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From Architraves To Narrative Arcs (A Work In Progress)

How building works helped a blocked writer

Repaired building

I write this from the relative sanctuary of our bed, my husband half-asleep beside me, the cat skulking in the wardrobe, the sound of an angle-grinder rising intermittently up the stairs. It is 9.15 on a Sunday morning. Outside, snow is falling unseasonably past the window. I am thinking of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, writing her diary from the kitchen sink.

We moved here last summer. Finally, the year our daughter turned seventeen and began applying for university, the year our youngest son turned eleven, we found ourselves in a position to ‘up-size’ (as estate agents say). Here was the garden we dreamed of when the children were small! Here were all the rooms! Here was the study in which to put a writing desk and gaze dreamily through a window! As has always been the case with us, though, it was necessary to buy a place that had ‘tons of potential’ (as estate agents also say). Parts of the house were falling down, almost literally in some instances, and a lot of building and renovation work had to happen before it could even be properly habitable. Despite this – despite there sometimes being no heating, no running water, no light, and sometimes not even much in the way of internal walls – we had to inhabit it.

As a matter of note, I also moved with a manuscript I’d been working on for the past three years. This was a novel that had been refusing to conform and cohere, sometimes even to have anything resembling a plot. And somehow, after we moved to the new house, these two facts, these two falling-down things in my life, began to feel related.

I suppose one of the reasons I Capture the Castle has been in my mind so much is because the progress of my own novel has been so mind-blowingly slow. It has been like the novel Cassandra’s father agonises over in his castle turret. It has been my Writer’s Block novel, maybe my mid-life crisis novel. I don’t even know why, apart from the fact that the novel as a genre has always seemed a far harder and more mysterious thing to me than the short story. It is a great thing that needs to be written, a thing containing some kind of saga, some sort of anguish, some type of narrative arc, and I’ve sometimes found the whole concept slightly terrifying.

This doesn’t quite explain the sheer slog this one has been, though. It’s the third novel I’ve written (fifth, if you count two that foundered early on), but I don’t seem to learn from my own writing experiences. I seem to be one of those writers who:

a) writes a novel;
b) wonders what it’s about;
c) rewrites the novel.

The problem this time seemed to be that I’d become stuck on Stage C for a very long time. Three years or so. I kept rewriting it: adding bits in and taking them out again, toying with first-person versus third-, tinkering, to no particular effect. The seasons turned. The years came and went. My children grew older; we all grew older. Then, in year four, everything proceeded to get even more complicated and distracting with the house move and subsequent renovations. We moved last June, the builders joined us with all their power tools in November, and now it is April and we are all still here, and my novel is still a work-in-progress.

But something, recently, has shifted (and I’m not just talking about the floorboards or the downwards trajectory of our bank balance). I think what has finally given, since we’ve been here, is my own state of mind. In a good way, I hasten to add. I arrived with a novel that was trying to be something quite serious and profound and rather sad, but in the past few months it has turned into something else. It has become the happier and lighter thing it always wanted to be (albeit with certain undertones of bitterness and regret…). Significantly, though, it has taken on something you might call an antagonist, even a plot. And I think I have the builders to thank for this.

For the past six months I have been upheaved on a pretty much daily basis from one room to another, from one writing desk (or chair, or bed or windowsill) to the next. Sometimes I have been plunged into darkness when the electrician needed to cut the power, and sometimes I’ve gone into the bathroom to find the toilet missing, and a note propped against the basin taps saying ‘Do not use: plumbing disconnected’. Paradoxically, though, all this chaos seems to have done me a lot of good — it’s been somehow like the opposite of needing a room of my own. Maybe I needed noise; to be upheaved; to be not quite so precious about the whole thing. (‘I have found’, as Cassandra says in I Capture the Castle, ‘that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.’)

All around me the builders have continued their work, and have been exceptionally pragmatic about it. They have not wrung their hands and worried about narrative arcs or the merits of first-person versus third-, they’ve simply got on with taking down dodgy old structures – weird plumbing and strange wiring – and expertly replacing them with new, coherent versions. They have been unafraid to rip out things that were not working or were ill-conceived from the start. If there have been minor setbacks, if a drill has stopped working or if they’ve cut a plank too short, they have not descended into an agony of soul-searching and wondered if they could even call themselves builders any more. They’ve just got on with building, on a big scale and a small one; they’ve put in load-bearing joists to prevent the kitchen ceiling from falling in, and they’ve removed a lot of small plastic animals from the kitchen drainpipe so our sink no longer backs up; they’ve hung cupboards at a height reachable by someone below the height of six-foot-three and they’ve stripped a great deal of woodchip from the walls to reveal some beautifully blank canvases.

All the time I have been watching them, and learning. I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which a writer is like a builder — or should be. To create, you sometimes have to destroy what was there before. I’ve been remembering how to edit, and how not to be scared of smashing big holes in my manuscript, if that’s what’s required to make it better. I’ve realized that calling a halt after a long day’s work is a sensible way to proceed, because then you’re less likely to make stupid mistakes. The whole thing has been revelatory; at times it’s been practically damascene (possibly helped by the fact that the builders working on the house one particular afternoon of writing clarity were called Peter, Paul, Moses, and Mark).

Most of all, I think the whole moving and rebuilding saga has reminded me that writing is, actually, a craft. I always used to get put off by the whole ‘writing as craft’ idea: it annoyed me that the shaping of plot and structure seemed somehow prized above character. But I’ve realized this was quite a blinkered view – after all, a novel has to have a plot for its characters to live in – and the builders have reconnected me with the cathartic joy of tearing down a rickety old structure to make way for something that will bear weight. So if my novel does sees the light of day in the next year or so, and if you see a dedication in the front to Peter, Paul, Moses and Mark, you’ll know who they are and why I’m thanking them.

Ruth Thomas is the author of three short story collections and two (nearly three…) novels. She lives in Edinburgh and has worked as a lecturer in creative writing at St Andrews University, and as a writing mentor for the Scottish Book Trust. Her stories have been broadcast on the BBC.

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