My English teacher once told me that real writers love, live and breathe writing. When I began to hate my craft, I began to feel that perhaps I wasn’t a writer after all. This proposition was devastating.
What we do can often define us and to come to such a conclusion, as a writer, was akin to having my hands sawed off. I knew I loved writing, and I knew, when I really focused, that I was good at it, but this didn’t matter when I had such persistent, nagging doubts in my head. The hallmark card ideal seduced me; the ideal that I was rapidly learning did not fit reality. In fact, I came to realise that the ideal might never have been based on reality at all.
What does a 'writer' look like?
No one likes clichéd images. By definition, they're unoriginal and overused. Writers dwell where such used and abused ideas are not welcome or entertained — and nor should they be — and thus they hate them all the more. However, society is still saturated with them, so it can be hard to cut oneself off.
Several weeks ago, while procrastinating on my Facebook feed, I came across a mash of images entitled ‘desks of famous writers’. I curiously opened the website to browse and saw what seemed much more beautiful than anything I could conjure for myself.
I was greeted with a picture of E.B. White, sitting at a desk with a typewriter, his window opening out onto the water. Virginia Woolf’s desk sat in a little white washed room, with French doors opening out onto a serene garden. Nigella Lawson, who I have never even considered to be a writer, sits at a desk dwarfed by inspiring towers of books, as though being blanketed in inspiration dictates success. Charlotte Bronte’s workspace appeared as though she had written it and it had materialised right in front of her, and Jane Austen’s simple and rustic round writing desk, with its beautifully placed quill and ink pot, seemed as timeless as the stories that she penned.
When I considered my own writing, I realised my office was a laptop that sat wherever I had time to open it. Sometimes 5 minutes at a cafeteria, often an hour on my lap in bed with my mundane world blaring noisily around me. Seeing these images made me feel uninspired and rootless, which ultimately led to more procrastination and excuses.
It didn’t matter what I knew to be true; there are thousands of writers out there who are unlikely to have workspaces which look like Virginia’s or Jane’s. We live in a hectic world, and most of us have to fit our craft in where we can find room. JK Rowling’s hectic life saw her fitting her writing in at her unrelated office job, in a dank apartment whilst she lived on benefits, and in local cafes where she would sit after walking her daughter to sleep in a pram; hardly a beginning worthy of greatness, but look at her now.
This is when I realised that writing isn't about the most inspirational workplace, figure or image that exists outside of ourselves. Rather, it is about conjuring our own image, based on the inspirations that we draw from the very imperfections which can sometimes make us feel inadequate. Recognising this is a liberating experience. There are no rules and no such thing as a wrong way to write.
Exploring The Writing Process
Much like an athlete who is about to run a race, writers have processes with which they become familiar. Athletes may stretch, swim or meditate before they perform, while others might prefer a later sleep, a nutritious breakfast, or to recite an inspirational mantra. The process varies for each individual, and writers are no different in this respect.
Henry Miller uses a list of 11 rules, which he followed daily, to ensure he stayed on track. Barbara Kingsolver needs to write hundreds of pages of prose before she can even begin the first page of a novel. Stephen King professes to spend more time reading other people’s work, than writing his own, and Joan Didion sleeps in the same room as the manuscripts she is reworking.
The more time that's spent on any craft, the more any creator understands and develops their process. Examining and discovering your own processes, completely free of fear for what you may find, is exhilarating and fun. Most of all, it will make you a better writer.
Having said this, the life of a writer is not easy and there are great emotional risks involved. Depending on the kind of writer you are, you may venture to some deep and dark places for your material. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter how much you love your craft, you may come to resent the fact that you need to go into an emotional spiral every time you want to write a piece. Just ask Sylvia Plath.
It can also be hard to find understanding from people who aren't as involved in the creative industries. Most people go out of their way to avoid self examination and the emotional dissection of mistakes, memories and regrets, but this process is often part and parcel of being a writer.
Even if the dark depths don’t exist, there exist other fears. Some people despair at the loneliness of writing, irrespective of inspiration. Others, like me, despise the required silence that can come with writing well, and so must find noisy distractions to fill the air; distractions which often lead to writing on the couch, and then not writing at all.
You may be stuck in a rut where you can't find the motivation to write, and when you try to force that motivation, you wind up writing pieces which you don’t care for. However, as Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell once said, a writer has to ‘enjoy writing badly’ and try not to take things too seriously. I tend to agree.
