You are a Starter, a Middler or a Finisher.
There are others you might be – the Dreamer, the Planner, the Diarist, the Angry Person, the Wanderer-Around-the-Soul, the Cynic, the Copyist, the Poet-Semi-Converted.
All of you, this blog is for you.
I have written it out of my experience as a creative writing tutor, out of my experience of being a writer but mainly out of my experience of being in the shit.
All of these writers I describe, I have been them and I continue to be them on a moment by moment basis.
I ask myself the question you always ask yourself.
SHOULD I GIVE UP WRITING
(AND DO SOMETHING MORE USEFUL)?
It’s a question I only very occasionally get asked but which lurks behind perhaps 50% of the conversations I have with student writers.
They may ask indirectly – for example, ‘Do you think this is ever going to be publishable?’ or ‘Do you really think my writing has improved in the last year?’ But their deeper question is, ‘Have I got it?’ and ‘If I haven’t got it now, will I ever have it?’
The understanding is commonly that, if you ask someone like me directly whether or not you should give up writing, that we will never say No – because that goes against the entirety of the culture within which we (in trickledown from America) have to live.
No-one has any right to tell anyone what they can and can’t do, what they are or are not capable of.
Everything, therefore, has to be one or other form of encouragement.
We leave the saying No business to business itself.
This Yes, You Can-ness is ridiculous. For a star to address their audience of a million with this positivity, to reassure them all that they too can be stars is a lie. Not everyone can live their dream because there isn’t enough human attention to go around.
Poets often feel, as they read work in front of an audience, there is actually no audience there, only other poets awaiting their turn to read.
But it’s better, isn’t it, to say, ‘Keep going. If you believe, you can achieve.’
Isn’t it just horrible to crap on people’s dreams? To say to a boy with really bad acne that he will never be a film star because makers of films never allow really bad acne onto the metres high screen?
Most of the time, I am prepared to go along with this culture of incessant encouragement. If you ask me in person whether you should give up, I will not say Yes.
If a student or a friend of a friend whose work I have read asks me whether they should give up writing, I will not tell them that they should, because there is no hope.
I have never, face to face, told someone I think they should find something more useful to do.
But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t lied – because I had to, because it’s my job.
One of the reasons for not saying Give Up is that any tutor who has been around for a while will have seen miraculous transformations.
We live, professionally, for gradual improvement – for the mediocre becoming good and the good becoming very good. But we delight in the awful becoming something in which we can take relaxed pleasure.
If you are asking the Question, you may have a reason for asking – and that reason may be that you have recognised that nothing you write will ever bring delight to a person you don’t, yourself, already personally delight.
Here’s a test.
Try it on yourself.
Test: Let’s say you are a Finisher. You have written a novel and you have shown your completed novel to a friend – or a friend of a friend who happens to be someone you’d recognise as a writer. Has that person spontaneously, a decent period of time afterwards, asked you if you have written anything else they could read? I am not talking about in a conversation that you have manoeuvred round to being about your writing. I don’t mean in an email response to the email of yours informing them – the writer-like person – of your progress with your new novel. I mean has someone who likes reading, and does a lot of reading, and who has read something of yours, asked – and asked more than once – if you have something new for them?
Be honest. Has this happened or not happened? Have they asked or have they not asked?
If they have not asked, there may be a reason for that – and the reason may be that you have yet to write a book that isn’t boring.
I will now be more honest than I can be with my students: Boring books are written by boring people, and if you are a boring person it is unlikely you will ever write anything that isn’t boring.
Now, hold off until you hear my definition of a boring person.
I mean, a person who is boring on a deep level. I mean samey in the sense that there is nothing that really distinguishes them from others. They are, for example, not nauseated when they find themselves speaking in clichés.
Boring novels are written by the kind of people who say of themselves, ‘I have a great sense of humour,’ and who then attempt to demonstrate this by reciting a joke or telling you about a great prank they once played on someone.
Did anyone who really does have a great sense of humour ever feel the need to say they have a great sense of humour?
The worst work I have read has come out of and so has enforced in me a profound tedium of the soul. It may be that the work contains no real events (I’ll talk about what makes an event quite soon) or there may be a frantic number of events. [There may be many, many events but nothing ever really happens.] It may be that nothing particularly happens in the writing. (I’ll soon get to what I mean by something happening.) Or it may be that there is lots and lots and far too much of trying to make it appear that something is happening.
