On Not Writing a Book

Fiona Wright

Every time I finish writing a book a very specific dread descends upon me. Every time I finish writing a book I feel emptied out. Excited for the book that is, of course, and pleased to see it making its way out into the world – there isn’t a joy quite like this – but finishing a book, and seeing it through to publication always takes up so much space and time and mental energy that I never know quite what to do when it is done. Everything that I’ve been carrying around in my brain, wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, for months on end, for years, doesn’t need to be there any more, and then the dread descends: that I won’t find something else to fill that space.

People keep asking me, what are you working on now?
People keep asking me, what’s next for you?
And I still don’t have a proper answer.

I have friends who are writers who always have two or even three books on the boil, and when they’re finished with one, or just need a break from it, they pick right back up with another: I envy them. I envy them the same way I’m jealous of the writers I know who write quickly, a thousand or two thousand words each day, when I consider hitting 500 an excellent achievement.

I tell my students: you don’t get much say in what kind of writer you are or might become.
I tell my students: the important thing is just to write.
I tell my students: writing is what makes the ideas come.

I’ve been teaching a lot, too much, this semester, and this definitely hasn’t helped. Between the classes, the readings, the marking, the student emails, holding the preparation and necessary tasks in mind, there just hasn’t been much space. This is not a complaint; this is the reality for all of the writers I know. We have to work, and I mostly like this work, it’s just that it keeps us from the work. And it’s hard to think deeply, to think widely, in a brain that’s too fragmented.

I always say, the writing is the first thing to suffer whenever you do.
I always say, the writing brain is always working, even when you’re unaware.

The space between projects, I have to keep reminding myself, is a strange one, but it’s also an important one. It’s a space that’s all possibility, that hasn’t narrowed yet, and so an ideal space for messing about, for play. It’s a space for reading, for curiosity and openness, but it also requires patience, and a giving over of control, and I’m still not particularly good at either of these things. It’s more difficult, that is, to trust the process, when the process is less active, less structured, less disciplined, than those involved in writing and editing a book.

One of my writer friends calls it composting, because you have to wait for the ideas to melt together and grow fertile.
One of my writer friends calls it percolation, and adds that you can’t drink the coffee before its brewed.



About the Author

Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction. Her poetry collections are Knuckled, which won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award, and Domestic Interior, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary AwardHer new essay collection is The World Was Whole.