Carnegie Blog 1: Fear of the Blank Page

This is the first in a series of blogs I’ll be doing over the next six weeks, as part of the Carnegie Undergraduate Vacation Scholarship. I’ll update at least weekly, possibly more, contingent on how much I find to say about the writing process of trying to produce a 35,000 – 50,000 word novella (first draft) in six weeks of intensive writing. In this first blog I’m just going to say a little about how this bizarre circumstance came about, and describe some of the thoughts going through my head as I sit and look at the little blinking cursor on its vast white background.

George Orwell once wrote:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

 

Jon McGregor once wrote:

So many ways to begin.

 

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

A few weeks ago, I got a letter. It said:

Dear Mr Ward Sell,

I am pleased to inform you that you have been awarded a Carnegie Undergraduate Vacation Scholarship.

But that’s the wrong way to begin. I’ll try again.

A few months ago, I got an email from my dissertation supervisor, Anna Vaninskaya. And that said:

Dear Aran,
Would you be interested in being nominated for the Carnegie Vacation Scholarship?  The regulations state that ‘those graduating in the current year, who propose to proceed to research, can be considered at the discretion of the Trustees’, so you would only be eligible if you’re thinking of going on to postgraduate study.  Let me know if this is something you’d be interested in.
All the best,
Anna

It came out of nowhere. I felt honoured, excited, and confoundedly puzzled. I didn’t know what the Scholarship was—my first thought was that I’d be applying to work in the English Literature department at the university, shadowing or helping someone out with their research. But that didn’t seem to fit in a Literature department, which doesn’t involve a great amount of lab assistants. So I emailed back and arranged to speak to Professor Vaninskaya in person.

When I got to see her, I explained that my plan (inasmuch as I, meanderer extraordinaire, ever have a plan) was to spend a year building up a writing portfolio, and then apply for Creative Writing master’s degrees. My supervisor’s response surprised me; she said that it was probably a long shot, especially as the Scholarships usually go to final-year undergrads rather than graduands, but that if I wanted to prepare a portfolio for postgraduate creative writing, then I should go ahead and apply for the Scholarship to help me build up that portfolio.

It was a thrilling thought. It would be almost like My First Arts Grant. 6 weeks of financial assistance (not a lot; think a part-time job on minimum wage) and the backing of an accredited body; for writing fiction. And there was something freeing about the ‘long shot’ comment. It made me feel that I might as well apply to do what I’d like to do most, not for what I thought they were most likely to approve – because if it was a long shot anyway, why the hell not? I sat down and wrote my application – the most relevant part of which read as follows:

If I was to receive the scholarship, I would devote the time towards a single piece of heavily researched fiction writing. Given the length of the scholarship, I would aim to produce a novella around 35,000 – 50,000 words in length. This is a lot of writing to produce over this period, but I prefer to challenge myself! I would continue to edit the work after the scholarship’s end, but I would attempt to complete a first draft within the period of the scholarship. I would accompany it with a several-page Artist’s Statement, explaining the processes and intentions behind the work, and I would also provide regular updates on the creative process on my website, http://www.reasonstoremain.co.uk, so that interested observers could keep track of my progress.

And then the wait, and then the wait, and then the letter.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

I’m not comfortable writing this blog. I think that’s good. I don’t think that writing about writing should be a writer’s strong suit. I think it’s healthy to be worried enough about what you’re creating that you don’t want to talk about it, or admit that you’re writing it, or admit that you hope it might be good, admit that you’re worried it might be terrible or harmful or not communicate what you want it to.

And I don’t, particularly. I don’t want to say ‘I’m writing a novella’ when people ask what I’m doing now. I want to mumble into my coffee, and ask them what they’re doing, and for it to be a really good coffee.

Anyone remember this gag from Family Guy?

Yeah, that. I don’t want to be that. The last long piece of writing I did, I didn’t even mention it to anyone until I was around 35,000 words in, with the possible exception of mumbling ‘yeah, I’ve been writing some stuff’ into a coffee (Scarlett, if you’re reading, I’m pretty certain you were the first to whom I ever claimed to be working on a ‘novel’. I instantly felt like such a Brian).

But I said in my application that I’d blog the process, and that I’d actually write the damn thing, so I will, and I will, and there you have it. So what am I doing for the next six weeks? Well, I’m working, at both my jobs. And I’m eating and sleeping and cycling around and arguing with my bank and wondering what I’m doing and tidying my room and making my room messy again.

But also, I’m writing a novella. I guess. And I’ll continue to tell you all about it here, if you feel like reading.

*   *   *   *   *

I’m going to leave this entry here for right now, and do a follow-up entry hot on its heels tomorrow. In that post, I’ll talk more about the novella itself – what I said I’d write in my application, what my thoughts on that are, and how I’m approaching the very start of the writing process. Thanks for reading – leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like me to focus on in this blog series, or if you have any insights of your own into the scary world of committing to Writing A Thing.

–A.

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