I was speaking to a fellow poet recently about the issues of shifting genre. We agreed that poets generally make very frustrated novelists. We had several theories as to why this is the case. Poets write incredibly slowly, labouring over every word, agonising over whether they need that comma or not. In the time it takes me to finish one poem, a proper novelist might have 20,000 words. It is easy for me to think I’m striving for quality, not quantity; although my favourite prose writers seem able to achieve both. In addition, poets have short attention spans. Poetry suits those who are restless, unable to concentrate on one thing for too long. I’m not one of those writers who is able to abandon myself to the task for hours on end; I am easily distracted (more so by the electronic world than the actual world, although both hold their attractions). I have trouble holding too many things in my head at once, which makes structure and plot over a long piece of writing tortuous.
But, like many poets I know, I have an unpublished novel to my name, languishing at the bottom of my filing cabinet. It took me five years to write, and it weighs in at about 82,000 words. Colossal, in my opinion, until a novelist friend of mine said, oh, so it’s quite short. I didn’t enjoy the process of writing it; as a result, I produced loads of poems as a diversionary activity. Although it has to be said that my poetry changed as a result; I became interested in the narrative sequence, and how you could apply certain fictional techniques to writing poems.
I wrote my novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing, and although the structure and supervision (my supervisor was the poet and novelist Matthew Francis) were crucial in its completion, perhaps because it was an academic assignment, routinely assessed and critiqued, it became a chore to write. I’ve never felt that way about writing poems. However, without the demands of the degree hanging over me, I doubt I would have finished. When I wasn’t writing the novel, I was writing a critical study of other novels that had influenced mine, such as The Blind Assassin and Atonement, and when I held mine up to those, I could see all its flaws and shortcomings. I made a half-hearted attempt to get it published (which, at the very least earned me lunch with an agent who told me that although the first chapter showed promise and flair, I would never get it published; he then proceeded to tell me that literary fiction was dead and I should try my hand at a vampire novel) and then consigned it to the filing cabinet. I dug it out earlier this year, with the intention of going back to it; with hindsight, I could see exactly what was wrong, but I wasn’t sure if I was capable of mending it. I’d made the whole thing so difficult, with two first-person narrators, one of whom was writing a novel set in the seventeenth century (at one stage I promised Matthew I would do some research, the extent which was a quick trawl on Wikipedia for facts about witch hunts and some cursory consultation of Pepys’ diary). I realised after reading it again that whatever fired my desire to write it in the first place has gone. I tell my students to put their more difficult poems aside and come back to them in a few months, but this is different. To fix it I would have to be in love with it, and I’m not. Not the way I am with a poem when I’m trying to get it right, thinking about it all the time, playing lines in my head, holding words on my tongue, measuring them against my thoughts.
But I refuse to see the first attempt as failure (at the very least, I got a PhD out of it, even if it remains at the bottom of my filing cabinet). So I’ve started another novel. I still feel frustrated with the process – the slowness of it, the plod of words on the page. I’m impatient, I want to get on, but I don’t write as fast as my mind thinks. With poems, that’s not such a bad thing, because you are trying to pin something down, but here I need to be expansive. Having said that, the narrative is simpler, stripped back, more personal. It doesn’t feel like ventriloquism, like the first one did; I can hear my voice in it. Writing fiction will always feel for me like visiting a foreign country, but at least I can say that I’ve been before, I’m beginning to know my way around.
Still no vampires though …