Another test: Do you defend yourself to yourself – do you catch yourself defending yourself to yourself, in front of the imagined judge and jury of yourself? Do internal speeches take place? Are they eloquent and intermittently convincing? This isn’t uncommon. Writers do it. But do you find yourself defending yourself by saying ‘If so-and-so does this than I can, too’ or ‘People love it when thingummy writes like this, and they’ll love it when I do it, too’.
For writers, there isn’t really a ‘too’.
Their ego won’t allow it.
Test: DO you think you are an interesting person? Do you think that everyone, of course, is an interesting person? Is being interesting a basic human right?
If you said you think you’re an interesting person, that is the wrong answer.
Writers, all artists – I believe – fear on a very deep level that the only thing about them that is worthwhile is what they make or do, and that if they ceased to make or do it, the world would turn away from them entirely.
If you don’t feel this lack, if you aren’t motivated by a desire to transcend how shit your self is – if, in other words, writing isn’t for you a matter of basic survival, I don’t know if you’re ever going to do it very well.
Not because you are not talented but because I know that there are lots and lots of writers out there whose reason for writing is existential, in this way.
Write or die would be an exaggeration; Write or be so boring you might as well be killed.
On the one hand we have a person who will say, I would like to write; on the other, we have a creature who says, If I don’t write, I’m nothing.
What’s important here isn’t merely the strength of the statements – the self-satisfaction of I would like to… and the desperation If I don’t…
What’s crucial is the different ways in which the I is being used, grammatically, in these sentences.
I would like to write… establishes the I as a stable entity, a king within the self. [I would like to write makes I a fairly stable, existent thing.]
If I don’t… puts I in peril, up for grabs.
The identity of If I don’t… is far less confident, and therefore far more open to change and so possible improvement.
The speaker of If… would be prepared to take any route toward self-improvement, including junking as much of the existing self as is possible.
If it’s merely a matter of liking to write, you should consider giving up – because liking it will not be enough to keep you going once you are in the shit.
Writing is mainly being in the shit, and mild feelings of pleasure toward the activity will be too weak to sustain you.
Let me put some questions to you:
Q: Do you want to be recognized as a writer? Yes or No?
Q: Do you want to be a writer? Yes or No?
Q: Do you want to write? Yes or No?
Starting to get there.
Q: Do you think that if you don’t write, you will have very little justification for existing at all? Yes or No?
Hello, and welcome to the club.
It’s a truth about all occupations that the part of them that is being recognized for doing that thing is not really doing that thing. Most of being a soccer player is not playing soccer – at least, not in matches.
The experience of being recognized as a writer – for example, giving an interview on stage at a literary festival or being given a prestigious prize for the best novel of the year – these experiences are the opposite of writing itself. Every detail of them is at the far end of whatever spectrum there is: being recognized as a writer is public, certain, involves victory; writing is private, doubtful, involves loss.
If what you want is to appear as the public figure of the author, do – please – give up.
Writers have to transform into authors if they are to appear in public. I don’t know any writers who would, out of choice, refer to themselves as an author rather than a writer.
I’ve previously joked that I’m a local author, but only because local writer suggests a writer who hangs out at the local pub.
Before we go any further, I need you to do something – not writing, but digging out.
This book is going to include a number of exercises. For most of them, all you will need is a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. For this one, and for some of the others, you will need something else.
Exercise: Dig out a story that you started but gave up after two or three pages.
Explanation: Although this doesn’t involve any actual writing, not yet, I would like you to think back over the stories you have begun writing, either in the last few months or the last few years.
Is there one that, when you began it, you remember feeling really good about, but that stopped – for whatever reason – after only two or three pages? If one comes immediately to mind, find it – extract the pages from a drawer or a file within a folder.
If there isn’t a recent story-start you felt particularly hopeful about, and would like to continue with, then simply choose the most recent thing you’ve written that didn’t reach the end.
It will be most useful if you have two or three pages of writing, rather than just an opening paragraph.
For the moment, digging out the story-start is all. Keep it safe. Carry on reading, because we’re getting to something really basic. We’re asking –