THE ART OF WRITING
Many people dream about being a writer. We have all seen the films in which a writer’s life is portrayed in an idealised manner. Writers, it is understood, are usually one of a number of things: they are poor and down on their luck and live in an unfurnished but fashionably located loft. It’s a case of the writer and her laptop facing down the brisk intrusions of everyday life. In this idealised world, we observe as she struggles for inspiration, finds it, gets on with the writing, finds a publisher and becomes famous. In the world of film, such writers rarely do anything outside the loft which will actually provide them with a living. They do not earn money. Or, whatever work they take on would not, in the real world, be sufficient to allow them to live in such a loft. That’s one view of how the writer lives. Another, equally illusory, is the writer who has ‘made it‘. We can name the real life writers who have made it in the world’s terms – the John Grishams and John Connolly’s who produce painstakingly researched and detailed novels of the thriller genre, and present the reader with a fait accomplis, neatly bound in a thick wodge of paper and an attention-grabbing, attractive cover. Then there are the women writers, the Danielle Steels, the Judith Kranz’s, the Maeve Binchy’s, the Marion Keyes’s. These writers have written books which appeal to millions of readers, they have told stories which are devoured enthusiastically by ardent readers who want more and yet more of this work. In the world of film such writers lead ethereal, luxurious, fast-moving lives. Like Barbara Cartland in her heyday, they have secretaries and chauffeurs, housekeepers and cooks, in fact they command a line-up of domestic staff and secretarial staff which supports them at every turn. In real life of course these writers have worked very very hard to achieve their success.
These few essays (1, 2 & 3) are for those who are interested in the ways language works – as well as telling the story, or writing the poem – not only to express and explore feeling, but as one of the range of tools which allow us to get out of our heads and make sense of the world. The purpose of these essays is to talk a little about the curiosities and complexities of the world of writing, as well as perhaps referring to the range of experiments which are part and parcel of any writer’s life. It also aims to introduce you to the possibilities of writing what is called ‘literature’. If you are female, there’s an added focus: to get you to write ‘literature’ and to steer you away from being compelled to produce trashy writing, what’s sometimes called ‘chicklit’ – easily assimilated, sometimes amusing, but always lighter than air material outlining the joys and dilemmas of being a twenty/thirty/forty-something always on the brink of an emotional dilemma of some sort. Women who happen to be good at writing are sometimes encouraged to dumb down their talent in the interests of writing in this way. Predictable plots and characters may entertain some people, but if you are someone who needs a stronger brew, a headier hit, something more distilled and even (heavens!) an intellectual challenge then you must go further.
Secrets and Tricks?
Sometimes in workshops I’ve met people who seemed convinced there there was some special ‘trick’ to writing, or that published writers are part of secretive cabal, a group of literary masons who keep all the best tricks for themselves. This of course is totally untrue. While it is true to state that most writers evolve techniques which work for them personally, it is totally inaccurate to assume that this is something secretive and exclusive. Perhaps there are a number of crossed wires here, an ancient, archetypal response to the person who willingly removes themselves from the community of daily workers to go off and write alone. Perhaps there is some deep memory in all of us, of the storyteller in the tribal community, who learned that telling lies was a very good way of entertaining people and at the same time gaining some control over their imaginations. Perhaps again, there is a certain resentment of that person, who needs to take themselves off again and again to re-invent the lies and yarns and to play around with the words we all use in everyday life to produce these wonders we call ‘art’.
Whatever the cause, the suspicious scribe is sometimes present in writers’ groups. This writer is less interested in looking at writing techniques, in really examining either their own writing or the writing of an already published author, close-up and head-on, so much as getting a list of publishing outlets so that they can send work out straightaway. They want to know all about agents, and about how publishers ‘operate’. It is assumed always that publishers ‘operate’, they too being part of the writerly cabal which hoards tricks and secrets from the rest of the talented population.
Right at the outset, let me state things which do not, to my knowledge, help you to write. I once had a student who seemed enthusiastic about writing poetry. Yet every assignment she handed in was hand-written and virtually unreadable. By this I mean that it scrawled wobblingly and indecipherably up and down the page, sometimes diametrically too. I literally could not read what she produced. I was in a dilemma. I was conscious that some people have co-ordination difficulties, sometimes due to mild to moderate brain injury. In the end I concluded that she had suffered an injury which had compromised her co-ordination. I enquired about this as tactfully as I could, though – in the end – not tactfully enough. Her eyes widened in surprise and annoyance as I expressed my difficulties about reading what she was submitting each week.
‘Oh!’ she said irritably, ‘But that’s my left hand! You know – left hand and inner child work?’
But I didn’t know. I was baffled that anybody would think that by using their non-writing hand they would suddenly gain access to the power of the imagination.
‘Oh!’ I also responded, losing my own tenuous grip on tact, ‘But I thought there was something wrong with you!’
She returned once more to the class and I had a chance to apologise for my own bewildered outburst, which she accepted. But after that she did not come back. I imagine her still, trying desperately to plumb what she assumed was a carefully guarded secret, a wall closing her off as a potential writer, from her own imagination. Had I failed as a writing teacher? Perhaps. But I do not offer tricks and shortcuts. The path to becoming a real writer is a slow and thoughtful one. It has a lot to do with your own life, and the amount of thinking you are prepared to put into the way you interpret the ‘realities‘ around you.
To be really clear about this, psychotherapeutic techniques – whether of the Inner Child variety or otherwise – offer little by way of an opening to the writer’s imagination at this, beginning stage of work. Therapy, after all, has a different aim. It is arguable that a great deal of writing may, in fact, produce a certain amount of cathartic clearance for the writer, but catharsis is rarely a starting point. Again, it may be a by-product, but it must not be the focus of activity. If writing with your left hand leads you to understand and meet up with your inner child, that’s fine, but don’t expect it to turn you into a poet or fiction-writer. It won’t.
Someone else attended that same group who, I later discovered, had done so in the hope that it would improve her translation of an Italian essay she was working on. She felt, I think, that by participating in a poetry workshop, she would in some way improve her vocabulary and the varietal quality of her syntax.
But that is not the purpose of a writing workshop. Anyone who wants to improve their vocabulary, for whatever reason, simply needs to read more and to speak more with people who use language fluidly and interestingly. And if they want to translate from another language? Well, there are translation workshops which deal with the very particular issues surrounding the whole nature of translation, in itself a highly demanding subject which requires both writing skill and real integrity on the part of the translator.
Other people present themselves in workshops with different needs and focuses. Some are curious about writing. They have read a lot and like the notion of writing something themselves which might someday be published. Yet they lack the confidence to simply sit down and do it. A workshop appeals to them because it is – or should be – a safe environment in which they might actually begin to really write.
Yet others have reached a certain stage in their lives where they want to try something else. It could be writing, it could be painting, it could equally be computer technology. Some people are in a period of transition. They have changed jobs, or taken a year off to try something else. Or they have just got divorced. Or someone close to them has died. Or they are simply just trying to find that elusive something which would make their lives whole and complete. It’s a lot to ask of writing. Wholeness. Completion. Yet there is an instinct which makes people look to art in the hope that they will find completion and resolution within the unbounded boundaries of this state we call existence.
Then there are others who just come to write. They are quietly burning with the need to write. It is a compulsion which they cannot overlook. They are perhaps already writing but do not know what to do with the work or even how to appraise it. But writing has become a need for them, as overbearing as any hunger that needs satisfying.