Life in 2014 comes complete with a director's commentary. Enjoying a gig? Tweet it. Eating a fancy burger? Photos or it didn't happen. Went for a run? Get the 'mysmugrun' app to update your Facebook feed. Without it, life is just one bloody thing after another.
So if someone won't tell you what they're working on, it seems more than a little... precious. Why not?, you think, twisting your wine glass below the haughty glance of a writer unwilling to say anything about their work-in-progress. What's wrong with you? What's wrong with ME? Why won't you tell me?
At best it's superstitious, as if discussing your thinking or current dilemma might spoil the whole thing, but at worst, you think, draining the last dregs before breaking away to head back to the bar, it's pretentious.
So when I started writing my book I told my idea to anyone who'd listen, collected my thoughts in endless stream-of-consciousness monologues, clippings, quotes, and wrote weekly blog posts on its progress. Eventually weeks passed into months, and months turned into years, and after 100 updates (two years' worth), I started to get embarrassed.
There was only so many times I could say "still writing", so I stopped blogging. I noticed friends' hesitancy before they asked 'how's the book?'. Hesitancy, or was it pity? Doesn't matter. None of them had read a word of it - this thing, the reason I had cried off arrangements, left parties early, even ran off to Greece to 'finish'. For all they knew I had written the word 'fish' a hundred thousand times.
The inevitable question arose unfailingly (I had nailed my colours to the mast, hadn't I? I was writing a book, wasn't I? In full sight of everyone I knew?), I opened my mouth, and nothing came out.
There was nothing to say. Wherever I was in a draft, I was at the same point - chest deep in a swell of words that could go in any direction.
EL Doctorow described the feeling perfectly:
Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights...
In the middle, the same worries crop up: am I writing this in the right way? should I switch perspectives? change the focus? is this a rabbit hole? what's my point? where's the tension? Sometimes they're worth listening to; my second draft, for instance, was plagued by my worry that I was attempting to weld two divergent stories together. I was right. But more often than not they are unhelpful thoughts that need to be blocked out as you find your way.
At first Doctorow's headlights might seem like a limitation, but what they're not illuminating is just as important as what they are. Indeed he goes on to say, "you can make the whole trip that way.”
This, I realise now, is why writers keep schtum. It's not to keep their work pure from other people's thoughts, but to keep it from their own destructive internal ones. Issues in your WIP can't be resolved by talking it through with others, or in a spreadsheet, or another list - they have to be left to churn around inside you, written and rewritten until they resolve themselves.
Getting that balance is tricky: show others too soon, and you might lose focus; leave it too late, and you risk running out of energy or confidence or both.
So how do I plot my progress without letting the cat out of the bag?
Since stopping my weekly updates I've written four short stories and started a new draft of my book (the third). I'm about 30,000 words in. That's what? A third of the way in. 30%. 10,000 wpm (words per month - at this rate I'll be done by May). I could go on.
But I've missed the discipline of writing a weekly post - so in the year that the blog has once more been given its final rites, I'm restarting mine. It won't be about my work-in-progress, but on writing in general.
Maybe no-one will read my posts; maybe a prospective employer will. It doesn't matter, because for me publication is key. Not the kind that rolls off monstrous lithographic printers, or even the kind at the push of a button in Wordpress, just the kind that says, it's done. Finished. Out there. Move on.
Writing, or any kind of creative pursuit for that matter, requires you to shut down that tiresome chattering feedback loop in your head, but there comes a point when it needs to be switched back on, the work needs to be redrafted, edited and published. Doing that with a 100,000 word novel takes time (three years and counting...), but with a short post or an article the process can be done in a day.
In the midst of the word swamp, I can remind myself that I *can* put words one after another after all, until they have said all they're going to say and are no longer necessary, and they just -