Emma’s slender fingers flew over the keys of her laptop, fighting desperately to keep up with the words pouring from her mind. She was so close she needed to remind herself to breathe. So tantalisingly close she could almost taste it. Ignoring the gurgles of protest from her stomach and the deep fatigue barely held at bay by a thin but robust veil of perseverance, she typed the words, line after line, letter by letter until finally, she hit the space bar and wrote ‘The End’.
Leaning back into her ergonomic writing chair - the only extravagant purchase she had allowed herself in recent days – she breathed deep and let it out slow, exactly as if she was doing her morning yoga. I did it. Her self-imposed writing retreat (or ‘prison’ as her friends called it) had worked and her third novel was written.
Three months sitting alone in her apartment with her thick, teal curtains drawn lest the gentle turn of winter to spring distract her with its inviting warmth and joyful birdsong. Nestled in her writing corner between the cream living room walls and the deep blue sofa, sometimes at night, sometimes during the day. It ceased to matter after a while. All that mattered was that she kept writing.
Thirteen weeks of mood-swings which bordered on schizophrenia. At first, the television was simply turned off but then the remote control had been hidden away though her treacherous brain always reminded her where she had hidden it. Now, there was a bare space above the TV cabinet, a dusty square saddened by enforced solitude.
Ninety-one days of getting words down on that page, even if she thought the words were juvenile, cliché, insipid, contemptible, simple or worst of all, boring. Of thinking her plot was too complicated and not complicated enough. Of killing characters only to realise she needed them for the story’s climax, just as other plot holes opened up all around her so she felt as if she was cocooned in delicate lace suspended above an abyss of unknown depths.
But all that was over now. Ha! The first draft is nothing. It’s barely coherent! Emma thrust that insidious thought aside. The first draft was the hardest part of the whole process, at least it was for her. No looming editor or publisher deadlines would overcloud this achievement.
She stood up, giving her chair a little nudge to roll backwards into the wall with a satisfying thunk. She got two paces from her desk before panic gripped her and she hurtled back to her laptop to frantically hit ctrl-SAVE. Phew!
Once she stopped shaking, she meandered into the kitchen and put the kettle on. As the roar filled the room, Emma allowed the happy tears to flow; a blissful welling up of relief and pride. She wanted to jump up and down on the black and white chequered tiles, holler until her lungs gave out and perhaps punch the wall, but it was 3am and she did have neighbours. Instead, she contented herself with a big stretch, a little toe-tap jig and a cup of tea. She would go out and treat herself to a nice bottle of wine later; her spirits cupboard (the tucked away area next to the spice box) was empty, having been cleared out, as usual, for the duration of her ‘retreat’.
As moonlight streamed through the wooden slats of her kitchen blinds, Emma padded back into the living room and curled up on the sofa, cradling her steaming mug emblazoned ‘Writing messes with your head: Exhibit A.’. Emma’s jaw strained under the attack of a mammoth yawn and rolled her shoulders.
Sleep came swiftly.
A month passed and the second draft was going well, her editor was in regular contact, nudging her characters one way and her plot another, making the story better. However, she needed to get started on book four. It wasn’t only the contractual obligation which made her feel like a criminal for melting into her sofa when she could be writing.
Emma tried to keep hold of the soaring triumphant feeling but failed. A strange emptiness pervaded her senses. She knew what it was, that vicious fiend who lurks within all of us. Waiting to pounce on any accomplishment and enshroud it in doubt and fevered anxiety. How dare her mind betray her like this!
The curtains were drawn against the late afternoon sun, the television blared, each flashing image as meaningful and inconsequential as the last. Emma sipped a chilled glass of white wine and wallowed in her own pathetic existence. The laptop hummed behind her, flipped open, waiting. Why won’t you write on me?
“I don’t know what to write,” she replied to her laptop’s accusatory clicks, “I don’t know where to start. I just need to think about it a bit more.”
The laptop whirred – its version of the eye-roll – and beeped.
Emma sighed and took another sip, gasping at the sharp citrus flavour.
To the right of the TV, a neat little shelf boasted brand new copies of her two published books but forcing herself to look at her ‘ego-display’ wasn’t helping. There’s so much wrong with those books. I can see the mistakes and problems now and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“Oh, for God’s sake! Get a grip woman!” A voice boomed into her life, it seemed to come from every direction at once.
Emma bolted upright, slopping her tea on her fuzzy purple jumper, “Who was that?”
“I’m your Author and I’m fed up with you moping around. Get up and move on with the story. It’s stagnating.”
Emma leant forwards, slowly putting her mug down on the coffee table. Reaching behind the sofa, she grabbed the baseball bat she kept there in case of burglars. However, when she got it in front of her face, she saw to her shock and dismay that she was holding a long, squeaky red balloon which promptly deflated in her hand.
“Believe me now?” the Author said.
“OK,” Emma swallowed and let the shrivelled balloon fall to the floor, “If you’re my Author, isn’t my moping around your fault?”
