Seeing through the false beliefs that stop you writing
This is a (slightly rewritten) version of a paper delivered by David Rain at the Great Writing International Creative Writing Conference, Imperial College, London, on Saturday 29 June 2013.
The prolific English novelist, playwright and essayist J. B. Priestley published an excellent book about his literary career called Margin Released: A Writer’s Reminiscences and Reflections (1962). One section of the book, in which Priestley discusses his many publications, bears the title “I Had the Time.” He explains: “During the past thirty years or so, hundreds of people have told me they could write a good novel, play, or book of essays, if only they had the time. Well, I had the time.”
This is one of the great truths about writing. We have all had friends who seemed, at school or at college, to be promising writers, but never amounted to anything – at least not as writers. “Phantom Talent Syndrome,” as I like to call it, is common among the young; out of any group of would-be “artistic” young people, it’s a fair bet that eighty or ninety per cent of them will have given up after five years. Plenty of students can produce impressive work when a teacher requires it – in classes they may seem, indeed, to be the star pupils. Such students frequently come to grief once they’re out on their own, with no motivation from assignments or grades. This isn’t necessarily because their talent was illusory. Here’s Priestley again: “When we are young we think genius or talent is everything; later we discover how much depends on character.” By “character,” I don’t think he means virtues as commonly understood. You can be an utter bitch or bastard and still be a good writer. What successful writers typically have is: (a) tenacity; (b) pragmatism; and (c) the ability to learn from experience – at least where writing is concerned.
Writing is work – and much harder work than non-writers realise. The first task of a writer is therefore to learn how to work, and a good start is to see through the negative or confusing beliefs, or systems of thought, which I call “The Seven Writing Myths.” If you want to know why most people just dream about writing books one day, or don’t finish the books they start, these (in my view) are the reasons. Of course, it’s all very well to talk about “seeing through” this or that false belief; it’s harder, much harder, to change your behaviour as a result. Most of us, at some point in our lives, see that we shouldn’t do something, and yet go on doing it. Yet change, while difficult, is not impossible. People do give up drinking. People do give up smoking. People do lose weight. (I’ve done all three, in each case more than once.) And, sometimes, people who have put off writing for years sit down one day – and the day after, and the day after that – and actually write. The first step, in all such instances, is to say to yourself: “I have to change.” The change itself may take many attempts. For example, you shan’t suddenly begin writing fluently by reading about the seven writing myths. But you need to know they exist. You need to see when you’re giving in to them. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to break their power.
1. THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT IDEA
“I’ll start my novel when I’ve got a really good idea.” You could be in for a long wait. Writing, somebody once said, is like turning on a rusted tap: first get the water flowing; then keep watching until it comes clear. The worst of stalling mechanisms is to wait for inspiration to descend like the deus ex machina. It won’t. Start somewhere, start anywhere, start with what you have: a glimpse, a fragment, something that nags at you and won’t let go. Write rubbish if you have to, until you get something – anything – you think is good. But write. Just write. The easiest way to recognise fake writers is that such people talk all the time about what they’re going to write one day. Real writers (Truman Capote being a rare exception) are quiet. They don’t talk endlessly about their writing because the only act of communication that matters to them is what happens on the page. There’s no such thing as an unwritten book. An unwritten book is not a book at all.
2. THE MYTH OF PERFECT PREPARATION
It’s easy to get tangled up when you start to write a novel. People tell you to “write from experience” – but, if you’re anything like me, you’ll soon get bored with that. The point of writing fiction is to make things up, isn’t it? But start down that road, and you’ll soon find there are all sorts of things you don’t know about, or don’t know enough about. You’ll have to research the Apollo moon programme, or archaeological digs in Iraq. And anyway, you haven’t worked out the plot. Planning looms. This is a large subject, but the truth about research and planning, for fiction at least, is this: Do the minimum. Do just enough to get going, and no more. Everything can be fixed later. The first necessity is to get words on paper. Research is a bottomless pit. If you do it without knowing where you’re going or what you need, in that vague spirit of “This may come in useful one day,” it’ll be a long time before you write Chapter One, and most of the “fascinating facts” you unearth won’t (I’ll bet you) fit into the novel anyway. Planning is always (beyond a certain, soon-to-be-reached point) a delusion. Writing develops with writing. You just need a little bit to start. Not everything. Not anywhere near everything.
3. THE MYTH OF PERFECT WRITING TIME
This is one of the biggest snares of all. I succumb to it all the time. Every writer I know does. We’ve all heard the excuses: “I’m too busy to write now. I’ve too much going on in my boring day job. And the job exhausts me. And I still haven’t filled out my tax return. And my boyfriend says I don’t spend enough time with him. But …” But what? Do you really think that, at some future point, you won’t have these obstructions, or similar obstructions, in your way? You will. That blissful, “clear” time never comes, even if you give up the day job and the boyfriend as well. Life is clutter, whichever way you cut it. The people who complete their work are the people who make time to write no matter what. If needs be, they neglect other responsibilities as much as they can. As I said, you can be an utter bitch or bastard. You may have to be. What matters to you, and what doesn’t?
4. THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT WRITING PLACE
This one goes like this: “I haven’t got my own room. My neighbour plays heavy metal all day. I can’t make it to the library. I need a proper study, with a leather-bound set of Reader’s Digest Great Books lining the shelves and a new MacBook Air on the desk and my Mont Blanc pens in a jar on the windowsill …” Blah, blah, blah. I want this, I need that. All this is procrastination, pure and simple. Few writers, when just starting out (or – for that matter – ever) have ideal working conditions. (Read about the life of Dostoyevsky.) It’s not that you shouldn’t try for the best conditions you can. If you can afford your dream study, go for it. If you can go to a writers’ colony or take up a residency, do it. But don’t kid yourself that you need these things in order to write. You can’t afford to. You have to find the place, as you have to find the time. If you consistently don’t do either of these things, the question arises: Do you really want to write? Or do you (does your ego) just think you do? You should only write if you can’t do anything else. The last thing the world needs is another book.
5. THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT ATTITUDE
People who think they need to be in some special “creative mood” in order to write are mostly kidding themselves. There are disasters in all our lives which can put us off writing. But how often is anybody in the “creative mood”? It’s extraordinary how many people say they want to write novels and then go for days, weeks, or months without writing a single word. (I know. I was like this once myself.) The truth about the “creative mood” is this: it does exist, but it comes only when you open up the channel for it. That comes by making regular, consistent times for writing which you observe no matter what you feel like. Meditation is a good comparison. If, like me, you’ve ever learned TM or any similar system of meditation, you’ll know what I mean. When you’re meditating, you don’t feel “spiritual” or “transcendent” all the time. It’s not an out-of-body experience as soon as you shut your eyes. You’ll remember the movie you watched last night. You’ll want to scratch. You’ll think about collecting the laundry. The Austrian psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, in a great book called Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), says that success, like happiness, cannot be pursued: it comes, not as an object ardently sought, but as the by-product of our dedication to a greater cause. Likewise, in writing, the good moments come if you keep at it: they come when you’ve forgotten to expect them. Suddenly, you’ll be there. Writing will only work, long-term, if it is taken on as a practice, like meditation or exercise or a vegan diet. You don’t get the benefits by doing it just once, or doing it only now and then.
6. THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT DRAFT
Writing, for most people, is what we might term – pretentiously, perhaps, but accurately – a “palimpsestic” activity. A palimpsest is a surface on which an original text or image has been overlaid by another, like one of those city walls or hoardings covered with scraps of many a torn-down poster. Few writers can write a whole piece all through which is then, simply, ready to print. Some can, but they are generally writers of essentially formulaic material. The English children’s author Enid Blyton, an extraordinary writing phenomenon, could produce a full-length novel in a week. She would start on Monday morning and finish on Friday afternoon, typing ten thousand words a day straight through to the end. But I can’t do that and I’ll bet you can’t either. I wouldn’t even want to. For almost all of us, writing a book means draft after draft – both before and, often, after the thing has gone to the publisher. You’re in this for the long haul. The easiest way to disappoint yourself in writing, to wind up discouraged, is to start off thinking it’s going to be easy. It won’t be. It won’t just be harder than you thought: it will be much, much harder.
7. THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT RESPONSE
Truman Capote said that after he had written something all he wanted to hear was praise. He was being honest. All writers feel that way. None of us wants to be told that our work is boring, or good but not commercial, or “not right for our list,” or that it “didn’t quite work for me.” But we will be told all of this. Every writer must – it’s a survival strategy – come to terms with two things: (a) You are going to be rejected. This will happen as surely as the sun will rise. It’s inevitable: Whatever you write, not everybody is going to like it. The odds against writing your first book, getting taken on by the first agent you approach, and then your agent selling it for a vast advance to the first publisher who looks at it, are not much better than your chance of winning fifty million dollars in the state lottery. Yes, it might happen – but the likelihood is remote, to say the least, and you’d be an idiot if you planned your life around it. For all practical purposes, you must assume that it won’t. Which brings us to: (b) You have to persist. Behind every “successful” writer lies a trail of abandoned projects. Many successful books, too, have been rejected time and again before finally breaking through.
We writers are endlessly tempted to self-pity. This is in direct proportion to our egotism. We all think we deserve a triumphal progress of sales, acclaim, awards. But look at the great writers – geniuses – whose careers were a shambles. Herman Melville died thinking he was a failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he died, was forgotten. Plenty, too, are the writers now acclaimed as classics who, in their lifetimes, enjoyed only minimal success. Henry James sold precious few books and never won the Nobel Prize for Literature – this, let’s remind ourselves, is one of the most talented people ever to pick up a pen. So if somebody like that didn’t have it easy, why should I – and why should you? Nor, difficult though it is, should we envy current bestsellers. Give it time, and most – not all, but most – will be forgotten. Who would you rather be: Joseph Conrad, or Harold Bell Wright? (Which one have you heard of? Well, guess which one sold the most books in his day – by a huge margin.) The more original you are, the less formulaic or generic your writing, the harder you’re likely to find it. Holdfast, so Shakespeare puts it, is the only dog. Some writers can’t get started (Nos. 1-5 above). Others don’t realise how much work it takes to write a book (No. 6). And some (No. 7) never make it because they just don’t keep going.