BEING A WRITER: 10 TRUE THINGS
It takes courage to hand over your writing to a stranger, and recently I had the privilege of meeting a group of writers who had been brave enough to take the leap. They ranged in age from seven years to sixty-plus, and having read their stories it was my task to co-judge which of them would win prizes. I was also asked to give the keynote speech at the awards ceremony, and with an audience of aspiring writers I chose to share some of the writing wisdom I have garnered over the years. Later, I was asked to make the speech accessible, and I promised to post my 'Ten True Things' here.
1. You must give yourself permission to take your writing seriously.
It's been a few years now since I first filled in an official document and put 'writer' as my occupation. For a long time I did not consider myself a real writer. I was just a scribbler, someone who wrote things down in order to make sense of them ' this was usually in the form of diaries, but also, because I lived overseas for a long time, there were thousands of letters home, which my mother saved and later returned to me in suitcases. Although I wrote almost every day, if anyone had suggested that I should describe myself as a writer I would have thought it sounded pretentious. But in 1996 I made the conscious decision to take my writing seriously.
Owning up to being a writer is something many of us struggle with; we can be secretive, even furtive, about the act of writing. Sometimes it's because we are wary of other people's expectations, the possibility of disappointing them as well as ourselves; sometimes it's out of a sense of not being worthy, of our writing not measuring up to polished, published books by the favourite writers we inevitably compare ourselves to. While an ounce or two of modesty is admirable, in terms of becoming a writer it can signify a mind-set that is likely to hold us back. By not owning up to the writing, we may tinker around the edges and never really get to grips with the craft, never train our ears and eyes, and hone self-editing skills.
There is a measure of self-protection in this reluctance. Writers instinctively know that, while reading opens up the world, writing tends to open up the writer, exposing an inner, private world to who knows how many strangers. This is true even for writers of fiction. Perhaps especially for writers of fiction, because the imaginative scope necessary to create short stories and novels offers so many possibilities for a writer to store fragments of their life experience, that even writers who say they make it all up are likely to find particles of their own lives interred in the narrative, a bit like those dark flecks of insect bodies trapped in amber. Yet if we want to write, we have to accept that this is so, and just get on.
That means taking your ideas and your work as seriously as if you were going to get a big pay cheque at the end of the week. Here's a quote from Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer who struggled with great adversity.
'A writer must stand on the rock of their own self-confidence'. Envoy from Mirror City.
2. No day or week will ever have more hours in it than this day, now.
It's amazing how often people tell me they'd like to write a book 'if only they had the time'. The difference between those 'if only' people and the people who do write books, is that writers will create space for writing. Sometimes they need to create lots of it over a long period of time, and that can make other aspects of life difficult.
Canadian author, Anne Michaels wrote Fugitive Pieces between the hours of 1am and 4am while her family slept. She was prepared to forgo sleep for the sake of her writing. I've done it myself, going to bed early, rising in the dark of a winter morning to arrive at work two hours ahead of time, using those hours to write and revise a novel.
You have to want to do this badly to stick with it under difficult circumstances, and making time to write is the only way forward. There will never be a better day, a better year, than this one, so just get started.
3. Like good manners in life, good writing habits will take you far.
Decide never to write a poorly written sentence. Hemingway's long-term editor said of him that even his notes to the milkman were impeccably written. Email and text messages have lulled us into taking short cuts, and while I don't always manage to stick to this myself, it's something I really aspire to. Having been in the lucky position of receiving notes from publishers and editors, I am always struck by how, with professionals in the publishing industry, even a note scribbled across a compliments slip will be precisely punctuated.
Being precise with words is a good habit to cultivate. It shows respect for the tools of the trade, because good writing demands precision. You don't see cabinet-makers slinging their best sharpened chisels about, or jewellers mistreating lengths of silver wire, and vials of precious stones. As writers, words are our precious stones, our sharpened chisels, and we should always take great care with them. That is not to say that we will not give ourselves permission to do 'rough writing'. But rough writing is private, it's material that will eventually be revised and polished. It's not something to be published via email.
And on the subject of tools, I'd like to encourage all of you who write to give the marks of punctuation a special place in your writing toolboxes. A writer told me just this week (when asked why her work contained not a single comma) that she'd been on a course and the teacher had recommended the students write in short sentences so that they would not need commas. But for a writer to throw away the comma is like an electrician throwing out his best screwdriver, because the humble comma, while gentle, is the tool most often reached for, the one which allows a reader breathing space, the one which makes sense of your sentences. Try the following sentence with and without the comma.
"Let's eat Grandma" "Let's eat, Grandma"
As both a writer and a grandma, I know which version I prefer.
4. You can't dance Swan Lake without taking ballet lessons.
Perhaps because we all learn to read and write at school, a widespread belief persists that anyone can write a short story or a novel, given the time. But innate ability rarely applies to other fields of creative endeavour; people never say, 'Oh, I think I'll just write a piece for string quartet', or, 'I think I'll dance a scene from ' Swan Lake '. We understand that musicians must play their scales, that artists sketch and draw, and dancers spend hours and hours every day practising their moves.
