Some Advice on Being a Writer (part three)

by Victoria Madden

Part Two

‘INTERVIEWER Did you always know you would be a writer?

WODEHOUSE Yes, always. I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.’

Gerald Clarke interview in The Paris Review (1975)

A lot of being a writer is about confidence. I’ve been told I can write well by people with experience of assessing good writing throughout my life; and most of my jobs have involved either writing myself or analysing other people’s writing in various forms. I’ve also done a lot of workshops in different formats. I know when I’ve written something well or when it’s not what it should be and whether someone’s criticism of it is justified or not. I’ve learnt to see my writing as something I produce but that, once ‘signed off’, is something separate from myself.

Most writers know, in their hearts, whether or not what they’re producing is any good. In the interview quoted above Wodehouse mentions George Bernard Shaw, who knew that he was turning out bad stuff late in his life but said that the urge to write was too strong. Wodehouse, himself, never shy of re-using good characters or situations that hadn’t quite come off, reworked some of his earlier books as his skills developed, even stating in the new Preface to Love Among the Chickens that he considered the 1906 version had been bad work.

During my youthful Romantic period (ironic, looking back, as I disliked much Romantic poetry) I strenuously resisted the idea that writing was a craft where weaknesses could be identified and improved, preferring instead to ditch the whole thing and try again when I had a new idea; and, as you’d expect, didn’t really make much progress. The key notes of my unthinking despair at that point – as they appear to be for most aspiring authors I’ve met over the years – were ‘will I ever be as good a writer as I want to be?’ and, at moments of extreme gloom, ‘what is it, really, that I have?’

If you’ve truly written something good, you’ll Know. The piece will sing in its rightness and you will have an immense sense of satisfaction. It won’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you have doubts, try and work out what those doubts are centred on. ‘It might not be any good’ in what sense? Is it badly expressed? Does your central idea not come across well? Is the dialogue weak or stilted? Are you aiming too high for your current level of technical competence? Do you need to practice your skills with different forms of writing? Have you decided on a niche without first exploring where your natural bent will best express itself?

As to knowing ‘what it is that you have’ – I’d argue that it is Shaw’s sense of something insisting on being made manifest, no matter what, that determines whether your ability in a particular field is at the level of a gift, a talent or a competency. A gift makes itself felt: it will come naturally or easily or be something you have done unconsciously from an early age; any training will only be as though you’re being reminded of something you’d forgotten long ago. A talent is often discovered later on, perhaps by accident or encouragement from others, and by practice can really blossom into something approaching a gift. A competency has to be worked at, a little kernel of ability that, with nurturing, can achieve a certain respectable standard – and give a lot of pleasure, if nothing else.

I always struggled to be a novelist but I never doubted I was able to write. Even without the validation from the earliest years, through all stages of my life, there is a sense of being driven when the thing is taking shape, an absolute demand for expression, that I am aware of in no other form of creativity I practice. The invention of the word processor has helped enormously: the sentences flow seamlessly now; the hand no longer cramping in its inability to keep up with the tumult of phrases pouring out. I would never call myself a ‘gifted writer’ but I definitely have a gift.

I wanted to draw from a slightly later stage, admiring the work of teenage friends longingly, but whenever I picked up the pencil it felt awkward and alien in my hand, and I was aware only of hesitancy and ignorance; an insurmountable barrier between what I wanted to express and the page. Meeting someone much later in life who could draw, but who also took the time to explain his work when I showed interest, was the breakthrough I’d been looking for. He encouraged me to draw in turn and commented on my initially timid attempts; bought me books and showed me where to get professional quality materials; went with me to exhibitions and discussed them afterwards, until I had gained the confidence to do all these things alone. It was a marvellous period in my life and I have much to thank him for.

I have been to numerous classes now and I think I am discovering a talent: I have the same Knowing when I’ve done something good or when something hasn’t worked, get the same intense satisfaction when the line goes right, that I do when the sentences fit together when I’m writing. I am learning to see paintings and images not as a picture ‘of’ something or someone, but as balance, forms and colours. Portraits are my thing; I have no interest or skill at all in landscape work but am fascinated by faces: their contours, planes and fleeting expressions. When listening to a conversation, or on being introduced, I have often found myself working out how to draw some particular feature – on occasion my idly dispassionate gaze, musing on a potential picture, has inadvertently got me into hot water.

