A Novel’s Slow Birth

Language Challenges

Many moons ago, working in a tedious call centre job after graduating, I started to write.  I’d sit in the miserable grey cubicle and in between giving futile quotes for car insurance that would never be sufficient to unlock the mythical bonus at the end of the month, I would pen a poem or make little scribbles that began to take form as a novel.  I’d then sit in a café or bar and write about the hero walking out of their dead-end job, raising a middle finger to management and vanish into a hedonistic future of travel and dreams. 

I got so far, then came to a crashing halt.  What would my hero do at the end?  He could travel, walk out, dream, but eventually he’d be forced to return and head back into the same grind.  I stopped.  Stopped but carried on writing poetry. 

Some while later, on a wonderful Arvon writing retreat in West Yorkshire, I sat with the poet Sundra Lawrence who suggested I put “I” into my writing.  Simple?  Not when you grew up being taught that bad writing used I, because the reader didn’t want to know what you thought.  I would bend over backwards to avoid ever using that little pronoun.  She, her, they, he… linguistic gymnastics that removed all the soul. 

I took that advice and the words flowed.  All that feeling, all those experiences, all those wishes in blank verse.  Some even with rhyme.  Not often though, I’ve always thought rhythm was more important than rhyme. 

In the punctuation moments of verse, I wrote little drabbles, moments of whimsy to amuse, little vignettes of desire, and occasionally I’d return to that early piece and nibble at a rewrite.

Then I started something new, all about the disappointments of working and living, the lost dreams of youth slipping away, with a new cast of characters – and with my poetic freedom, this one flowed beautifully.  Until it didn’t.  I got stuck when, at about 40,000 words, I needed to decide where it was all going.  How would this trio of friends, all damaged by the loss if their teenage idealism, actually find happiness?  They could no more flee than my Dan could ten years earlier.  Another one into storage. 

Life moved, I aged, my friends were increasingly afflicted my chronic cynicism and after a decade’s hiatus I disinterred both pieces, redrafted them, reordered, renamed, updated to reflect changes to life – smoking bans, mobile phones… I merged the two together and it worked really well, characters slipped into this patchwork narrative so well, and I could even see a path to the final chapter that didn’t involve death or selling out.  Oh, the joy. 

Now I have another problem which has stopped my prose writing dead.  It’s a language problem.  The more I try and work through it, the deeper the swamp becomes, it tangles up with identity, with meaning, with my political soul; I unpick one issue, think I’ve solved something, pick up my pen, and there’s a vast squatting behemoth licking its linguistic lips and whispering, ‘right, fucker, solve this then.’

It’s the inherently gendered nature of language, and next I’ll go through just what my problems are and why it’s causing me such issues.

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