The confusion with writing arises because we all learn to hold a pen, and we use written language in various forms in our everyday lives. Yet the writing in books and even magazines is more crafted, more stripped down than the words used in letters, emails or newsletters.
Writers need to do the equivalent of playing their scales; they need to learn their craft. But during the learning phase, they can be gathering other skills, too, developing strategies for sending out their work once they have the first manuscript or story they feel is publishable, practising writing synopses, keeping lists of places where they can submit their work.
A writing activity that comes close to playing scales or sketching is the concept of Freewriting. The term was coined by a rather innovative teacher of Creative Writing from the States, Peter Elbow. His book on writing techniques, called Writing With Power, is an interesting read.
The idea is that our conscious mind contains only a fraction of ourselves and we need to tap the huge fund of ideas, images, memories and emotions that make up our unconscious. The method involves fast, unpremeditated writing, and this is in order to bypass the internal censor who is always trying to evaluate and direct the writing. Freewriting helps you learn to write when you don't feel like writing. It teaches you to write without thinking about writing, in the way that we talk without thinking about speech. I don't know how many of you have tried this, but however strange it feels at first, I'd encourage you to persevere and see what happens.
5. Love and hate are your pen and ink, indelible and unique.
The painter Raoul Dufy wrote in his notebooks, published in 1944, that his definition of Art was 'nature (or life) seen through a temperament'. It is a definition that applies perfectly to writing, too. The world looks different to each of us, and as writers we strive to express this in our work; we must choose what to put in and what to leave out, just as painters do.
So make a list of the things you love, and another list of those you hate, and then write about them. Take notice of your own temperament. Your passions and pet hates filter the way you, as a writer, view life, and therefore they affect the way you write. On the page, this particularity will become recognisable as that elusive thing known as the writer's voice.
6. The writer's road to hell is paved with adverbs.
The writers I work with often want to know why I suggest editing out most of their adverbs. There are two reasons:
1. Writers often use adverbs when they are unnecessary. 'She whispered softly'. Since a whisper is always soft, why tell us? You might think this criticism petty, but when it happens to be the 50th adverb in as many lines, your reader becomes impatient.
2. Using an adverb often means that the writer has not tried hard enough to find a strong and descriptive verb. Instead, they've found one of those little 'ly' words to prop up a weak verb rather than search for one good word to do the job. They write 'he walked quietly', rather than 'he crept', 'he tiptoed'.
Here's an enjoyable game writers (or anyone else for that matter) can play with adverbs - use the 'find' facility on your computer's word program to seek and destroy adverbs. Put ly' in the 'find' box and search them out one by one. In each instance, consider the verb it is supporting and see if you can replace the two words with one word that is more precise. This will make your writing stronger and clearer, and readers will appreciate the lack of clutter.
7. If you ask your best friend what they think about your story, what you will get is a version of what they think about you.
The Booker Prize winning novelist, Hilary Mantel, has said that if you ask your family their opinion of what you have written, what you will get is their opinion of you, phrased in a covert form.
While there will be times when you seek constructive criticism, go to your writing peers, or to teachers rather than your nearest and dearest. But for the most part keep your own counsel, and try not to constantly crave and seek approval. Writers write alone, it's how they work, so this advice relates back to true thing number one, which is that having given yourself permission to be a writer, you need to be strong, and to maintain your self-belief.
8. What the eye doesn't see, the ear will pick up on.
Read everything you write aloud. If I had to give three key pieces of advice, this would be one of them. First drafts are plagued with repeated words and phrases, with slips in tense and grammar, and while our eye might slide over them on the page, our ear will often tell us that there is something wrong. At the very least, it brings two senses to bear on what you've written rather than just the one.
9. To keep a reader reading, the writer needs to be still.
It's a bit like catching a fish, thrash about in the water and you will scare it off. Sometimes on paper just having a character cross the room and open the window can be exhausting. In a desire to be clear, to make the reader understand, writers often feel the need to describe every movement in excrutiating detail. Take this to the limit and they would write, 'She breathed in. She breathed out. She breathed in.' And so on.
Instead, trust your reader to fill in small details. Readers have crossed many rooms, opened many windows. They know how to do it, so let them.
This is like the advice given to actors to keep their hands still, not to fidget. Think of Clint Eastwood. He hardly moves, hardly speaks, so that when he does move or speak we are riveted, and his action is meaningful.
10. All things come to those who persist.
The French writer, Flaubert said, 'Talent is long patience'. In other words, to succeed as a writer you need to persist, and persist, and persist. In my experience, the writers who succeed are dedicated and very driven; they do their work, with no excuses, come what may. The writers who do not succeed are the ones who give up at the first rejection slip, or the second or third.
Don't take from this that you will become rich from writing. Writers should probably take a vow of poverty early on to avoid disappointment. But to write well and to have people read and appreciate what you write, is, for those of us who love language and books, wealth of a different calibre, it's pure joy, and you can't put a price on joy.