Saturday, 24 July 2010

Just write (now)

Because I’m so impossibly slow at posting, it has now been nearly a month since I was working at the 30th Winchester Writers' conference. This is the problem you see. I'd love to write, but life keeps getting in the way. The original writer's block. In my case, I'm usually too busy editing other people's books (which is what I've been doing more or less day and night this week).

Terry Pratchett gave the plenary address at the conference, which he entitled 'Why are You Listening to Me When You Should Be at Home Writing?' Deliberately provocative you might think. Oddly enough, in his speech he didn't refer to the title he'd given it, and he didn't try to convince us that we'd all be better writers for listening to the wisdom of a multi-million copy, bestselling author. Rather, it seemed to me that the question was a genuine piece of advice: don’t prevaricate, just write.

It’s hardly an original suggestion. Every other week someone or other seems to complain (as if for the very first time) that creative writing can't be taught, and that universities offering creative writing courses are somehow sapping our originality. Instead we should just get on and write 1,000 words each morning before we switch on the radio or speak to another soul.

At Winchester, people came to me - and to many other editors, agents, writers and publishers - to get advice on how to improve their chances of publication. Some would say that they were looking for a magic solution. On the whole I expect they received sound advice, but three things became apparent.

Firstly, many people who attend writers' conferences are more interested in being published than they are in writing. It is common to have the desire to publish a particular book. It is far rarer to meet someone who loves writing, does so profusely, and will keep doing so for their whole lives, published or unpublished.

Secondly, you just can't get away from the need for a brilliant idea. If you're writing a novel, you need great characterization; if you're writing non-fiction, you need a stellar proposition. As Lorella Belli put it, 'writing is like singing: we can all do it, but to be successful you've got to be good enough for other people to spend money reading or listening to you.' Just about everyone I’ve ever met has a book idea that they think is a corker, and people will always point out that if Wayne Rooney can write a book, then surely so can they. (Actually only the very weak-brained make this argument. It’s perfectly apparent to anyone with an iota of sense that Wayne Rooney does not spend his time writing (happily enough), but is paid a staggering amount to be published because he’s famous.)

Where was I? Oh yes. Thirdly, I'm better at dishing out advice than I am at following it myself. (This is nearly always the case with people who dish out advice - why else would books with titles like 'How to Write a Bestseller' always have an author one has never heard of?) This blog, for example, has no clear proposition. But that's the glorious thing about blogging, you're not asking anyone to pay to read you, so I say it’s fair enough to write what you damn well like.

If on the other hand, you are lucky enough to be paid to share your random preoccupations, then you are probably a bona fide ‘Me Columnist’, which is how The Independent terms ‘Self-obsessed witterers who occupy prominent corners of the national press to tell us about their doings’. To be honest, those columns are usually the only reason I buy a weekend paper.

Well, if I'm ever to write anything, I need to start by repressing the editor within. And I need to get over the fact that writing takes up time which could be spent earning money. This is where I think writing conferences and degree courses have real value – they seem to legitimise time spent scribbling.

Deep down I suspect the main reason for writer’s block is familiar to all of us, writers or not. It is the fear of failing at the thing one’s dreams are made of. Nothing ventured, nothing lost. A sense that our expectations so often triumph over experience. So I wonder: how often are all best wishes no more than fictions?


  1. Brenda Ueland; "If you want to write"

    I only got about 1/3 through this though, and can't remember what I thought of it

  2. Well I must take a look. The Amazon blurb is intriguing. I like the sound of her advice: One must think, she says, "of telling a story, not of writing it."