I know, though, that I don’t have a gift. I was the most improved student at the end of a week in a class I attended once, but I have to learn the techniques, they don’t come naturally. Encouraging a friend in my turn, who had stopped drawing after being derided in his youth by an art teacher, I found he had an instinctive grasp of how to foreshorten, something I have to think about consciously and then revise several times. Neither is there any insistence of expression: ideas rise to the surface slowly, the creative moment as fragile as a soap bubble; it’s actually more relaxing than anything. I would never describe myself as an artist, as I would have no hesitation in describing myself as a writer.

This isn’t just because of the difference in ability, but because of the difference in perception and approach. I have never had any problem in seeing drawing as a craft: when I see a great piece of art in an exhibition my immediate thought is not ‘I wish I could paint to that level’ but ‘how did they do that? what did they use to get that effect?’. When the words go right in writing, I feel quietly pleased: a ‘Yes, that’s it. That works.’ to myself; perhaps a grin of satisfaction if it’s particularly good. When the line goes right in drawing, I am consumed with a sense of fierce exultation at my triumph over my technical inability. Such is my unbelieving delight in what I’ve produced that I want to rush round shrieking ‘Look! Look!! I did that! Me! Can you believe it! Me!! There is a definite difference between the two fields.

Music is a foreign city in which I wander round in appreciation and delight but am destined to remain forever an outsider. As a teenager I wanted to be able to play the guitar. I bought books and tapes and got advice from friends – nearly every teenage boy at that time played the guitar; do they still, I wonder? – but still struggled. It felt somehow awkward and wrong; I just couldn’t get my fingers to make the right shapes no matter how hard I tried. When I met someone who played the piano, much later in life, it felt like something I could get to grips with at last. I learnt to touch type at school, on an old manual Remington with my woodwork apron tied over the keys so I couldn’t look down, and I see a lot of similarities in the techniques of instilling memory skills in the fingers.

I get a lot of pleasure out of learning to play but my acquiring of the necessary skills is something at which I labour. With time and continual practice I will probably be a competent pianist, in the same way that I am a competent touch-typist, but I doubt if I will ever be able to raise my level above that. The wanting is there, strangely enough, whenever I see a good performance, in the way it isn’t with drawing, but the instinct, the ‘feel’ for it, just isn’t there. The musical skills and understanding I do have, have been achieved only after diligent work and patient coaching; they are not a natural part of me, as writing is.

In order to Know whether you’ll ever be ‘as good a writer as I want to be’; in order to Know ‘what it is that I really have’ and whether it can be developed further or not, you need to come out of the closet as a writer. Not only do you have to write but you have to start showing your writing to other people. (Blogging is the perfect way to start this process – likes and comments will give you validation and feedback, and you’ll get a feel for a potential audience for your work. It’s accepted, too, that most blogs are works-in-progress; a place to work through what would have been termed ‘juvenilia’ in the pre-electronic age.)

Most people don’t show their work to others because they’re afraid of being told they can’t write. But if you’re not showing your work to people who know what they’re talking about and getting their feedback (you don’t have to act on it or even agree with it) then you’re not going to get the confidence you need to be a writer in the first place. It seems a vicious circle but you can break through it. Everyone can write and everyone can learn to write well. Think about what you’re aiming for as a writer; think about what you mean by being a writer. Do you see a ‘writer’ only as someone who writes fiction? Are you hung up on being a novelist instead of the poet that’s within you? Or the journalist?

If you want to be a writer then write, it’s as simple as that. Don’t struggle to write the Great Novel you feel sure is in you somewhere but practice writing itself, in all its myriad forms. Do exercises, go to workshops, write in a variety of different formats: prose; poetry; short stories; plays. Write adverts, press releases, blog posts, a letter of complaint to your bank. In every format, strive to express yourself to the best of your current ability.

If you’ve got the spark of talent in any direction, creative or otherwise, then you’ll know because you’ll have been driven by that spark to practise or explore it from an early age. If you don’t yet know whether you’ve got that spark, then practise consciously and continually at your craft. If you’ve got any ability at all as a writer, or indeed in anything, then incessant practice will bring it out. And with it will come the confidence you’re looking for.