Creative writing teacher Natalie Goldberg calls it ‘The Dead Year’: the time when – at whatever age – a person decides that they want to be a writer so bad that they are prepared to begin. To draw up some sort of regular schedule and attempt it. To a friend who embarked on what she had so many years ago, and was finding it hard, Goldberg writes in Wild Mind:
The dead feeling hits hard and permeates the first year. It comes back to test you often in the following years, but if you get through the first year, then you know about it. It will never have the power to defeat you again.
My dead year came when ill health had me on long sick leave from my job on a beautiful university campus that I had wanted to keep until retirement. Hardly able to sleep or eat or sit from pain, I spent school hours like a ghost in my own life. Making deliberate, daily marks on paper felt like the only way I might give myself material substance at a time when my identity had become so badly shrunk and scattered. So I chose a tiny palm-sized reporter pad – modest as my concentration span – and began.
How hard it was to fill even a page with my invalid life!
And so I decided next that just to make the pen move across the paper every day would be enough – or at least better than nothing – even if all I did was copy out work I admired by hand.
In this way, for the next year, across thirty small notebooks (and then dozens of larger exercise books as my muscles strengthened), I created – by accident almost – a commonplace of writers on the practice of keeping going. And these are passages that retain their value when I look back now. Here is one that proved decisive for me – Ted Hughes to a friend losing faith in writing:
Now you have started, don’t you think that rather than escape into a job for a year you ought to keep writing. You are at an age now as I am where jobs are no longer ‘experience’ – only delay and obstruction, and your best experience – & the only absolutely necessary experience – is now that of your own thinking and writing. If you write nothing but bad nonsense for 3 years you will have done more and be nearer what you want to be than if you had ascended to 2nd mate on the Queen Mary in that time, or travelled along every line of lat and every line of long as marked on the Mercators
While I wasn’t a free, childless fellow from the 1950s, something of Hughes’ words went in deep, early on. I adapted it to my own, different circumstances. Around the care of small children, tests and treatments, my return to work, domestic duties: what if I gave myself permission to write nothing but bad nonsense for 3 years?
And so I did. What I now call the Wild Patience diaries are close to a half million words written for no audience in that time.
After that I had – quite suddenly it felt – the daily practice and private voice which allowed me to make a big, late leap into my public art undertaking, the Wild Patience mile of writing. It felt like magic, but it was – I see now – only a strange yet quite natural product of such a gentle but determined apprenticeship.