After all, you have a passion and a talent to grow and develop. We're all hardwired to believe that we should be giving one hundred percent every day if we want to succeed. This can sometimes add pressure, but if we acknowledge the very real possibility that we might write some bad work, then it can be a possibility that we can make peace with. It’s like getting up in the morning and acknowledging that you probably are going to order the Fettuccini Carbonara for lunch without going to the gym on the way home.
When we acknowledge the imperfections of life, they no longer seem so crippling. They become basic facts in a rich tapestry, which is also an ongoing source of inspiration.
So what if, after all of this, you can’t bring yourself to sit down at that desk? My advice is that if you don’t feel like writing, then don’t write but keep your mind creative. Writing is a creative process, and creativity itself is like a tree with many branches.
Just because you happen to be a writer, doesn't mean that all of your creative energy must stem from writing. If you aren’t sitting behind your keyboard, then find ways to squeeze the creative into whatever activity you're doing, as this will help you find your way back. If you want to watch television, sketch or doodle something while you are watching. If you want noise, play some music that gets you bouncing, crying, angry, or blissful. Watch a film that once inspired you, go to a place which relaxes you, or read the book that first made you want to be a writer.
By exploring all of these options, a process begins to take place. After a while, what was once a creative distraction may soon become a routine writing ritual that you can’t live without. If you find that you just need change, then change your audience. If your adult drama novel is driving you crazy, write a poem for a child. If your young adult fiction work is becoming bland, then write an essay on a subject that interests you and involves a little research. If there is one thing that I have learnt about the writing process, is that it’s unique. If you don’t want to write, then don’t write and don’t feel guilty.
A committed writer recognises the solitude, difficulty and frustration of the craft, but also realises the importance of giving the mind a break. If there is anything true of the ‘real writer’, it is that they will inevitably return to the pen.
Facing The Pressure
If you’re anything like me, when you do return to the pen, you may have certain names swirling around in your head, which always ensure maximum intimidation. I call mine ‘the big four’ and they terrify me. Their names: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and D.H Lawrence. Various friends and acquaintances of mine have their own giants to stand beneath.
A fellow writer told me that she actually had to remove Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying from her living room, because she could feel it taunting her from the other side of the house.
Our minds are powerful instruments and they're capable of creating brilliant work. However, your beautiful mind can also be your worst enemy. If I told you that you could physically invite such people as those named above into your study, to stand behind you and watch you while you work, how well do you think you’d be able to focus? Inviting them into your mind is no different.
I haven’t had to remove my favourite authors from my house, but I do try to refrain from re-reading them whilst I am writing, opting to read other works instead. A careful pick off the current best sellers list is usually enough to keep me in the correct headspace, as I am a firm believer in reading and writing simultaneously.
We see our literary idols as these brilliant, larger than life characters, incapable of error or fault. It is natural to see them this way. After all, they're the masters of the craft that we love, but it would be remiss to believe that such writers weren’t riddled with their own neuroses and fears.
Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was rejected 10 times before it was published, and Rowling suffered depression and anxiety. Stephen King was broke without a phone line when he wrote Carrie, thought the draft was terrible, and only sent it in for publishing after his wife fished it out of the bin. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, the writers of a warm little page turner called Chicken Soup for the Soul, received 33 rejection letters before their manuscript was accepted.
If you think this many rejections would knock your confidence, then think about Robert Maynard Pirsig whose book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times. He currently holds the world record for publishing rejections, while his novel is considered an American cult classic.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how big the dream is. Rather, it's about the journey. The best journeys are supposed to be unknown and uninhibited. Write with the five minutes per day that you have free. Write poorly and take it lightly. Create quirky processes that no one has ever heard of. You can create your own chicken soup with your perspective and process. There's no wrong way.
Learning to Love the Hate
Writing can be a frustrating, depressing, destroying work, and it's natural to want to run away and hide. Hide if you want to and take a break, but always maintain awareness of your weaknesses, and consistently work to turn them into strengths.
All of these apparent imperfections and shortcomings that we obsess over, may be the best friends we have. If we look a little closer, we might all recognise that there is more brilliance in our own neurosis and faults, than could ever be conjured in the fictional characters that we striving to create whilst avoiding them.
Scream and swear, be honest and hard on yourself, and do it all with the knowledge that your writing never even has to see the light of day if you don’t want it to. By the time you are done, you might just find that you've written the very masterpiece that you’ve been after.