Writing About Writing

Posted on 16/04/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation

Diana McCaulay; Commonwealth Writers;

A few days after my post on writing about lives I had not lived, I was browsing the New York Times at my lunch hangout and I saw short pieces by Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal) and Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) on the “write what you know” question. Ms Heller’s conclusion was: “Write what you really know, as opposed to a slick, bowdlerized version of what you know.” Mr Hamid spoke of the DNA of fiction having two strands, one “…born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.” Later, I Googled the articles and read the online comments. I concluded that aspiring writers are still being told to write what they know and there is little agreement on what this means, let alone whether or not it is advice that should be followed.

As I contemplated my fifth post for Commonwealth Writers, I wondered whether there is anything left to be written about writing. I gazed around my little office, as you do while waiting for words to arrive, and I counted the number of books on writing on my shelf – 30-odd.  I recalled the epigraph in one of them – there are seven rules of good writing.  Unfortunately, no one agrees what they are. I have books on writing for publication, producing bestsellers, freeing creativity, being an artist, books on reading like a writer, getting published, writing essays, books on style, scene and structure, a book on what you might get sued for, books on how to keep going, big reference books on writers’ markets (those go back to the days before the internet, and I still prefer thumbing through those expensive and weighty tomes, with my marker encircled hopes, to browsing websites), and finally, many books on marketing and publicizing books, including most recently, on blogging, self publishing and electronic publishing.
Still waiting for the words for my CW post, I Googled “why I write” and got over 1.3 million hits, including George Orwell’s classic: ‘Why I Write‘. Orwell’s take is there are four universal reasons for writing – egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Henry Miller says: Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. Joan Didion: Writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself on other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. Joy Williams: A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. Maya Angelou writes for the reader:  But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. Mohsin Hamid: I still have a childlike predisposition to fantasize and share my fantasies. 
When I was a teenager, my father sent an early short story to a well known Jamaican newspaper columnist, and the latter’s advice (which greatly annoyed me at the time, because it appeared far too simple) was: Tell Diana she must write. It is only by writing that one becomes a writer. I read compulsively about writing until I realized I was using up my free time reading about writing. Eventually I made a vow not to buy another book on writing until – well, until what?  I wasn’t sure. But I knew there were only so many hours in the day available for writing and they had better be spent actually writing. I finally admitted that I was never going to have the cabin with the view of the sea to churn out my pages, never the luxury of many free hours for reflection, for dreaming, and certainly not for writing, never the desirable educational background, never the connections, never the perfect workshop, nor the perfect teacher. My unwritten novel was not going to win a major literary prize. No one was going to discover a fragment of my writing left behind in the seat pocket of an airplane and offer me a three-book deal. All I had was my desire to write, the same 24 hours we all have, and the choice how to spend every minute of those hours.
Still, there are some writers on writing that I revisit, time and time again, when stamina lags, when rejections pile up, when criticism bites. Terry Tempest Williams is one of my favourites, and I carry around her short essay Why I Write, taken from a fat book on creative non fiction.
I write to discover too, to delve deep into what I think, how I feel. A painter friend once told me – if I had never sold a painting, I would still have painted. I have written for most of my life without selling a word of it, and if I never sell another word, I will still write. So here’s my contribution to the Why I Write debate: It’s how I make sense of the world.