1. Read. Read a lot. Read everything you can get your grubby little hands on. For years, decades.
2. Live an interesting life. Make terrible decisions. Fall in love with drunken idiots. At crossroads, take the path strewn with fallen trees, pot-holes and gnarled branches clawing at your sleeves.
2a. Alternatively, live a life so excruciatingly dull that you are forced to live in your imagination.
3. Be grateful for your fucked-up family. Emotional blackmail, Olympian feats of denial and traumatic get-togethers are literary gold! Whether you write down everything they do as a coping mechanism or merely revenge, all the raw drama of life is here. If you ever run out of material, you could do worse than telephone your relatives for a chat about what a disappointment you are.
4. Remember that the blank page is nothing to be scared of. Remind yourself of this often. Every day, in fact. One day you might even believe it.
5. Write thousands of words of pretentious bilge. Fill a forest-worth of notebooks with future embarrassment. Fail again and again. At some point, fail better.
6. Shut the door. Sit. Pick up a pen. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I finished my 30 Day Challenge on 30th November. It was exhausting, exhilharating, inspiring. My Queer Writers Retreat is up and running (and there’s an earlybird discount if you book before Christmas Eve), this blog is growing steadily and I now have the confidence to play, experiment, have fun with ideas in a way that my perfectionist self warned me against in the past.
And yet. The fear. It’s always there. Lurking.
I teach people free-writing*. I have abseiled off the top of a 500m building, done stand-up comedy, performed to a 200-strong rowdy audience wearing little else but my underwear and a long velvet cape, stood up to bullies. So why does a blank page hold such horror?
I have been re-reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I love this book. Love its humour, advice and wisdom. It’s candour. But most of all, I love the intimacy King creates, as if he is speaking only to me, as if this is just a relaxed conversation between us two. It is simply a joy to be in his company. (Hell, if he was writing about corporate tax law, I’d still lap it up.).
There are a couple of lines, near the end, that I want to screen-print onto a large poster, frame and hang on every wall in my house. To remind me. To remind me what you, and I, and everyone already knows deep down:
The scariest moment, writes King, is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
Oh Stephen, you speak the truth!
So. Sit. Pick up your pen. And start.
*the art of just getting the fuck on with it
- How To Use Stephen King’s “On Writing” Advice (millieho.net)
I’m sitting in my spare room, or “Writing Room” as it is sometimes known to me (depending on how active I am and how much washing is drying in here). I’m at a rosewood table and in front of me, a little to the left, is a window with a view of the City – I can see St. Paul’s, Guy’s Hospital, The Shard, The Gherkin, Canary Wharf in the distance. There are trees immediately outside, yellowing with autumn, some already undressed for winter. It is grey, misty, quiet.
You may not know it, but I have been talking to you for over an hour now. Like a lover getting ready to greet her beau, I have been practising what I am going to say over and over in my mind. While I ate breakfast, while I lay in the bath, while I dried myself off and put cream on my face, I was, in my head, already writing, composing what I was going to say to you. And like a lover, I felt that excitement in my skin as I dressed and made tea and got my laptop out and unwound the battery cable and plugged in and switched on and shut the door.
Then, the blank page.
And now here we are, you and me. You may be reading this minutes, days, weeks, years from now. You may be reading it from anywhere in the world. I don’t know you. But you know that right now at 11:49am on Wednesday 20th November 2013, I am typing this on a white laptop from my spare room at a rosewood table. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
And you know what? None of what you just read is what I wrote earlier in my head. It’s all very well thinking up ideas, but if you don’t get it out on the page, it’s just going to wither and die. That brilliant line, that awesome story, that piece of beauty sculpted from words will never see the light.
And yet. Sometimes I don’t write. I have realised it is a cruelty to myself, a punishment, of sorts. And that giving myself permission to write is a kindness. It’s always better to be kind. In no particular order, here’s just some of the reasons why I write:
- If I don’t empty these thoughts in my head onto the page I will explode and make a mess all over the ceiling
- I have to get this bile out of me because if I don’t it will eat at me like acid
- I’m so happy
- I’m desperate
- Something hilarious has just happened
- Something important just occurred to me
- I need to make sense of something
- I don’t understand
- I have to capture the beauty
- There is a picture in my head
- I want to know what happens next
- These characters are waiting for me to give them something to do
- These characters are doing something unexpected
- I have a deadline
- People are paying to hear me tell a story, so I better bloody well write it
- I want to win that competition
- I just remembered something interesting
- I feel I should
- I feel guilty
- I feel creative
- Some words just popped into my head
- I wonder what woud happen if…
- I have something to say
- This story needs to be told
- To communicate
- To help others understand
- Because I can
- To express what my characters can’t
- To express what I can’t
- I JUST HAVE TO
(Incidentally, that view of the City I mentioned? Completely obscured in fog now. The wind is up and raging outside, leaves flying quick past my window, the door banging, trees threatening to snap. I just had to tell you that. Nothing like a bit of apocalyptic weather to inspre a story…)
So. Why do you write? Come on, I want to know. And just as importantly, why don’t you? What stops you?