Some Thoughts on Writing
(gleaned from minimal experience and maximum exposure)
THE NATURE OF A WRITER
If you wish to locate writers in the universe of Venn diagrams, you must first locate the circle marked ‘crippling self-doubt’ and then find where it overlaps with the space for ‘absolute narcissism’. That’s where Art lives. This realization comes at a cost to the aspiring writer. Any good writer is an avid reader – this elementary relationship is always pointed out whenever an author who’s made it to the summit of the mountain is asked to provide advice to those still scrambling at its foot. You won’t become a writer unless you feel the desire to approach the greatness you’ve encountered in the pages of others. But the more greatness you encounter, the more intimidation encroaches and doubt sets in. The aspiring writer might conclude that more or less everything worth saying has been said in more or less every way worth saying it. But here’s hope: your salvation lies in that ‘more or less’ – set up base camp there and explore. And as Sylvia Plath remarked: “The greatest enemy of creativity is self-doubt”. Being conscious of this might already go some way to alleviate the paralysis of intimidation.
AVOID MASTURBATING IN PUBLIC
One of the surest signs that I’m about to abandon a book I’ve picked up, is when I’m made aware of the fact that the writer seems unaware of my, the reader’s, presence; when I feel like I’m witnessing someone commit an act of literature seemingly without any awareness of my participation in the process. Invite the reader in. Self-expression is vastly overrated. No reader cares about you; they care about literature. Art made in isolation, performed as the duty of a slave to Higher Ideals and serving no purpose other than the fact of its own existence, is art not worth having. Writers wish to find their readership – the bigger the better; size matters – or rather, allow the readers to find them, and then surrender hours of their crowded lives to your imagination. This you can only hope to achieve by creating the illusion – and it is an illusion – that you, as writer, care more about literature than about yourself. Don’t confuse diary entries for stories that are worth bothering some unsuspecting stranger with.
Get the character IN
Don’t paper over the character with ostentatious prose, colored purple and stuffed full of self-regard. Don’t lard your pages with social and political analysis; don’t scratch the didactic itch. The novel isn’t a substitute for journalism, and your characters, or even the narrator, shouldn’t be ventriloquists for your opinion pieces. The puppet strings shouldn’t be too visible.
PROGRESS IS ALL
Don’t see whatever you write with or on as a recording device, but rather as a tool for exploration. The pen is a flashlight and the keyboard a map. Don’t play secretary to yourself, obediently taking down only your thoughts, your emotions and people and episodes of your own life. Serendipitous discoveries are the moments writers live for; when the work becomes greater than yourself and takes on a life of its own. This is why grand schemes and themes and minutely-planned plots are often constricting and almost always futile. Allow the world that you’re imagining into existence to surprise you and to become separate from you and what you thought it was going to be about. Whole characters can emerge from the mist because of the way an adjective meets a noun. Then you start making decisions.
What seems like a good idea on Monday should still seem like a good idea on Friday, six weeks later.
Write as often and as much as possible but don’t forget to also live. Time away from your book (even though you will inevitably be thinking about it) is essential. Ideally your work should be read by a different person but most writers are fiercely protective of a work in progress. It seems so frail, this universe you’re still building and other people’s unhelpful advice and off-hand remarks might lead to ruinous collapse. Fair enough. This is why you need to take a few steps back and allow time to separate you-now from the you-back-then-who-wrote-the-sentences. It’s the nearest approximation to having a different pair of eyes go over the work. Later, when you’re more or less done, you should show it to someone else. Or best of all: read it to someone else. Read aloud what you wrote as you go along, to hear how the words flow, to feel if a sentence is shaped right and to see if it makes that little brilliant chess move on the board of language that will fill a reader with pleasure.