On Writing

Somehow or other – and I'm not sure how to do it – I've got to face up to the fact that I have a book to write for a deadline of August 2007. That sounds like a long way away, but I know the tricks that time plays on you, how one moment it's Lady Bountiful with arms overflowing, then the next moment it's Scrooge, tightening the purse strings. Oddly enough the difficulty arises from my sense of good fortune in having a whole year for my project. Up until now I've written my books the way I write my blog, carving out pockets of time and space, filling in the corners of life, stuffing up the little gaps with as many words as I can get in. I've always identified with Isaac Asimov who said: 'If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.' Whereas now I feel more in tune with Kingsley Amis who declared that 'Writing is the art of applying the seat of one's trousers to the seat of a chair.'

One thing I do believe is that no one finds writing easy. I always fondly considered it to be like jogging; it hurts everybody, only some people go faster than others. My own experience of writing is like cycling a bike in high gear up a steep hill on a windy day. For most of the early stages I wonder how I can possibly keep going when it's such an intolerable struggle, and then at some miraculous point, I crest the top of the hill and suddenly I'm freewheeling and the end is in sight. But even then it's not straightforward; it's an endless process of being caught up in a glorious idea that halfway down the page, you fall out of love with. William Maxwell, one of the greatest twentieth century writers in my humble opinion, confessed that: 'I like to work in my bathrobe and pyjamas, after breakfast, until I suddenly perceive, from what's on the page in the typewriter, that I've lost my judgement.' I can't tell you how reassuring I find that.

The writing task is made a little easier for me because I don't write fiction (the hardest medium, I think), but literary criticism, which has lots of structure and rules to abide by. It's true that often I find those rules stifling; I'm just not interested in old school criticism that spends its time picking apart someone else's opinion, or analysing more and more about less and less. I'm only interested in ideas, in things I think are real, things that move me. Elizabeth Drew said that 'The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it'. and that's what interests me: that intensity. I want to get lost in that labyrinth, find the lurking beast just from the sound of its heartbeat. Albert Camus, one of my favourite French authors said that: 'The purpose of a writer is to keep civilisation from destroying itself'. No pressure, then, Albert! But I feel very honour bound to remain true to the courage and the longing in that statement, to the serious purpose that lies at the heart of the literary endeavour. People nowadays don't have much time for literary criticism; it's seen too often as pointless and anachronistic. But literature has something fierce and poignant and startling to tell us, if we'll only listen.

No matter what you write, whether it be a blog or a book or a letter or a textbook, it only comes together, only becomes alchemy, if you pursue your own truth with a steely purpose. Cyril Connolly wrote wisely: 'Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.' I think that too much of my life has been spent trying to please others, and the joy of writing for me is its shameless, uncompromising selfishness. You have to look inside, and then keep on looking. At its best writing is a dangerous, thrilling, overwhelming occupation, a teasing, frustrating lover, but a steadfast and comforting friend. I agree with all my heart with Ray Bradbury who said: 'You must stay drunk on writing so that reality doesn't destroy you.'

9 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. I loved dear old Isaac Asimov.

    It’s his fault that I have eventually become an avid reader (although it has tailed off a bit recently). I didn’t read much fiction at school, and hated the dissections we had to do during English Lit classes, though our mad teacher Mr Wickes (bless him) did his best to engage us (you remember our lessons well, I’m sure Vix).

    Anway, I was faced with a week long family holiday one summer, and took it upon myself to find a book to read. Foundation’s Edge by Asmiov was the one that leapt off the shelves at me. Science Fiction! I’d never really been into the genre, apart from Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers’ Guide books. But here was more stuff which I found easy to read and I started a voracious trawl through Asimov’s extensive back catalogue. Finally, my mother stopped nagging me to read more, although I think she wasn’t particularly enamoured with my chosen literature!

    Eventually, the reading bug spread to other genres, and my dear friend Vix would often recommend a good read to me (and still does, from time to time!).

    Must get a good book out to read on the train – rather than dragging my laptop around all the time.

  2. Do I remember Mr Wickes!! It astonishes me to this day to think that despite all I went through at school, I still love literature. And I adore recommending books, so just any old time, you only need to say the word…

  3. If you love something enough, you’ll still appreciate it even if you have a bad teacher. You love words and books, so a dodgy pedagogue is not going to stop you.

    Same with me and music. I learned all my musical skills outside of school, but of course I still had to endure music lessons at school, with the most god-awful old git at the front of the class (no names, you know who he is). I distinctly remember one test we had, where I scored 100% and teach was livid – he freely admitted he’d checked the paper 3 times but still couldn’t find any mistakes to mark me down! And he was deeply affronted that I would be the first pupil to score full marks on one of his tests. Ha ha ha. Me 1, Teach 0!

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