Fixin’ to Write: A writer’s work is never done

In July 2017 my writing group started a collective blog on the creative process called Fixin’ to Write. Each week one of us posts about our experiences of finding creativity in everyday life. Here’s my first post for the blog, about the experience of actually finishing a book, and what happens next. It was first published on 24 August 2017.

My first book came out two months ago.

I’d always imagined I would write a book one day, but in that way you do when you’re not actually writing. As long as I wasn’t trying, I could cling to the fantasy that at some unspecified future date, when the stars and planets aligned, I would sit down and bust out the Great New Zealand Novel.

I never examined this ambition too closely, because I knew when I did it would shrivel under the harsh glare of scrutiny. For one thing, you have to actually write, preferably every day, to produce a novel. I never did that. For another, you have to have an idea. Any kernel of an idea for a book or even a short story that I could conjure up always seemed staggeringly unoriginal. Very occasionally I might take one of these anaemic ideas and play with it for a while, but before long I would abandon it in frustration, bored and disgusted with my cheesy, derivate prose. My computer is full of these abandoned files – a thousand words there, a thousand words there – which I refuse to open, yet still can’t quite delete. Cringe.

I was drawn to the idea of writing fiction, I think, because I thought my own life was too boring to write about. Perhaps it was, back then. But a few years ago, things changed. I was in an unusual job (I was a Member of Parliament). I’d had my first child, a life-altering experience. My partner had become very ill with chronic pain, and I was losing my mind. Things came to a head – we were not coping – and I left Parliament and crawled under a rock to lick my wounds. I felt like a failure, and for a long time I was not okay.

I was waiting for my flat white at a café near my new work one morning early in 2015 when I saw the advertisement for the online writing course. I was scrolling through the blog Renegade Mothering, which I’d been reading for reassurance and humour since the birth of my daughter, and there it was: “The problem is not that you don’t know how to write. The problem is that you’re too freaked out to write the shit you know you’re meant to be writing.”

Well shit.

It was true, of course, and once I had read it, I couldn’t unread it. I knew I needed to write to make sense of the traumatic events I had just lived through, and now someone was offering to kick my arse and make me do it. I signed up.

And just over two years later, there it was. My book. The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics and Women’s Writing, in my hands. Slight but solid, and filled with words I had written. But while I held it in my hands, it was not in my control. It was out there in the world, and real people were reading it.

You do the work, and you step away.

a row of the spines of Holly Walker's book displaying the title in white against the blue background of the books

Janelle Hanchett, author of Renegade Mothering and teacher of the Write Anyway Course had drilled this into me, and I held onto it tightly as I watched my book make its way into the hands of readers, as I answered questions about its most intimate content for television and radio, and as I read the reviews – both the kind ones and the challenging ones – and tried not to have an emotional response.

You do the work, and you step away.

Holly Walker standing behind a microphone reading from her book
Reading from my book before a real live audience

But then what? This is the part I have struggled with. For a long time, getting some version of the events related in my book onto paper and out into the world has been my goal; the end point. For the first half of this year, after submitting the manuscript, there were revisions to make, references to check, debates to have with my editor, decisions about tone and style. Then there were logistics to agree. Then there was a launch speech to write, interviews to give, invitations to speak on panels. I could tell myself that I was still doing creative work while attending to all those things.

Two months on, though, and all is quiet. The book continues to sell, and a trickle of kind reader responses remind me that it is still out in the world, doing its thing. But I can no longer fool myself that I am “busy with the book.” The book is finished. And I still fancy myself a writer.

So here I am, once again, staring at the blank page. Throwing around cheesy ideas, playing with them for a few hundred words and then giving up. Signing up to review others’ work because then it feels like I’m writing. But I’m not. Not the shit I’m meant to be writing.

Time to do the hard work. To write my book, I reached down my own throat and pulled out what was on top. I vomited it onto the page, and then I cleaned it up to make it palatable for others. Now, it seems, I have to reach deeper. What’s the next layer down? Can I get my fingers around it and pull it out?

Time to find out.