February 2020. I’m in Rome, on a short break with my sister. It’s two months away from the launch of my debut novel and I’m searching for shoes. Along Via del Corso, I find them, elegant and punky, with heels just the right side of negotiable. Undecided between the green and the black—which will work better with the silk pleated skirt I’ve been saving?—I uncharacteristically splurge and buy both. This giddiness is short-lived: in April, two weeks into lockdown, the novel is published, amidst the slow-dawning awareness that for some time nothing will proceed as normal.

My book remains in the warehouse until June; the high-heeled shoes unworn in my wardrobe for two years. I still haven’t found a reason to take down the silk pleated skirt. Some part of me determined to hold out, for next time, the next book, the grand occasion—public yet entirely personal—I missed out on first time around. It will make, I think, a neat punctuation to my speech. From the podium I’ll gaze across at friends and family and say, Look! The skirt! The shoes! Got to wear them at last! And in that moment, an imbalance, a wrong, will be righted.


Autumn 2021. Emerging from lockdown, my husband and I rent a cottage in Clare for a week’s holiday. Excited by a new idea, I take along a stack of books for research. Emerging from the strangeness of Covid time, I don’t consider fully where I’m going, caught up in the hope and excitement of a new book: a second novel. Later, back home in Dublin, I buy an antique miniature doll on eBay. She arrives, light as a wren. Her head is porcelain, her body stuffed with century-old sawdust. I have in mind to build my story around her, a base structure containing infinite potential for drama: birth, growth, degradation, disaster.

Perhaps partly as a further consequence of lockdown restlessness, we decide to sell our house. Most of our possessions go into storage; we set up temporarily with family. For the first time in many years, I’m rootless. This bothers me less than it should have. My writing space has a view of the canal. At seven each evening, a pair of swans emerge in search of food. They help to mark the seasons that follow, as I read, make notes, begin a draft. To establish my lead character’s voice—a kind of ventriloquism I find easy and enjoy—I pour through contemporary writings, diaries and letters, and reread my favourite writers of certain periods: Waugh, Greene, Mitford, Compton Mackenzie. The rhythms of their voices, so removed from my own, are familiar and beloved, layered in my literary DNA. I draw and fill in a large colour-coded timeline that takes in twenty years of the key events of my characters’ lives, the historical context. At the same time, I build an archive of imagery. I find photographs more useful, more immediate, than descriptions, a hangover from my years working as an art director, where visual cues are essential to communicate an idea. I’m absorbed by small details: would a café in the 1930s have a salt cellar on the table? I find a selection of photographs amongst the Getty archive, busy café scenes of 1930s London, with, yes, salt cellars on tables.

I tell myself, this feels good, this is going somewhere

One evening in spring, just a single swan appears, to sweep the canal basin, mark its regular route around the barges, sail away again, still alone. This fills me with anxiety, an aching melancholy. 


The house we’ve bought has been neglected for over forty years. No functioning bathroom. Terrifying wires dangle from the kitchen walls. When a bus goes by, the doors and windows rattle in their frames. The builder is brisk but offers no definable timelines. There are obstacles to be negotiated; these appear simple enough on the surface, turn out to be complex in application, entirely beyond our control. As during lockdown, time shifts, beyond any kind of rational perception; hours, days and months infinitely elastic.

A year into writing a second draft, I catch the first unsettling drift of unease, like something unpleasant and indefinable under the floorboards. Despite the drama and upheavals of their time, the characters have become bogged, infected by an ennui I can’t shake them from. Observing, always reacting, rarely initiating. This in part reflects how I am myself, where I prefer to be. Watching, annotating, absorbing. Fine for the writer, less so for her characters. I travel to the city where my lead characters have their first ill-fated encounter. My husband snaps my photo in a pub, against a bank of portraits of former illustrious regulars. Only later, back in the hotel room, scanning through the images on the phone, do I see my antagonist hanging there, on the wall of the pub, not so much looking over my shoulder as staring beyond me; his expression is a kind of detached challenge.