“No, you’re still your own character. I don’t always know what you’re going to do.”
“Interesting,” Emma stood up and started pacing, “I could do with a bigger apartment, you know.”
“The size of your apartment has nothing to do with your character arc.”
Emma paused and tilted her head to one side, “And what is my character arc?”
“I can’t tell you that! If I did it would become too contrived, obviously.”
“Then why are you talking to me at all?”
“Because this is boring! Do something already!”
“Alright! Fine. I’ll do something. Are you going to stop booming your voice into my apartment now?” Emma realised she had screamed the last part and clamped her mouth shut. She waited a few moments for the strange, echoing voice to return but it didn’t.
Another month passed and nothing was working. Emma refrained from sinking into the sofa, afraid the resounding voice would return. Although she strongly suspected the Author was teetering on the brink. The fourth book was quite simply not happening. The story lacked substance, any themes evaded her and the characters felt flat. She couldn’t puzzle it out and trying to was breaking her brain. Staring at the badly garbled paragraph she had just vomited onto the page, her hands poised over the keys, she wrote.
“What are you doing?”
“Who is this?” her character, Zendaya demanded, striding across the stark stone-walled room with a fierce look on her face.
Emma breathed and kept typing, “I’m your Author and this isn’t working. You need to have more agency.”
After the briefest of pauses Zendaya screamed, her powerful voice slapping Emma across the cheek, “You are the Author of this? You are responsible for EVERYTHING that has happened to me and my family?!” Zendaya quivered, incandescent with rage, “You can take your ‘agency’ and you can shove –.”
Emma stopped typing. A surge of guilt washed over her but that was quickly overcome by a tide of glistening relief. Emma smiled. Perhaps Zendaya’s character isn’t flat after all.
Feeling inspired, she strode over to the window and threw open the curtains. Dazzled by the noonday sun, she squinted to see a squirrel launching itself from one elastic branch to another. Her self-confinement strategy wasn’t working for this book.
What would Zendaya do?
She shrugged on her cream spring jacket - the one dotted with colourful butterflies – and pushed herself out the door. The air was chilled but refreshing, spiced with floral and herbal notes. A light breeze ruffled her wavy, black hair, prompting a quick bag rummage to find a hairband. How long has it been since I went to the hairdressers?
Meandering down the narrow cobblestoned pathways of her hometown, her feet brought her to a nearby park. Children squealed in the playground to the left whilst older kids played catch or football, chasing each other across the grass. Emma tutted at herself. I didn’t even realise it was the weekend.
The centralised “Sunflower Café” was painted entirely in white, its chrome glass-topped tables gleaming invitingly. Emma ordered an Americano and was hovering over the cake selection when the plump woman serving her suddenly let out a shriek of delight, her eyes fixed somewhere over Emma’s shoulder.
A thin, middle-aged man with kind eyes was striding up with the biggest, fluffiest white cat Emma had ever seen in his arms.
“Snowflake!” the woman cried, holding her arms out over the counter, “I thought I’d lost you! Where was she?”
“I found her playing with a dead sparrow by the roadside. Recognised her as yours straight away,” he smiled, releasing Snowflake who seemed completely indifferent to the situation.
“Thank you so much,” the woman said before turning back to Emma, “Sorry my dear. What else would you like?”
Emma grinned as an image of Zendaya stroking Snowflake popped into her head, she fought the laughter but it was impossible. With puzzled looks from the rotund woman, the feline rescuer and the bond villain-esque cat, Emma settled herself at a sun-drenched table and breathing deeply, let her mind relax. The sensation reminded her of a steaming-hot bath kneading sore muscles. The lemon drizzle cake was moist and tangy. The coffee rich and strong.
She went back for more.
Another three months passed and Emma’s deeply comfortable writing chair was starting to look worn but in a good way. The turquoise curtains were open, welcoming sunshine into the apartment, nourishing the new addition of tiny houseplants dotted along the windowsill. The television was turned off with the remote in plain view.
Emma took a quick sip of her tea and continued typing. Good words, bad words, it didn’t matter as long as she kept writing. She could always go back to edit later. Plot holes still surprised her but now she laughed at them, wagging her finger as if to an old, mischievous friend.
“Feeling better, are we?” the sudden rumble of the Author’s voice didn’t make Emma jump, she had been expecting it for some time.
She smiled, “Oh yes, thank you Author.” She raised her mug in salute, the words “Writing messes with your head: Exhibit A” facing outwards… they almost leapt right off the page.
“Are you mocking me?” the Author asked.
“How could I ever do that?” Emma asked demurely.
The Author didn’t respond, choosing instead to leave Emma to it. The cheeky sod.
Emma wrote. The keys tap-tap-tapped, quicker, furiously as the words gained momentum in her mind and on the page. She gasped and bit her lip. Her heart beat faster but not as fast as the words. Nothing could stop her now. She was a race car thrusting into top gear, a spaceship hitting lightspeed, a writer who would not stop, ever, not even after she hit the space bar and wrote ‘The End’.