It is dark and rainy in Vancouver. Spring should be evident by now, even if we haven’t officially entered the equinox. The cherry blossoms should be out, but there is no sign of them at all. It is cold and miserable.
I have taken a few weeks off work to make inroads into my novel writing. Some progress has been made, though the actual page count has not grown significantly. I will begin writing a scene and then realize I am missing details, facts, then spend the rest of the day reading and combing the Internet.
It may be another guise of procrastination because the task of embarking on a new scene sometimes seems too enormous to contemplate. How do I start? Where will it go? How will I describe a crossing of the English Channel in the hold of a medieval ship, with horses and infantrymen? What will a war-ravaged village in the French countryside look like?
I am reminded on days like today what a lonely task the act of writing can be. I have worked as a writer in the past — for magazines, newspapers and public relations — and am no stranger to the challenge of facing an empty computer screen that must be filled with words. No sooner have I placed myself in front of the computer, than I think of a myriad of other things that must be done before I can afford the luxury of writing. The laundry, dinner plans, tidying my desk, the need for a workout.
Writing a magazine article is challenging, it is true, but a novel must surely be the Everest of writing. You can spend weeks researching and interviewing for a magazine assignment, and as long as you keep decent notes and files, the article comes together fairly easily. Writing a novel, I now see, involves creating an entire world … imagining and describing an wide landscape (or several) and zooming in on the finest of details. Or pulling a character out of thin air, finding the key details of a personal history, locating his or her motivations and then moving their limbs, lurchingly, through the imagined landscape. And that is just one iota of the task.
The difficulty is maintaining a legitimate sense of purpose for what I am doing. But in the silence of my room, and the agony of the empty page, it often seems ridiculously self-indulgent, trying to make a story about medieval monks. At times like this, I need to remind myself about the genesis of this project, and it was, and is, the dream of the monks that propels me. And I should allow myself the indulgence of certain distractions — the research, the reading — as long as they are moving me towards imagining and writing about this medieval world.
The monks can only tell me so much.