There are some books whose images stay with us long after we’ve read them, far more than the stories or the characters themselves. An image that has stayed with me over the years is from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: A moonlit image of a young woman playing hopscotch in a dark room, somewhere in a villa in the bombed-out Italian countryside.
“She leaps up and in midair turns so she lands facing the other way, then skips forward even wilder now down the black hall, still landing on squares she knows are there, her tennis shoes banging and slamming onto the dark floor – so the sound echoes out into the far reaches of the deserted Italian villa, out towards the moon and the scar of a ravine that half circles the building.
Sometimes at night the burned man hears a faint shudder in the building. He turns up his hearing aid to draw in a banging noise he still cannot interpret or place.”
– from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The hopscotch-playing woman is a young nurse, Hana, who is taking care of a man burned beyond recognition, a.k.a the English patient. They are both alone in the villa and despite their isolation and the atrocities of war, she decides to play hopscotch alone in the dark. This image convinced me that Hana – this nurse, this character – is real. It made me feel that she is unknowable and unpredictable – much like all the people I know and whom I yearn to know. Much like ourselves. She is her own person.
As I work on my novel, I haven’t been able to let go of this image of Hana. Since my first book of poems was published, I’ve been trying to return to a place that gives me the joy that Hana experiences: the sheer pleasure of being with oneself, alone, in whatever dark (or lit) room, doing whatever gives me joy without anyone knowing.
Every day is a struggle to make time for me to feel this joy – a joy for me which means working on the novel without interruption. It’s been difficult trying to balance work with writing, trying to make enough money to buy me time for one more weekend where I don’t have to work, so that I can work on my novel.
I thought I had a genius idea: I outlined one entire storyline with the hope that it would save me time (and give me more time to do more research for another storyline). I quickly discovered that I can outline! But outlining also made me feel like I had killed something.
After I outlined a chunk of the novel, I no longer felt like writing. The writing post-outline had the quality of a synthetic stone. I felt dead inside, as if there was no point to it anymore, as if there was nothing to find out.
For me, an outlined story cannot contain an uncontrollable and tender character like Hana, who feels so real because she is unknowable; she makes time to seek her own joy despite the gloomy circumstances. She shows up for herself.
I realized I had to do what I was doing before. I had to sit there while my butt got sore, I had to take my time, follow my intuition, follow the images, let the words reveal the story to me, talk to ghosts.
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The mistake that I made was changing my writing process instead of my life. Making time for what gave me joy – the same way that Hana plays hopscotch for fun – meant that I had to understand that I was a “pantser,” that I felt my way through the story and that outlines will kill it for me. To accept this, I had to relearn how to show up for myself.
I made three changes in my life (not in my writing process) to show up for myself – to work on my novel in the way that I needed to (by “pantsing” and not plotting/outlining):
1) Immediacy is not a universal rhythm.
Time in a novel (especially if it covers a century) is slow. As slow as your body, as slow as history. It is cosmic! It is not the time of the algorithm, a fast rhythm which favours immediacy. So, I added a signature to my email to let people know that I take 2-3 days to reply. Adding this signature gave me peace of mind by creating a boundary, which manages expectations. I was able to immerse myself in the novel without worrying about replying to others on time.
2) Pomodoro technique.
Writing a novel is extremely difficult if you’re a perfectionist. I wrote about overcoming my perfectionism using the Pomodoro Technique for the Invisiblog. Writing in bursts of 15 minutes every hour on the hour freed me in ways I could not have imagined – it truly was an overcoming, which pushed me to accept that I am a “pantser” who can outline and who will kill her work if she outlines! The constraint of time allowed me to write quickly, to make mistakes and be imperfect – to let my characters surprise me with their secrets in the writing itself – much like Hana, that flawed and beautiful hopscotch-playing nurse.
3) Do anything but write.
To show up for ourselves, we have to live. I got a few friends together this weekend to have a music exchange party. It took effort to work out schedules, to clean my house, to get snacks, VPN, and enough USB cables. But listening to music and seeing friends gave me an unmistakeable feeling of richness – that feeling of a full life. This feeling is the one that allows me to consider the inner lives of my characters deeply: their relationships, secrets, pain, pleasure, wishes, and the fact that I will never truly know them. The urge to know them keeps me going, and yet I know they will remain unknowable to me – they surprise me constantly – but this is what makes them as real as ourselves. After all, they have lives of their own, too.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s fiction was shortlisted for the Malahat Review’s 2022 Open Season Awards. Her poetry was shortlisted for the 2021 National Magazine Awards and the 2021 Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry. Shazia’s award-winning first book is Port of Being. She lives in Vancouver and Calgary, where she is at work on a novel.