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“Writing is like bricklaying, you put down one word after another. Sometimes the wall goes up straight and true and sometimes it doesn’t and you have to push it down and start again, but you don’t stop, it’s your trade.” That quote from Geraldine Brooks holds an important message for most of us who write (and on bad days, at least try to write). It captures the sheer laboriousness that is sometimes involved in putting down one word after another, one sentence after the next. And the utter frustration of realising that you have to take down the wall and start all over again, because something isn’t working.
I have come across less generous versions of this message from other writers, who say that we should stop complaining about what hard work writing is. Their argument is that plumbers, bricklayers and accountants never say that they “don’t feel like it”, they just show up day in and day out and get the job done. There is undoubtedly some merit to that argument, but the great thing about plumbing, bricklaying or doing accounts is that in those trades, you can actually be confident that you know how to do what you have to do.
In most creative occupations, including writing, it’s less straightforward. No matter how impressive their qualifications or their body of work, I suspect that few writers live completely without fear. Whether that is the fear of inadequacy, of outright failure, of losing the slender thread of inspiration or – for those lucky enough to have been deemed successful – the fear of not being able to do it again.
When you are stuck with a piece of work that doesn’t seem to move, except sluggishly, when it feels as if nothing that you can come up with is working, there is often the temptation to just give up. If nothing else, there is the desire to procrastinate (I’m on first-name terms with this particular demon, by the way), and thereby avoid the inevitable unpleasantness for as long as possible.
And if you have a day job, family and friends, not to mention the audacity to pursue other interests, it may already be a challenge finding the time to write. After all, you could have any number of perfectly legitimate excuses to avoid getting down to it, beginning with the size of the laundry pile, the need to colour coordinate your files or the urgency of attending to the dust bunnies crying out for attention in the dark corners underneath your bed.
At times like that, the trick is to just keep going, as Brooks says. To come back to the desk/the computer/the notepad when you’d rather be doing something else, anything else. To give yourself permission to write something dreadful provided you actually write something.
And once you’ve done that, the second, equally important trick, is to give yourself a break for a while – especially when things aren’t going as smoothly as you would like. Stop thinking about the story and do something completely different: take the dog for a walk, meet up with a friend, read a good book (which counts as “homework” of a sort) or watch TV (which doesn’t). Just make sure that you commit to the other activity, whatever it is, instead of fretting about the state of your uncooperative Magnum Opus.
And when all else fails, have a nap. It is remarkable how helpful sleep, in particular, can be. One of the most unconstructive things that we do is to punish ourselves when the writing isn’t going well is by keeping at it beyond a reasonable period of time, thereby more or less guaranteeing that it won’t go well.
Let’s face it – even at the best of times, writers tend to have a number of legitimate worries: what to write about (without alienating your entire family), how to write well, how to find an agent/publisher/readership, the list is endless. The only way to survive is to focus on the most important thing: writing.
One of the most basic challenges is to set, and stick to, a proper routine. Many writers measure their progress by word count, others by the hours spent working, yet others by how good the work produced actually is. The last of these is of course a slippery slope, because it also brings into play the Jekyll & Hyde aspect(s) of the writer’s persona, when you swing perilously between the pendulum of thinking that you have written something reasonably good (or, in the case of people rather more confident than me, something brilliant) and the utter conviction that you’ve wasted hours/days/months on producing execrable nonsense.
It can be useful to have a set of beta readers who can be relied upon to provide more objective feedback than you are capable of giving yourself. And it is worth figuring out what routine works best for you – whether it is defined by word count, hours worked, time of day or some other criterion. For example, despite years of trying to pull off the “early to bed, early to rise” habit, I have had to face up to the fact that the most productive time for me is between 10 pm and 2 am. Needless to say, it plays havoc with the rest of my life, so I’m still fighting it. And my “routine” essentially consists of squeezing out any block of time that I can find, and using it to work on my current project, of shutting down my overactive conscience when it points out that I need to respond to emails or people, and of prising myself away from the seductions of social media. That’s my “three step programme”!
Most of the time this works because it has to. The reality of any writer’s life is that there is a host of distractions clamouring to help facilitate procrastination. Someone recently told me that she couldn’t write unless she was on holiday, and I had to prevent myself from laughing out loud. The idea of writing only while on holiday is a luxury that most of us cannot imagine; nor would that approach be particularly useful in my case since it’s been quite a while since I last had a proper holiday.
If you come from a developing country, there is yet another set of challenges to be met, not least the pervasiveness of stereotypes. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a wonderful TED talk on the dangers of a single narrative, describing how many of the people that she spoke to felt that there was only one kind of Nigerian story to be told. Her work was initially greeted with scepticism because it didn’t fit the expectations of those in the industry. In her case, of course, what happened thereafter is publishing history. But many of us who write from developing countries in the Commonwealth face similar problems of preconceived notions, including the demand for a writer to tell a story that fits the expectations of agents, publishers and some imaginary audience “out there”.
Such external pressures are often detrimental to producing your best work. The preoccupation with what the market wants has led, increasingly, to the idea that a writer must write with an audience in mind. I don’t agree. Most writers want their work to be published, and put in time and energy to achieve that end – as they should. But I suspect that most of us essentially write because we have to, because we are driven to, because it fulfils some deep-seated need for expression and catharsis and communication that has very little to do with “the market”.
Writing that is issue-driven or market-driven isn’t necessarily going to be a writer’s best work, because that tends to come out of emotions and ideas that are deeply embedded in their psyche. It’s no accident that some of the best “first novels”, those that appear polished and almost magical in their clarity, are also those which have taken a while to incubate. So in the end you may have to make a choice – will you try to chase the market with a story that is designed primarily to sell (which in any case can be a dubious proposition in terms of your chances of success), or will you write what you want to write, and focus on marketing it once you have produced the best book that you are capable of?
This is a particularly important question, because in the twenty-first century, writers are bombarded with advice. One of your biggest challenges will be to sift through all of it, and decide what works for you. Not all of it will, however talented the source of the advice may be. Kurt Vonnegut came up with a sound place to start: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” For me, this advice hits home. And I would further suggest that if you do write to please just one person, that one person should, first and foremost, be you.