How I write – Victor Fenech
by Marie Benoit
‘Get down and write’ is an established principle in writers’ circles, provided you already have the germ in your head. You’ll know well enough whether the idea is worth chasing. Otherwise you would only intensify your writer’s block. The idea – hackneyed word ‘inspiration’! – has to confront you first, one way or another; it is then up to you to nurture it.
In poetry it may only take a few minutes and it may take much longer, depending on the amount of brushing up needed. In terms of prose the writing process certainly takes longer, what with story development and character study. I find that my best poetry comes in sudden urges, but the theme would certainly have been germinating in my mind for months, if not years.
It is intriguing to note that my best poems have been judged to be those that hardly needed any re-writing, they were just ‘born and delivered’. Other poems, mostly those dealing with social issues, had to be reworked a number of times before I deemed them fit for publication – after which I would often feel I could have reworked them differently. Crazy, but I am rarely satisfied with my finished article. I have learned over time that published work had best be left alone. Even so, this year – by way of celebrating my 75th birthday – I hope to have the bulk of my poems published in a single volume, and I have not been able to resist the temptation to tamper with some of them.
Poetry apart, I have stories which I started years ago and are still unfinished. Either because I have lost interest in them, or because at some time during their writing I had been drawn to something different or more urgent. Usually it’s difficult to restart on discarded projects. But there they remain; every time I open my drawer they seem to peer at me and ask, is it time? Some day their turn may come.
In my growing corpus of literature for young people, I have written stories almost in one sitting. In-Naghga s-Sewda (The Black Sheep) for instance started with the merest of hints, I sat at my computer at 7pm and wrote solidly till past 2 a.m. On the other hand I started Bieb Izaqzaq (Creaking Door), one of my longer stories for adults, more than five years back. I still keep chopping and changing various episodes. Maybe soon this particular door will stop creaking, and we’ll both say Amen.
In the good old days of the typewriter I used to write all sort of changes in the double space, not to mention the overworked margins with handwritten additions all arrowed into their place. Then I would re-type everything, and before submitting it I would (inevitably) do further changes and type the damn thing all over again. Most poems of course would have germinated on bits of paper which I sometimes lost but mostly preserved in a box. The computer revolution has put paid to all that.
I now work straight on the computer. It’s less time-consuming, but I still do endless rewriting. I write at different times of the day, sometimes with soft music on, depending on my mood and the subject in hand. For maximum concentration nothing beats the dead of night. The feeling of being almost alone in the world, of silence and solitude, is part of my character (at least I’ve learned that much about myself).
I know of writers who adhere to a strict time-table, setting themselves a minimum daily word count and a maximum time-span to finish their work. I am not one of them. Since my retirement however I have found myself working to more regular hours. On occasion I have also digressed rather badly. I would need to check out a date or a name and I would search the internet for easy reference. Then I might find myself reading the day’s news or checking on the football results and tables. Pre-net I would have consulted my books and there would be no such diversions.
For self discipline in writing nothing beats a book that needs extensive research. One of the toughest books I’ve worked on was Il-Ktieb Malti, perspectives on the Maltese book set within the history of printing. Since it was part of a series, it had a strict time frame. Half way through it I had to go in for heart surgery. The editor was understanding but still needed me to deliver on time. Too weak to continue my visits to the Bibliotheca and the University Library, I had to rely solely on my extensive collection at home. I worked round the clock to be on time, but there were still some areas I had intended to cover, and some others I would have liked to expand. That the book still managed to place second in that year’s Malta Literary Awards (research category) was a huge satisfaction. There now – who said authors aren’t a vain species? But aren’t we all, deep down, in varying degrees?