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Some very (un)helpful advice on writing

I hate writing.

I mean it. I really, really fucking hate it.

You might think this is one of those things where I’ll end up saying that I love it too, equally, and that somehow makes up for it.

It isn’t. I don’t. It doesn’t.

Writing, for me, is the act of putting my thoughts on paper, reading them back and realising that I’m an idiot. When I try to fix what I’ve written, I make it worse. Each of my completed drafts is the work of an arrogant, ignorant dullard. My ideas are shallow and stupid and I express them incoherently, piling platitudes upon clichés to form a garbled mess devoid of any meaning or purpose. I squander entire days extruding this utter dross. Weeks. Months.

The discrepancy between what I set out to achieve and the embarrassing inadequacy of the result further serves to highlight how paltry my goals were to begin with. Over time I revised my expectations from “great literature” all the way down to “merely legible” in an attempt to bridge that discrepancy, but instead my writing became more trite and banal in proportion. Another revision in the opposite direction failed to correct it.

Most of the time I’ll wait until I’ve wasted a really significant amount of time and effort on a substantial quantity of this vain piffle and then throw it away, to deprive myself of even the hollow satisfaction of finishing something. In the rare event I do finish something, I’ll have to round off the self-harm by showing it to someone who has the power to hurt my feelings, and watching them awkwardly pick through it in fruitless search of quality. I expect vagueness, tepid encouragement, a hasty change of subject. If a reader tries for some praise I will feel worse for their trouble. If a reader genuinely likes it, I’ll decide they must be an idiot and won’t show them anything else.

Writing isn’t cool. Not like other arts: everyone looks devastating with a guitar slung over them; dancers are ineffably sexy; actors live the lives we wish we had; even the painters who specialise in cheerful cows with silly hats on exude an alluring mystique. Writers, meanwhile, are sallow-skinned loners in carpet slippers who stink of fags and stale coffee, and no-one takes them seriously until they’re rich and dead. Actually that’s not true; you can be a cool writer, but it requires going to bullfights and getting divorced six times and drinking until your pancreas ruptures, and forty years later people will conclude you were just a dirty old man.

My wife doesn’t like it when I write because I become moody and distant. My cat doesn’t like it when I write because she can’t sit on my lap. My friends don’t like it when I write because I’ll bore them with stuff about craft and style but I won’t discuss the work lest I jinx it. All of them suspect I’m wasting my time but are far too nice to say so. Except for the cat, who sits next to me and shouts. “Meow,” she says, meaning give up.

And yet, I don’t.

Why is that? Why do I submit myself to this ostensibly pointless charade when my time would be so much better spent in the gym, or playing video games, or banging my head against a fence?

I love words. I love ideas. I love language, which is the marriage of words with ideas. I love its vocabulary and dialectic and semiology, its humour and drama and subtleties and ironies. I love its poetry, its musicality, its darkness and light and colour and texture. I love the rhythm of its speech, I love its clauses, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books.

I love books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t midway though at least one, or more likely several at a time. I own a fast-expanding library. When I moved house, half the boxes were nothing but books. Tsundoku is the Japanese word for accumulating books that you may never read; that’s me. At weekends I haunt second-hand book shops, buying indiscriminately, whatever looks interesting. I read voraciously and omnivorously, novels, biographies, anthologies, guides, compendia et alia; all hold me in equal thrall. I love how books look and feel and smell, I love the feeling when you open a new one, when you finish a good one, when you revisit a loved one (as I often do to further taunt my towering unread stacks); I love having them, like some vast, arcane trove of fact and myth looming from the darkened alcoves of my home, leaching knowledge both fantastical and magisterial into the very foundations, and illuminating my surroundings with the soft yet potent glow of culture and civilisation.

You can see, then, why I’d want to write a book of my own.

What a wonderful idea, I thought, having been told so essentially from birth by a plethora of well-meaners who’ve never penned anything longer than a grocery list. My teachers encouraged it because they were paid to encourage whatever nonsense I suggested doing with my life that didn’t involve drugs or pornography. My parents, beyond the standard obligation that parents have to believe their children are clever and talented, also understood that their introverted and bone-idle son would need to find a profession that requires neither punctuality nor social enthusiasm.

I was perhaps six years old when I first tried my hand at writing, on the ink-ribbon typewriter in my father’s Maidstone study. I knew nothing about plots, themes, characterisation or any of the other things you might find in a creative writing syllabus; my assumption was that you just placed your fingertips on the keys and a fully-formed story would somehow come tumbling out, like sitting at a pianola and pretending you’re the one jamming Maple Leaf Rag. Armed with the benediction of people naturally predisposed to predict my success, and a commensurate surplus of ill-founded confidence, I had pictured myself poised over dad’s Olivetti, chewing my pipestem and tinkling carefree laughter as I bashed out a string of award-winning bestsellers.

Creativity, from the outside, most closely resembles a large piece of delicious cake. This is why you commonly hear the uninitiated describe creatives as “lucky”, meaning they believe artists are more or less fortunate bystanders of their own work, there being no actual work involved in producing it. “Talent” or “inspiration” or “the muse” takes full credit, even when there is an obvious extent of demanding labour involved in fabricating the piece itself. When a piece appears effortless, as if having the idea for it was the whole of its execution, onlookers routinely fail to account for the decades of rigourous practice required to become an artist capable of refining such an idea.

