How I write – Vincent Vella
by Marie Benoit
How do I write? Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, especially when writing prose. I’m a bit faster when it comes to drama but not by much. I’m struck dumb whenever I hear that a play was written in three weeks or a book over a few weeks. Am I envious of such a capability? Not really. It’s not as if I have to make a living out of my writing. And I love words and love writing, which means I actually enjoy the struggle, which goes into hammering one or two paragraphs into shape even if it takes two hours to do it. And I have managed to turn out a respectable number of works over the years, in spite of the less than frenzied pace. I mustn’t allow speed or “500-words-a-day” to become an obsession, though things can get uncomfortable, not to say anxious, when I am writing to a deadline.
Another difficulty is finding time to write in the face of the challenge offered by a demanding, full-time job which keeps you busy and drains you of energy by the time you get home. And it’s not as if you can switch it on at will come the weekend. That can be very frustrating, especially if the sluice is slightly more ajar than usual and you know you should be grabbing such moments with both hands.
Finding ideas is definitely not the problem. There’re plenty of those, whole notebooks in fact, far, far more than I’ll ever come round to develop in full. I can’t play music or paint but I have no complaints when it comes to ideas. Anything can trigger it off: a piece of news, a conversation overheard, a joke, an anecdote. Suddenly, there I am, drawing up the outline, finding ways out of tight corners, characters knocking for attention … I have to put an abrupt stop to it, otherwise it’ll take precious time away from what I happen to be working on at the moment – so down it goes in a notebook. Reminds me of the lady I read about a couple of years ago who, due to some physiological condition, was having orgasms at all times of the day and at the most inappropriate moments: at work, in church, crossing the road. Hey, now there’s an idea for a short story!
With many of my works I need to put in a fair amount of background reading, sometimes months of it, whether it is the Maltese in London, Pinochet’s Chile or Bosnia during the break-up of former Yugoslavia. To be honest, there are times when I get the sneaking feeling that I’m reading, and taking notes, far beyond what I actually need. The truth is I’m putting off the time when I have to sit down in front of my computer and get down to the writing.
Having once got my notes together, I move into the next phase: knocking the whole mess into some sort of shape, a task to which, as I’ve confessed above, I’m rather partial. Over the years, I think I’ve become faster, possibly better, at it. I never go into full detail, however. Some years back Edward Bond visited Malta and we got talking. He told me that he plans out every scene in minute detail, practically writing whatever he’s writing twice over. But that’s not my way. After finishing the overall plan, I like to take it one scene at a time, enjoying the feeling of seeing a situation and/or a character emerge slowly, waiting, and hoping, for those exhilarating moments when a flash of insight, a well turned out phrase, surface, seemingly of their own volition out of nowhere. Where do they come from?
After I finish a piece of work, I follow the classical procedure: put it away for a while and then take it out for yet another trimming.
Then there is another thing. I write in both Maltese and English, prose and drama, and that means drama for radio and the stage. I sometimes end up with three versions of the same play: a stage version in English and in Maltese and another one for radio. Unfortunately, I hardly ever write for radio in Maltese. We seem to have completely given up on that one. Moving between each domain is quite a thrill, an adventure in itself, calling for different skills – in language and technique. But then, as you might have gathered by now, I’m one of those who’d rather take a bumpy ride than a smooth slide. I like a challenge and, like the mad knight, I’ll make up my own if none present themselves.