Quitting my novel was the best thing I've ever done as a writer. I totally recommend it.
Seventeen years ago I had my first book published, a collection of poetry. The book got some reviews, was nominated for a few awards and even won one of the little ones. I got to do some interviews too, and even started thinking of myself as a poet.
After a while I contacted my publishers and offered them another book of poems. They weren't interested in my second collection, which in hindsight wasn't really ready to be published, but which also had a different tone from my first collection. I had anticipated the knock-back, so I'd brought two more proposals to the meeting, both for novels. One of the novels had a whimsical inner-city tone similar to the poetry collection they'd published. They went for that one.
Now I had a contract to write a novel. All I had to do was finish it. Which I did, somehow, thanks to a lot of emotional support from my loved ones and some very welcome professional and financial support from publishers and arts organisations.
I really hated writing that novel. Looking back I think I took every short cut I could to hit the minimum word count I needed to get over the line. I just wanted the writing part to be over.
Once it was over, though, it was exciting being a novelist. A real, actual novelist. Good word, that. The kind of word you can say with pride at a dinner party without anticipating the need for clarification or worrying about killing the conversation.
"Novelist" is what people assume you mean when you say "I'm a writer". Not "poet". "I'm a writer," you say. "That's great," people reply, putting you on a mental bookshelf next to Tim Winton and Joan London. "A poet, actually," you might clarify, then clear your throat.
So there I was, a published poet and a published novelist in a world that by and large valued fiction much more highly than poetry. "I love reading," someone might say to you, and pretty soon odds are you'll be comparing favourite novelists. Never poets. Unless the person you're speaking to is a poet, which is lovely, but that doesn't happen much.
As a result of all this, I stopped thinking of myself as a poet and started thinking of myself as a writer instead.
I cringe when I think of it now, but once I had that novel in the bag I went right ahead and started working on another one. Of course I did. I was a novelist. That's what novelists do: they write novels. You write one, then you write another one. And so on.
Around that time I started a full-time job, bought a house 100km outside Melbourne and began commuting to Melbourne five days a week. Then my partner and I had a baby. Then we had another baby. So there actually wasn't much novel-writing time - or any writing time - to be had when I was done with all the commuting and working and new parenting and generally being exhausted. And then I looked around and it was ten years later.
I'd been plugging away at writing that novel all those ten years, sometimes diligently and sometimes not, sometimes effectively and sometimes not, sometimes optimistically and sometimes despairingly. I'd even quit writing entirely a few times out of frustration at my lack of progress. At least, I'd quit in my head. The quitting never seemed to stick. I still liked the idea of the novel. I just didn't know how to do it. By that time I had bodged up around 40,000 words and a plot outline, but the end of the first draft was a long way off.
See, here's the thing. I'm not really sure how to write a novel. I mean, I get the general principles. I did a novel writing class as part of a Professional Writing and Editing course. I've read advice from novelists and teachers, spoken to writers and heard them speak, and I've put it all into practice at different times. Hell, I've even written a novel.
I always felt, though, that writing this novel, no matter how much I loved the plot, was like eating a plate of disgusting vegetables because they were good for me. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that even though it made me feel terrible, if I just worked at it long enough it would get written and I would be a better person for it.
I tried to stop writing anything that wasn't the novel. I did write other things, but I always felt guilty, even when I was successful. "Nice chapbook of poems, Adam, but where's that novel?" "Good on you for getting that article published, but where's that novel?" "It's a nice eBook, sure, and yeah you did teach yourself to code it from scratch, but you know what it isn't? Your novel."
One day I had a major revelation about the plot of my novel that made me reconsider everything I'd written to date. Without going into detail, the upshot was a perspective shift that meant tossing out everything I'd written and telling the story again from scratch. Faced with putting ten years' hard-won words aside, the last fine threads of interwoven guilt and ambition that connected me to that novel finally snapped. And for the first time the idea of quitting made me feel good instead of guilty.
I'd never thought too much about why I thought I would be a better person for writing a novel. I guess I was just buying into the implicit hierarchy we've been taught. Fiction and nonfiction stand proud in bookshop windows while everything else lurks at the back of the shop. Magazines and arts pages run fiction and nonfiction reviews on a regular basis while any other form is lucky to get mentioned. Literary agents have for a long time included "no poetry or children's books" caveats on the enquiries page of their websites.
It wasn't until I quit that final time, giving myself permission to focus on writing poetry, that I started thinking maybe I'm just not suited to writing novels. And maybe that hierarchy is bullshit.
I've never been good at tasks that take a long time to complete. I don't have that kind of sustained concentration. I also never set out to be a novelist. When I started "being a writer" it was all about writing poetry, not novels. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that poetry was an apprenticeship for becoming a novelist. I don't really think that anymore.
A few weeks after my revelation I spent two nights away from my family to work on some poetry prize manuscripts. I had more fun, got more satisfaction and felt more pride about my writing in those two days than I had since starting that God-damn novel. It was all the proof I needed that quitting had been the right decision.
I love writing poems. When I write a poem I'm happy with it feels like I'm crafting something small and intricate that I can hand to people with pride. There's a scene in The Fisher King, the old 1990s Terry Gilliam film, in which Robin Williams takes the wire frame from around champagne cork and twists it into a tiny chair that sits in the palm of his hand. That's what poetry feels like to me. Writing novels feels like building a house. I'm no architect or builder. I'm a champagne-wire-chair twister. I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to work that out.
To be honest, I haven't given up on that novel. At least not the story I was trying to tell. I'm going to take a break for a while, and then, next year, I'm going to have a crack at rewriting it as a verse novel.
My name is Adam Ford and I'm a poet.
Adam Ford is the author of Man Bites Dog, Not Quite the Man for the Job, The Third Fruit is a Bird and Heroes and Civilians. He's also the author of the sporadic zine Jutchy Ya Ya. He lives in Chewton, in Central Victoria, with his wife and their two daughters, a cat, a dog and the ghosts of numerous chickens. His website is www.theotheradamford.wordpress.com.