To my relief, the swan’s mate reappears; after a few days, I realise she’s trailing something behind her, a patch of light, so tiny as to be scarcely visible. Over the following months, the cygnet stays close to its mother; they’re rarely more than inches apart. However far the male drifts, he returns again, they remain connected, a unit. Checking our house for signs of further deterioration, I climb the creaking stairs, step over the treacherous boards on the landing, stand a moment in each empty, echoing room. The wings of a tortoiseshell butterfly, caught the summer before in a cobweb in the corner of the front bedroom window, are still vivid and exquisite. The house has become a kind of bell jar, of time, of history, the lives lived here over a hundred years. There’s a house too, in my novel in progress, a house with a wonderful twisting staircase, like the spine of a giant sea creature; I wonder if the sense of stasis and decay of my own experience has begun to seep into my story, trapping the characters in their own airless atmosphere. 


I hand over several chapters to a trusted reader for feedback. They tell me that, satisfying and atmospheric as the writing is, there just isn’t enough of a narrative drive. I respond with growing panic to their suggestions for improvement. By now I’m conscious that my self-imposed deadline has become less about bringing focus to the project than about bringing finality to an increasingly difficult process. I carry on, with a kind of desperate energy. When the plot sticks, I go back over sentences, refining until harmony emerges, nothing to offend my inner critic. The story remains something I see in flashes from the corner of my eye, but can’t realise. Although I’ve trailed my characters down city streets, through their front door, listened in as they made love and argued, they are still unknowable. The more I pursue them, the more they withdraw. Blank-eyed, hostile, withholding; like mannequins, I suspect they only come to life when I’ve left the room. 

Now when people ask, how’s the book going? their voices have an edge of uncertainty. 

Maybe, they say, you don’t want to talk about it

It’s going fine, I say. One more round of rewrites

I’m trying to sound casual, confident. Why is it so necessary to me, to appear at all times productive, positive, in control? 

My greatest asset has always been perseverance. Before I was a writer, I was a painter; once I reworked a drawing until I wore through the paper. I taped a fresh piece over the hole and carried on. That was enough then. Keeping going.

I’ve been through the five stages of grief more than once, for more worthy reasons than an ailing, failing project. When depression hits, a friend offers comfort: nothing is ever wasted. It’s human instinct to seek learnings from failure. A way to justify carrying on. Athletes and footballers are fond of aphorisms that try to make sense of defeat. Theirs is a world of absolutes: winning and losing. Art is more complex. What are the parameters of success? Before embarking on my debut novel, I hadn’t been writing very long, had in some ways ‘cheated’ the lengthy apprenticeship involved in becoming a published writer. Maybe I’ve needed this time of just making, and failing, and finding the will to make again; in the process I believe my writing has changed, become leaner, more personal, even as the range of subjects I feel compelled to write about widens.


I allow myself a period of ‘doing other things’. Re-evaluating everything. My voice. My purpose. The genre I’ve been writing in. I adapt my debut novel for screen; the challenges and complexities of a new artform suggest exciting, alternative ways of story-making. 

Widening my search for solace, I find it, most often in reading of other artists’ creative cul-de-sacs. (I collect these stories, little gems of reassurance.) People I admire and look to as exemplars of courage and judgement. Artists of eternal relevance, effortlessly chiming with their time and beyond. PJ Harvey, for one, admitting in a recent radio interview that she had begun to wonder if she had anything left to offer as a musician.


With the benefit of distance, I try not to judge my novel’s failings as a collapse of practice, but rather as a learning. There were warnings early on that I was on the wrong track but I was determined to write through. There’s a difference between flow—images and ideas manifesting on the page as though dictated by a voice from the beyond; a wise secret self that calms us from tortured wakefulness, floods our art with perfectly detailed memories and sly, inventive metaphors—and drifting formlessness. 


The walls are exposed in our house, the floorboards ripped up, the primitive wiring torn out. The swan family have moved away. Only when winter passes into spring does the solitary male appear once again; this time I feel no anxiety or dismay, recognising the renewal of a cycle that plays out as it must, a continuation. Eventually, at the back of my mind, a flicker: hope, a healthy, muscular stubbornness. The belief that craft, and faith, along with inspiration, can muster art.  


This essay forms part of an ongoing series of reflections on the writing life edited by Olivia Fitzsimons.

The Road (Not) Taken’ by Emily Cooper
‘We can’t all be a fresh new voice in literature’ by Sheena Patel