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Cat Hellisen

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE


It’s happened before.

When I first started writing, I was so bad that it would have been more than a little pathetic if I hadn’t shown some fast improvement (and even then I doubt it was fast enough). After getting my dreadful fantasy trilogy out of my system it seemed I had acquired slightly better grammar, the ability to use spellcheck, and my words began to flow in ways that could be quite pleasing.

I was learning. I could put a story together and create characters who were slowly shedding their cloaks of mary-sueness. I worked on critique for other writers and had my own work critiqued in return. And probably learned more from the former than the latter.

It was a pretty good feeling to be able to look from my then-WiPS and back to my first attempts and see just how far I’d come. There was a definite, discernible difference. I took out writing books that talked about structure, layering, dialogue and characterisation. I learned to edit myself and break out of some truly appalling habits. Well, except the abuse of commas but I’m always working on that. :P

And then I stalled.

Utterly. Completely. My work plodded forward at the same dull rate, the words were no better. Which made them feel worse. I should have been learning, after all. I was writing all the time, I had managed to get an agent. I lost my agent. Got a new one with a new book. I was doing okay – the book sold.

But I was learning nothing. I threw myself into what I felt was my absolute weakest point – plotting. I inched up a little there, but it was hardly a spectacular improvement. Still, it was enough to make me feel like maybe I wasn’t a failure. I wrote a book I loved. No-one wanted it.

For a while after The Book I Love, I felt like I was finally making some progress again even though it was in tiny hesitant steps, rather than the leaps and bounds I wanted.

And then the steps dawdled to nothing and here I am again, looking at what I’m writing now and wondering why I bother if I’m not getting better. Is there any point in carrying on working at something if you’ve reached the highest level you seem to be able to achieve and it’s still not bloody good enough? What if no matter how much more I write, anything I produce is going to be a slightly sharper facsimile of what I’ve done before?

What is the fucking point then?

I don’t know.

When I lived in Joburg, there was a cheetah enclosure in the Joburg zoo, with a well-worn path where one cheetah walked over and over and over. What was it thinking as it wore that red path down between the tussocks? Did it think at all, was it even aware that it had probably gone mad, or was it like a machine and there was no questioning beyond one paw then the next, meals at set times, sleep, one paw then the next.

Now I’m that cheetah and I don’t know what I can do apart from putting the animal out of its misery.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    July 8th, 2013 @14:25 #

    You let it pace until you find the hole in the fence. Which you will. If you keep at it. And know that everyone goes through the same thing, except maybe the lovely and brilliant Ms Sarah Lotz.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 8th, 2013 @16:09 #

    Or you let it pace in its cage because it paces beautifully and frustratedly and pacing is the work it finds itself with, consistently carving out those lines like a Zen garden and it beats flipping burgers or working in a call centre for cheetahs like her; she leaves that to the aardvarks and the zebras who are pretty good in pinstripes and on the phone.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 8th, 2013 @16:50 #

    What Louis and Lauren said. Which can't be bettered.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Cat Hellisen</a>
    Cat Hellisen
    July 8th, 2013 @17:08 #

    Thanks, guys. :)


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