terribly upsetting, because I love this book so much. I want so much for it to be born into the world, but I’ve already judged it and found it categorically less-than adequate. How is it possible to adore something so purely and yet loathe it with such disdain, all at the same time?
For weeks now, I’ve been circling around my manuscript, trying to find a way to even look at it, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I know it isn’t the actual writing thats the problem – it’s me. I am the nemesis of this book. I’m its creator, and its critic. I have judged my book way before it’s even come into existence and found it to be inferior, untruthful, redundant, cliche and unwanted. I’m at the stage where I don’t want to write as some kind of cathartic process anymore – I just want to get the fucking thing done. Any love I once had for this project is so gone. My lovely little baby book has grown into an irritating, high-needs foster-adolescent, the romance has turned into plain old hard-work and commitment, and the book doesn’t even exist in the real world yet. I am certainly the worlds worst writer – not because I’m bad at it, but because I am so damn judgemental.
I have to admit I had high hopes for this book. I know people want to read about what it’s like to have cancer. I also know there are some misconceptions need addressing about what it’s like to have something like cancer, and a whole mythology surrounding cancer in our society that needs discussing. Others are bringing this up in their own articles, many of which I have seen published over the last few months. Every time I see one, I feel insanely possessive and angry. That’s what I was going to say. But you didn’t say it, did you? All these things you say you know, all scribbled down in these precious notes of yours, stuffed inside a computer memory, hoarded up until they’re good enough for others to see. Read those other articles, the ones you’re so jealous of. Good enough? Does any one even care if they’re good, do you think? Maybe someone who is reading up about cancer actually doesn’t care as much as you think they do about whether or not the writing is good enough?
When I was about fifteen, someone asked me if I’d paint them a sandwich board sign for their business because I was pretty good at art. They gave me a very clear brief about how they wanted the sign to look. I new right away I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of typeface they wanted – I could have a stab at it, but I hadn’t actually done that one before. This is in the days before computers, where you could just Google up an image and copy it, and enlarge and reduce pictures at will. I’d have to copy it from my book of fonts and paint it freehand. I told them I wasn’t sure I could do the complicated typeface, but I’d give it a red hot go. “Don’t worry” they said, “I’m sure whatever you can manage will be great.” I sweated on it for weeks. Finally, I stood back and looked at it. I knew it wasn’t as terrific as I’d hoped, but I’d done my absolute best. When the customer took delivery, they looked at it and said “Oh, that typeface isn’t quite right, is it? What a pity.” I could tell by the look on their face they were pretty disappointed. It seemed that whatever I could manage was not *great* after all.
I remember my high school year ten end-of-year major work for art – my absolute favourite subject, besides English. The brief was “Fantasy” and we were allowed to use any medium and explore any subject matter we liked. I’d never been great at getting my assignments done, even in art, but I absolutely wanted to get this one submitted, and on time. A few weeks before the deadline, I had a horse-riding accident and ended up in hospital with a broken elbow for ten days. I asked my mum to bring my board and paints into the hospital so I could use my time to work on my painting. It was a fantasy scene of two figures standing in a garden in a romantic pose – naive, cheesy, cliche, but I loved that painting. I was in a romantic relationship at the time and wanted to encapsulate all the sweetness and innocence of my first love. And for the first time I actually finished the assignment. I handed it in days before the deadline. A week or two later, our class received our marks. I was sure I would do great – it was complete, it was to the brief, and it was right from my heart. The art teacher gave us back our works with a piece of paper. My grade was well below what I’d hoped for. I raised my hand, and asked why my painting had been scored relatively low. She said “I considered your subject matter to be quite cliche, and marked it accordingly.” What? The brief was “fantasy” – er, I thought that fantasy was meant to be one of mine? So, I got a low grade not because it was poorly executed, not because it was late, not because it was unfinished, but because it wasn’t something she wanted it to be. But what about what it was? I shouted. I cried. I went away from there very quickly. I took the painting home, and ended up giving it to a friend. I was ashamed of it. The criticism of my favourite teacher had rocked me. Apparently, it wasn’t good enough to be good at art – I had to be emotionally sophisticated as well. Art was clearly an academic pursuit, and not just the creative outlet I’d been using it for, so it seemed I’d better work on understanding what it was others wanted from me before I tried accomplishing anything so ambitious ever again.
I don’t know if these particular instances have anything to do with my current problem with writing the book. But I’ve been thinking about them, and other criticisms I’ve had over the years, because it’s the critic in me who is the big problem right now. And she had to have learned it from somewhere. There is something frightening to me about finishing this book. It’s somehow more expedient to prove the critic right with an unfinished, raw and absolutely inadequate manuscript way before I present something I consider to be finished and good for examination. I know it won’t be good enough, no matter what I do. But I guess I figure that at this stage I know it’s not up to scratch, and better the devil you know. The feeling that I have to move this book forward is paralysing. What if when I’ve done my best – told my truth, exposed my heart – it’s still not quite what is expected?