‘You write how you write,’ was the seemingly unhelpful advice given to me by Michèle Roberts, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA. However, Michèle’s advice was actually the most useful thing I’ve ever been taught about writing. Beginning my blog like this, it is tempting to tell you to read no further – nothing I can tell you or impart to you will be of any use. You write how you write: not how I write, not how Michèle writes, not how Graham Greene writes. Your rules and labours are your own; comparisons with others are meaningless, if inevitable. However, writers are endlessly looking for comfort from one another – a sign that others work in just as bizarre and seemingly ridiculous way as themselves. So I write this, not as a how-to guide, nor as advice proffered from on high (when I’m still so low) but in the hope that someone else might be reassured that the way they work is indeed ‘OK’.
If I were to begin my novel now I would do it entirely differently. I find writing a constant battle between the need to make it a workaday job like any other – with a routine and targets – and one that is still creative, still allows for disruptions and the fact that fiction writing never can be truly workaday, that sometimes the most helpful and productive thing is to stop and do nothing. Michèle gave me her advice in the middle of my Creative Writing MA. I’d written almost nothing new at that point – a common complaint of those on these courses, dried up by the pressure to produce – and I couldn’t help comparing myself to one course mate who appeared to produce a new short story a week, as well as my old housemate from university who would stay up until the small hours writing plays for stage and screen. By comparison, my paltry ideas for a short story, jotted down in a notebook over many hours in a café were clearly pathetic. I should have been hammering away at the keys; I should have been more productive. But Michèle was right. As soon as I stopped chastising myself, comparing myself, I began to loosen up. By not feeling guilty about my own process I gave myself a break. She gave me the confidence to write and work like me, not a pale imitation of my friends.
That being said, I was also being monumentally precious and self-indulgent. The less one writes the greater the pressure on the few words you do commit to paper. I was sceptical about the advice that you should write so much everyday (Graham Greene wrote 500 words before lunch). Surely this was prescriptive, a routine that would stifle creativity and make the process one of churning out to a daily word count, rather than about ideas and quality. However, when I began to go to the British Library each day I created a routine. I also destroyed the pressure on myself to produce art every time I committed pen to paper. Each day I will save what I do. Some of it is rubbish and will never see the light of day again, some of it will be useful and will find a home in something else, some of it might hold an image worth saving and sometimes it will be the germ of an idea for an entirely new piece. The thousand or so words are almost never wasted. On the days that it’s no good, it’s no good. That’s just life.
However, my earlier scepticism wasn’t entirely misplaced. Having gone from precious-blocked-Osric I had gone to a writer with a militantly Protestant work ethic. Friends kept telling me to take a break, I told them they didn’t understand how important my routine was to me. Mine was a job like any other, so don’t tell me to just skip going into the office when I don’t feel like it. Yet, having finished the second draft of my novel at the end of November, I immediately returned to the BL to begin again, to hammer out the flaws. It was a Monday morning. It was utterly dispiriting. Tuesday I broke with my tradition and wandered along the South Bank with a notebook in one hand and a collection of Conrad short stories in the other. I was taking a day off and wasn’t going to feel bad about it. If I felt called to the library I would resist and go to an exhibition instead. The day was immensely productive. I felt relaxed, creatively recharged and jotted down more fresh ideas and musings in my notebook than I had done for months.
This is the writer’s dilemma: to write you must force yourself into a routine, you must be disciplined; you can’t afford to be precious. This means getting on with the job. But the job also involves knowing when to stop. Another mistake I made was promising myself that getting half the re-draft done by the end of September would be rewarded with a long weekend away. I reached the end of September, with half of the draft complete, but felt compelled to carry on – not wanting to break my creative rhythm. This was a bad idea – not immediately or obviously so – but by then I really needed a break and it only became apparent a few weeks later when I ran out of steam, ran out of ideas and had to stop – feeling far guiltier than if I’d allowed myself the mini-holiday I’d scheduled.
If I were to write my novel now I’d allow myself an open-ended period of jotting down ideas and paragraphs. Lots of walking, wandering, reading. In fact, all the things that make me feel guilty because they don’t feel like work. I’d probably still write my minimum number of words each day, but I wouldn’t force them into a shape, wouldn’t force them into each other. I’d allow myself the freedom to innovate and then see what I had to play with. Instead, I forced myself into a strict regime with a clear deadline for the first draft in mind. This had the appearance of being productive and like hard work because I produced a first draft in a few months but, relatively speaking, it was creatively barren. I’m having to give myself the time and space now to let aspects of the novel come to me, when that is how I should have begun. Yet, once again, the writer chastises him or herself for not behaving in a suitably workman like manner. I was wonderfully reassured once to read that Ian McEwan begins a novel with lots of tidying up, constantly loading and unloading the dishwasher. Very little ‘work’ until the ideas have reached such a pitch of tumbling over themselves that he’s gone a little mad and is compelled to sit down and begin. The problem is being disciplined enough to accept the way you work and not to cave into your own expectations or those of others. Secretly you know whether you’re giving yourself time and space to work something out or whether really you’re idling away your hours with daytime television. You know whether you need to sit back and take a break with Jeremy Kyle or whether it’s a poor excuse for research to avoid the plot problem you’ve got yourself into. You just have to be disciplined about it, and that includes taking breaks. It includes the afternoons wandering with your work left on your desk.
I have no doubt that I will read this through again in a few months and disagree with it wholly. Just as I write how I write, I probably also write like this now and refine my process later. That’s one of the problems of the job. And it is a job. You need structure, you need deadlines, you need discipline. You also need to accept that people will sneer about your work ethic in relation to theirs, even if you know full well that your job never stops. You’re always on duty and your boss always knows when you’re not working as hard as you could. That’s tiring and why you also need to be kind to yourself. As your own boss, praise is hard to come by and the excuses, which are such a part of working life, won’t be believed. Cut yourself some slack. But then maybe none of these apply to you – because you write how you write. The rules are unique to you and they keep changing. Be open minded and remember that all of this can only ever apply if and when you’re committing words to paper. Thank you Michèle for teaching me the only real lesson a writer can or should be taught.