Picture then my disappointment: two hours in and having just about managed “The” at the top-left of the first page of my debut masterpiece, I began to get a sense that the remaining ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine words were going to take quite a bit more elbow-grease than I’d been led to think.

It’s been thirty years since my first attempt to write, and a conservative estimate of a million discarded words. I’ve begun northward of twenty novels, each abandoned in various states of incompletion. My waste basket also contains a number of short stories and a bulky collection’s worth of poetry, not to mention articles, reviews, film and theatre scripts and a gross of unused song lyrics. I’m as yet unpublished, in the traditional sense. I’ve been paid to write twice: the first was some translation for the Guinean government, the second was advertising copy for paintball and steam-cleaning equipment. You can decide if those really count. My creative writing, as well as bringing me no pleasure, has done me no good. Loving books is one thing; can’t I continue to enjoy others’ writing without devoting huge chunks of my existence to my own doomed attempts at my own? Anyone sane would say of course, and cut their losses.

And yet, I don’t.

Is it hubris? When supportive parents, good schooling and a generally pro-art environment intersect with a degree of narcissism, it stands to reason a person might develop an overly generous opinion of their own creative potential. All hubris requiring a nemesis, mine must therefore be the suspicion that not only am I insufficiently brilliant to produce work of unrivalled genius without breaking a sweat, but my talent is in fact so under-baked that, nearing forty and fully committed to this passion, I have yet to produce anything even competent.

While certainly plausible, it’s also self-defeating, and unflattering enough that taking it seriously might constitute a more masochistic act than quietly flogging away at this particular ailing horse. I’m not looking for a reason to stop; I want to know why I don’t. I have an inkling that finding out might be the key that unlocks what I, despite everything, persist in believing is my ability to write compellingly, intelligently, beautifully. Perhaps my nemesis is in fact the impossibly high standard to which I hold myself, simultaneously galvanising me to work yet harder, to produce even better, and persuading me that nothing I create is worthy of publication in my name.

I can write well, and I do know that. A large part of why I hate to write is that doing so convinces me that I can’t. In that sense I am the cliché of my own fiercest critic. It isn’t false modesty or admiration of others’ achievements that drives me to savage my own work, it’s the crippling self-doubt that results from an absence of proper perspective. Like when you repeat aloud the same word over and over it loses its meaning, an hour or so of writing is enough to dismantle what little confidence I had in my capacity to assemble sentences. All I have to fall back on is the vague notion that I’m objectively capable of elegant prose, but twenty thousand words into a first draft, this takes on the nebulous quality of a half-remembered dream. Before long progress slows to a crawl and I find myself staring at individual words until my eyeballs dry out, thumbing through my thesaurus for smart alternatives to my dumb vocabulary and reaching for excuses to jettison the project altogether in favour of working on something a little more forgiving of my manifold authorial shortcomings.

I may never be a novelist; I have made peace with that eventuality, though I doubt I’ll ever give up trying. There are other kinds of writing that appear to better suit my temperament, if only because they’re shorter-form. Articles, poetry and short fiction will be my focus for the forseeable future, a decision I know will at least improve my productivity: I may not enjoy writing them any more, but I’m able to endure the discomfort for long enough to get them finished. What’s more, I quietly suspect that brevity might be my strong suit.

Nonetheless, I already interpret this as a failure. I thought my whole life that I would write novels. Everyone thinks all manner of things that turn out to be untrue, but you can’t predict which of them you’ll mourn. I’m biased towards novels, though they’re not even my favourite thing to read. I feel like novels are taken more seriously, are read more widely, make more money and are turned into blockbuster movies more frequently than any other kind of writing. It’s only a bias, however, and can therefore be defeated. I recognise that those things have more to do with money and image than with the kinds of art I can and want to make. There are people who can base their pursuits on what will earn them the most cash and admiration; I am not one of them.

I intended this column as a piece of writing advice. Perhaps you’ll find something useful to take from my experience – I daresay I’ve done you a favour in sparing you the usual pablum about evil adverbs and nasty passive voice and the alleged merits of religiously churning out a minimum of fifteen hundred words every single day with the expectation that digging through it later might yield something of interest. In any case I’m hardly qualified to dispense how-to guides, but the best available evidence says the one single thing successful authors all share in common is they’ve consciously set out to find a method that works for them, and stuck with it. To the extent I’ve engaged in other art forms with more success, I’ll state with some confidence that it’s the only piece of advice worth taking seriously. Platitudes about hard work and persistence are just that; obviously you’ll need to lift a finger or two if you want to get anything done.

The rest is all you. Your ideas, your experiences, your feelings, tastes, moods, prejudices, misconceptions and mistakes – what, in short, makes you tick. Those are your gifts, your talents, the raw material you have at your disposal to write compellingly, intelligently, beautifully. If you love books as much as I hope I’ve made plain I do, that should be your only goal, whatever form it takes. It should be its own reward, before any consideration of what you might do with it. I sincerely wish you the utmost pleasure in it, as writing can bring a great deal of joy, no matter my failure to find it. Always remember, however, that this is your choice, and your life; if writing brings you pain, or makes you in any way unhappy, nobody has the authority, or the right, or the power to judge you, should you decide to stop.

And yet, I don’t.

All Peanuts cartoons by Charles M. Schulz

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