Emma Rhind-Tutt grew up abroad. Her love of words led at first to a career in book publishing, and then to writing creatively. Her work has appeared on the app Quick Fictions and was shortlisted with special commendation for the Escalator Award 2009. She completed the MA in prose fiction at UEA in 2014 and has since, amid the demands of work and family, been working on her novel Separation.
This morning, I rescued a bee from drowning. It was painstaking work: I didn’t want to get stung, and the bee didn’t want to climb aboard anything other than my finger. Together we managed, though; I left it to recover on a warm paving stone, and emptied the near-fatal bucket over some flowerbeds. As I returned indoors to write, I realised that during my pottering I had trodden on the basking bee.
A sorry tale of procrastination that illustrates the closing stages I’ve reached with my novel, Separation. As I work on the final edits I ask myself: are the changes I’m making improving or killing the novel’s chances? Or was it always a lost cause?
The original scene of this novel – which examines the trauma of loss down three generations – came to me in 2008, during a moment of extreme grumpiness, when I challenged myself to write my earliest bad memory. Three years of childcare, crust-earning etc later, and I had written many more ‘scenettes’ which, I assured myself, constituted a first draft.
I started the Creative Writing Prose MA part-time at UEA in 2012. After work-shopping a couple of extracts from Separation, I submitted other projects. At the time it felt like boldness, but now I suspect I was simply more comfortable generating new material than exposing my precious baby to critique. Either way I wrote new stuff and got lots of interesting feedback.
Picking up the ‘first draft’ of Separation again in autumn 2014 was an unpleasant shock. On the MA I had begun to understand what the written word could and couldn’t do. In a sense the MA taught me to read, more than to write. I’ve still got loads to learn in both areas, but in those two years my appreciation as reader of prose fiction was transformed.
In a sense the MA taught me to read, more than to write
Now, I needed to learn how to write. Time and again for the next eighteen months I gave up on Separation and found less painful employment. I was very sad: had I failed my novel by not working on it during the MA? Had I missed an opportunity to get help with the one story I had to tell? Instead, I was left with a headful of voices, real and imagined, that I allowed to make me feel bad: No one cares about your work, these voices whispered, and furthermore it is morally shameful of you to waste your hours this way. You should be: earning more money; raising your kids, tending friendships; visiting elderly relatives…The voices rose to a clamour: If you’re going to stick with it, for god’s sake just write better!
The stimulating intellectual content of the MA that I so missed, seemed to make a mockery of my efforts at managing the morass of material I had generated, as did the apparently instant success of my many brilliant fellow MAs, not only finished and published, but lauded internationally, garnering prizes for their work… Who was I compared with them? An also-ran, at best.
For months, I experienced nothing but ‘trod-on-rescued-bee’ moments and despaired. There was one voice I feared more than any other. It was reasonable-sounding, matter-of-fact, a bit like my big brother (who once convinced me to eat soap). It said: Separation isn’t a novel. It’s three novels. You’ll never structure it convincingly. This voice was the most undermining because the interlacing/juxtaposing of the generations was the whole point of Separation: trauma during Generation 1’s childhood has a direct bearing on disaster in Generation 3’s adulthood, via dysfunction in Generation 2 – type thing. Ah, but how to write this? Probably best to give up, said the scary, rational voice.
I’m not sure what the tipping point was: sheer energising exasperation? Sunk so low the only way is up? Perhaps it was a writing teacher I was lucky enough to stumble upon at just the right time (unlike the poor bee). Melissa Fu (she’s online if anyone’s interested, and you should be) came at creativity differently from the MA and showed me new ways of evaluating my work. Thanks to Melissa, I hushed my internalised voices enough to hear the one on the page. That is not to knock the MA – it was, is, an invaluable part of my writing journey and one of the best experiences of my life.
Among writers, it’s a truism that writing is an iterative process; I’ve had to own that truism and develop the patience, the trust-in-process, it demanded. I am still learning this lesson but these days (some of them anyway) my internalised voices offer helpful insights, rather than sneer. My eureka moment was reached heuristically: by writing and rewriting the book I discovered, yes, these generational parallels and refractions – the specific, fascinating detail of them – are actually much more striking and revelatory when put side by side, rather than teased out into a trilogy. An ‘interweave’ was indeed the best, the only – if the hardest – way to tell my story.
Back in 2014, a 1000-word extract of Separation in the UEA anthology garnered interest from a few lit agents. I have no idea whether the other 199,000 words will appeal (yes, the script’s a real porker, though it is still in the cutting room). On good days I believe those give-or-take 200,000 words will stand their ground, on bad days I think (see above, ‘a headful of voices…’)
So how can I claim I’ve finished the book when I haven’t even sent it out? I can’t. All I can claim is, after numerous false starts and ropey drafts, I have a) a much clearer idea of what the book’s about; b) a strong hunch I’m on the right track c) a draft with a beginning, middle and end. With what hubris, then, I dare to write: I’m not quite at the finishing line yet, but I can see it from here.