On writing

  1. "Reader, I married him". How did she know there was a reader? Or that, indeed they cared about whether she married him or not,
    how did she know the reader was not snorting through his nose at such a ridiculous proclamation? The reader may have waved off
    with disinterest what was perhaps the single biggest event in Jane Eyre's life. And yet, yet Charlotte Bronte says with some certainty:
    reader, I married him. As if her reader is her confidant(e), leaning forward in the armchair and offering a sympathetic ear - you did?
    You know that quote from old Waterstone's ad - how reading a good book is like having a hand, possibly of someone long dead, stretch out
    and take yours? Well, that's because the hand needs you; much more than you need it.

    Either Charlotte Bronte is one of those unshakeable people with balls of steel, or the readers were different then. If I said what she said
    to my readers, they would trample me savagely into the dirt. There is no certainty that my readers exist, and if they do, they might be
    hostile. If you don't believe in hostile readers, try publishing an article online - go on, throw yourself to the lions. So perhaps this
    will come across as cynical, but the only way to write today is not to hope for that one reader who understands and loves you, but to expect
    nothing by way of readership. You have to write not because of, but despite your readers. Your writing can be impressively resilient once it
    does not depend on that sympathetic ear - it exists in itself, and as a willful act on your part. It cannot be coaxed or messed with, and you
    will love it, will love your work.

  2. People recognize a trait or two and they think, I am the prototype for this character. In fact it is not that way at all. You borrow
    bits and pieces from different sources, mix them up, conjoin them in various ways, invert them, distort them. A work of fiction
    is a frankenstein of free association.
  3. One way to El Dorado

    (or how do I write anything at all)

    “This is not the main road, of of course. But someone has clearly passed here, and they never returned, which makes it a way...”

    The thing that separates your creative self from your procrastinating self is often called ‘inspiration’. Without inspiration, life is both boring and somehow incredibly stressful.

    I once had this landlady. Formerly a famous artist, she now consumed a bottle of JD every night, enjoyed racist conversation and often tried to murder me by leaving the gas on. She also had some pretty strange books, one of which was ‘The Secret History of the World: As Laid Down by the Secret Societies’ by Jonathan Black. I referred to it simply as ‘the magic book’. In the magic book it says:

    ‘The reality of everyday experience is that thoughts are quite routinely introduced into what we like to think of as our private mental space from somewhere else.’

    The author goes on to explain that ‘somewhere else’ are ‘Thought-Beings’, before telling us that there were two Jesuses, mythical Greek heroes existed in the flesh and that there are people out there who can walk through walls. Naturally, I believed all of it.

    But here I’m going to start from the opposite premise, that ‘inspiration’ is not an abstract concept or a manifestation of the ~divine~. Let’s say ‘inspiration’ is actually ‘imagination’. When it’s not there, you can’t write, because you have nothing to say. When it’s there, whooosh.

    Let’s even say that it can be induced, and instead of reading, you could now be writing. Here’s a way.

    1. Work out what’s leeching your time and energy. You know what it is: stuff that you turn to when you feel worried, sad, bored or tired. You get a rush of dopamine when you engage with it, but with time it makes you feel more and more nauseous. It could be drinking, gaming, drugs, following live news, television, social media, porn, etc. It’s your comfort blanket that’s out there to strangle you.

    2. If you have created any myths about your ‘inspiration’, junk them. I used to get very creative when suffering from temporary brain damage. After a night of heavy drinking I couldn’t as much as get out of bed, but creative ideas were almost materialising in front of me as a series of hallucinatory tableaux. I believed drinking was the necessary price to pay and stopping would leave me with writerly impotence. It’s scary to break a dependence, but hey, remember that scene in Spaceballs, where Lone Starr loses the source of his power:
      Yogurt: “Use the Schwartz, Lone Starr! Use the Schwartz!”
      Lone Starr: “I can't - I lost the ring!”
      Yogurt: “Forget the ring! The ring is bupkis! I found it in a Cracker Jack box!”

      What if The Force, or creativity, is within you?

    3. Once you know what’s leeching your time and energy, you can get rid of it. You know which things you tried to cut down on, but failed. Cut those out. Others you can simply engage with less. It’s going to feel bad for a while, but it’s like quitting smoking. Your brain needs time to build new neural connections. You will not feel boring, bored or stressed forever. The sense of loss will go away or dull down. To be replaced by a new found smugness and, in some people, evangelical zeal.

    4. At this point you probably have more time. Unless you’re working around the clock in some life-sapping job like most people. I’m not going to tell you how to solve that problem. I’m just making a Marxist acknowledgement of the insurmountable obstacles you face. I feel you, comrade. This paragraph is either the prompt for you to work out a solution to the income problem, or it’s a minute of silence.

    5. Let’s proceed on the assumption that you have more time and just need that imagination to come into bloom. If imagination can be trained like a muscle, you need to make that training a part of your life. Or, in other words, live creatively. To warm up that muscle, actors play ‘theatre games’, which involve a lot of goofing around and improvisation. But it’s possible to bring that playfulness into your personal life.

      You can do spontaneous roleplay while you’re doing mundane domestic tasks. My partner and I play as we cook – we turn into Monsieur Jim, the French chef, and Edvardo the kitchen boy. You can also make up stories about people you see, or have weird sex. Creative one-person activities would include building a tent in the living room and holding a one-man festival, drawing your friends as mythical beasts or spying on your neighbours with meticulous notes (that last one could get you arrested).

      If this sounds deranged to your tastes, you can simply dedicate time to creative activity on a daily basis. The key is that it has to be undemanding. The aim is to train your imagination, not to put you under pressure to produce.

      It doesn’t matter how you do it, if you get used to living in an imaginative way, it’s easier to summon your imagination when it comes to writing.

    From then on, you can get your 50 Writing Tips from Famous Writers and actually find it usable. What does Hemingway want you to do again? Wake up at 4am, write for six hours, then walk on hot coals barefoot and do another six? You might just be able to pull it off.

    And if not, this is only one way to El Dorado. If you don’t get there, you might at least get lost in the right direction.

  4. Emotions, anecdotes and bits of dialogue are fine to write down for later, but I can't start writing the story from them or it goes nowhere. Plot goes first. It doesn't necessarily have to be clever. It can always start with a person, a place and a problem. A person wants something and something frustrates their efforts. That's it, basic conflict. Then go about putting meat on the bones, from which additional detail will emerge. (learned this from Sylvia Plath's diaries and Captain Awkward).

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