This week brought such a setback that, for the first time, I considered giving up writing novels. It was not a surrender of the talk-me-out-of-it sort, all heat and bluster, but a colder, more considered weighing of a life that includes the peculiar act of sitting down each day to invent other lives. How much, I wondered, do I invest in this process of creating fiction, and how much, if anything, is it giving back?
The loss is easily explained: many hours of painstaking work stored on a memory stick that was there one minute and vanished the next. There is no excuse for not having transferred the contents to a safer location; there are reasons, but not one of them is good enough. I was the architect of my own disaster, hence the bitter weeping and handwringing.
Before I turned to writing fiction, other passions filled my days. The garden has always been a solace and a joy – I favour roses and herbs, and for a few years I made patchwork quilts. Patchwork was good training for writing novels. With its patient piecing of fragments, it is labour-intensive and, like a novel, a large quilt may take a year two to finish.
Almost all the quilts I made were star patterns – I’d plan other designs but always end up making stars. It’s the same with novels. I find myself writing the same stories over and over again, because those are the stories that bear on my life. Often the connection is obvious, even to others. But there are more mysterious pathways that only show themselves over time. They are like the secondary patterns that emerge when patchwork blocks are pieced together, so that while you think you’re making small, spinning wheels, what you end up with is a large four-pointed star inside a circle.
This is what I would lose if I were to put down my pen: the quiet revelation of the workings of the unconscious mind. For the unexamined life is not worth living, and that is as true now as when Socrates first offered it as an opinion. Creativity, whatever its form, is a method of inquiry, and its side effect may be a quilt of stars to wrap up in on a cold day, or a handful of herbs to toss on the new potato salad. Sometimes it’s a novel you can sink into; if you are lucky you will find a pattern there that resonates with your own life.
But the close examination of life can become exhausting, especially when you go and lose a good bit of what you’ve found. Rather than quit I’ve fallen back on stars and flowers. I’ve taken out a quilt that needs a small repair; I’m planting herbs from seed and planning additions to the summer border, and trying yet again to photograph the garden at dusk. I’m spending time with the fruits of past labours while I regain my strength.
I am also reminding myself that I love writing, even if at times the love wears thin. Writing doesn’t love me. It doesn’t care. Yet in spite of this, it is uniquely rewarding. In a week or two, when I return to it, there will be more stars to wrap up in, more luscious herbs and roses in the garden.