To write or not to write

The Guardian Review last week featured an interview of popular authors on their personal dos and donts in writing. It’s amazing to know that, despite all talks about craftsmanship and narratives and structures and talents, the overriding principle is still one’s drive and perseverance. Perseverance in all things prevail.

I have extracted a few rules from the article which I really liked:

Margaret Atwood:

  • Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  • Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

Roddy Doyle

  • Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
  • Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
  • Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.
  • Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.”  But then get back to work.

Helen Dunmore

  • Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.

Geoff Dyer

  • Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
  • Do it every day. Make it a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
  • But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick to it.

Anne Enright

  • The first 12 years are the worst.
  • The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
  • Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
  • Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
  • Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.
  • Try to be accurate about stuff.
  • Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Richard Ford

  • Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
  • Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
  • Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.

Jonathan Franzen

  • It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Neil Gaiman

  • Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  • Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing.

PD James

  • Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
  • Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

I love Anne Enright’s comments on a writer’s journey. The beginning is always hard. But once you get yourself started it is just a matter of continuing with it and sticking to your plans. It may not change you completely, you may not be terribly good at it, but certainly if you try hard and regularly enough, the whole experience changes you, the way you approach things, the way you develop your own perspective. People say writing is a therapy. It isn’t just a therapy, it is much more than that. It is a real test of perseverance. No one finds it natural to sit down in front of his/her desk for so long. It is not pleasant to ‘work’ like this, but there is a nourishing joy about being able to improve your writing by actually writing more and more: and sometimes I think it doesn’t matter what it is about – for me it can be editing a recipe, translating press releases, editing a newsletter or writing a feature article on a sports day, a food review, an insurance policy, anything that you can use summon your creative resources and turn it into your own story, something that you can claim as your own. That’s the real joy. This is not a satisfaction that money or status can bring.

As I see it, the dilemma of a writer is that there is always a fine difference between self-preserving confidence and destructive arrogance. You need a great deal of confidence to egg yourself on, to believe in your own product, even before you can actually conceive it. However being too smug about it will stifle your style.

One thought on “To write or not to write

  1. Thanks for posting this. It really is great advice. I agree with Neil Gaiman’s first point, and I often think it’s good to have someone who’s not a writer read your stuff. My first poetry teacher had us draw the arc of energy to see how much the reader is putting into the work vs the author. She said they should always meet in the middle otherwise something isn’t working.

    I think writing does change people, it sometimes forces us to pay attention to things we never would’ve.

    I have to give a big “WORD” to your last few comments. Sometimes if we think we’re the best we can be, then we never see the possibility that change can bring. We can’t evolve.

    Here’s a quote I like to keep in mind:“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

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