This is where it gets ugly.
Last week I zapped off the manuscript of my new novel to my agent in New York. My wife told me to get working on the next book. It’s not because she’s worried about me slacking off and failing to pay the rent. No, it’s because she knows what happens when I’m not writing.
Ever read “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”? When I’m writing, I’m Dr Jekyll. All my unloveable urges are intellectualized and subsumed to a pleasure in the creative impulse. As soon as I stop writing, I shuffle about the apartment like Mr Hyde, hunched and suspicious, leering, weak-willed and a bit vicious.
It happens every time I finish a book and I’ve dealt with it on each occasion with a different degree of success. This time I’ve gone straight into the documentary research for my next book, which will be a historical novel. Even so, over the weekend I was conscious that the calm I feel when writing was leeching away. My teeth were on edge. I yelled at a motorist (admittedly he’d failed to stop when my son and I were on the crosswalk in front of him, but nonetheless…). I went a couple of days without shaving and, though I didn’t knock over any small girls standing on the street corner, I did start to think I was degenerating into a vulpine Hyde.
I turned to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic and found this:
“Between these two, I now felt I had to choose. … My two natures had memory in common, but all other faculties were most unequally shared between them.…Strange as my circumstances were, the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man; much the same inducements and alarms cast the die for any tempted and trembling sinner; and it fell out with me, as it falls with so vast a majority of my fellows, that I chose the better part and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it.”
What makes Stevenson’s tale great (in its original, non-Hollywood form) is that he nailed so clearly the dilemma at the heart of every civilized man. Freud wrote that man fights wars because we can only bear the restraint and repression of civilization for so long, before we blow. In my case, I write novels for the same reason.
As a writer, I have to be closer to my emotions perhaps than anyone except a shrink. The emotions need to be close enough to the surface that I can put them into sentence form and into the mouths of characters on the page.
If I was an accountant I wouldn’t need to do that every day. So I’d probably let it go.
I’ve realized that the annual post-completion jitters and self-doubt is merely what happens when I feel the strain of repressing those emotions. When I’m writing I don’t have to tamp them down – in fact, the opposite, I tease them out and give them form. Between books, I have to fight them because there’s nowhere for them to go. (It’s a little bit like Manhattan in August when all the analysts take their holiday. Everyone breaks down and blames the heat, but it’s really that they have nowhere to unload their neuroses.)
So long as I know what’s going on, I know that I won’t really turn into Mr Hyde. Not often, anyway.