Thursday 28 October 2010

Is there a Medicine for Doubt?

It is always a difficult time for me when I am starting a new novel. Although the one I have just started to work on is my fourth, the truth is that only two of the three I have written so far have been polished to the best of my ability, and none of them have yet been published with a mainstream publisher. In fact, I am still looking for an agent. Although both manuscripts are with an agent at the moment, for consideration, a sense of doom has entered my heart. I am trying to figure out what it means and why it should feel so much heavier than all the times before when I have been in the same situation.

I think it was triggered by something I read. Every so often I convince myself that I am not doing enough to find an agent/publisher and go off to the library to read yet another book about how to get published. This time it was Harry Bingham’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Getting Published.
I shall quote his damming verdict ad verbatim.

‘You should aim to come up with a list of ten to twelve names, and send your work to them. Some of those people will reject your manuscript for essentially random reasons: the book you’ve written just doesn’t happen to be their sort of thing. But not all dozen. If you send your work to ten to twelve agents and they all reject it, then your work isn’t good enough. It’s that simple. (Or almost – we’ll talk about some complications in a moment.)’

You probably guessed that I have had rejections from at least double the number of agents mentioned above, and of course I haven’t read on to see whether Harry Bingham covers my case when talking about the complications.

At the moment I am in the research phase for a historical novel, a first for me, set in seventh- century Saudi Arabia. I am desperately trying to find out details about daily life of that period, to give a sense of place and time. What did they eat? What did they wear? How did they build houses, cook, sew? I seem unable to find any literature about it in languages that I speak. I know about the social system of the seventh- century Arabs, about their religious beliefs, their battles, their economic situation, but nowhere can I find out how the women baked bread or what dyes they used to colour the wool.

Of course this creates doubt by itself. Maybe this novel is not meant to be written. With my last novel I had a similar problem. The main character insisted that he was from Iran, a country I had never been to. After reading too many books on Iran and still lacking the confidence to start writing I tricked myself into action. I promised myself to visit Iran after finishing the novel, and I did. I didn’t have to rewrite the novel on my return but I remember rewriting a few scenes that I thought I had got wrong.

I have been to Saudi Arabia for Umra, the minor pilgrimage, and I know that nothing of the seventh century is left there except the desert and mountains. Unfortunately landscape descriptions hardly feature in my writing at all. Harry Bingham’s careless comment came at a time when doubts where already assaulting me. Now the doubts were no longer confined to the question whether this particular novel was meant to be written, rather whether I should continue writing at all.

I thought I had clarified all these questions for myself; that writing was prayer for me, that when writing I was doing what I thought I was good at and what I was meant to do. Now I wonder whether I am deluding myself, and whether, on the day when I am going to leave this world, I shall regret not the fact that I am not published but the fact that I have spent all this time writing when God wanted me to do something else. But what? I am doing a lot of other things, and when you look at the reality, I am not spending that much of my time writing. I feel guilty when I write and I feel guilty when I don’t write. When my children were young, I had no doubts about my main focus. I was a stay-at-home mother by choice, doing a bit of teaching and translating on a very part-time basis. Now the children are adults. Only my son is still living at home, not needing me except for occasional reassurances of my love, keeping the house and his clothes clean and the fridge stocked up. I am involved in voluntary work with a charity helping the aged as well as in community mediation but I am reluctant to make a career out of it. I wouldn’t be good at it on a full-time basis. What would I be good at on a full-time basis? Why is my answer always writing?

I know quite a few mothers like myself who had stayed at home to bring up the children and decided not to go back to work when the children were older. Some of them spend too many hours a day in the fitness studio; others have now elderly parents to look after. This phase in my life has passed. My mother-in-law, who lived with us and who I cared for at the end of her life, died seven years ago. The only surviving grandparent of our family is my father. He lives in Austria and, should he ever need care, will most likely be looked after by my siblings who live close to him.

Some mothers do voluntary work like me, and others enjoy their hobbies guilt-free, from gardening to golf, quilt-making or painting. Others are already grandparents and have started looking after children all over again. Nobody I speak to seems to feel guilt. They do what they do, some of them stressed and under time-pressure, others finally enjoying a slower pace of life. The only women who still seem to struggle like me, who never feel quite right whatever they do, are the ones whose marriages broke up, or whose children have major problems, or who are tired of their jobs. They envy me. ‘Don’t envy me,’ I want to say. ‘I wish I could claim that serenity and peace have entered my heart.’

Of course I am old enough to know that I am blessed. I have healthy children, all talented and doing what they want to do. My marriage has survived a quarter of a century, and hopefully we’ll work out how to enjoy each other’s company for the next quarter, if God wills. To let Harry Bingham unsettle me seems immature and shallow, and utterly destructive.

So here is what I think is happening. I am a writer, and when I am actually writing, I don’t want to do anything else. I am absorbed in the task to the point that I forget myself and the world. It is bliss. I will do it even though I am not paid for it and I don’t care whether my novels will ever be published or not. Unfortunately these times of writing are far and few between. Most of my time is spent reading, doing research and rewriting.

The real reason why I am in such a station of doubt right now is the fact that I haven’t written creatively for over a year, since when I finished my last novel. Writing is the cure to my misery, not reading books on how to get published.
I better heed my own words and sign off here and open a new file headed ‘Chapter One’ and start describing the tent in the desert that is the home of my main female character.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Salam Alaykum Dear Fatima,

I am Nese Urumdas from Istanbul, the translator of your wonderful novel When The Mountains Scattered As Dust. We talked to Ms. Seda, the owner of the publishing house about you.

I wanted to contact with you because I really loved your novel. Although I am 8 months pregnant, I cannot keep myself to read and translate your novel in Turkish. I couldnt finish it yet. Please pray for me. Because I want to manage this before giving a birth.

I do this translation because I strongly believe that there are so many young people who try to find the Truth, the real Love. Hope this novel enlighten them in a best way.

Take care,

Hope to see you in Istanbul