‘Writers are desperate people, and when they stop being desperate they stop being writers.’
‘We judge writers either as teachers, storytellers, or enchanters, but it is the enchanter who outlasts time.’
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’
Sometimes people contact me asking for advice on ‘how to be a writer’. It’s always flattering, but I often feel I’ve let them down by not having the time to consider my response properly. So I’ve taken this opportunity to put some of my thoughts on the subject down in a more considered way.
My first advice to writers, or potential writers, is to read advice from some big talents that you respect. Here, for example, is George Orwell; you have to read this, at the very least. Also well worth a read is this scabrous take from Charles Bukowski. Jenny Diski has useful things to say, and A. L. Kennedy is amusing. The Guardian’s compilation of fiction-writing advice from famous writers is worth a look; Geoff Dyer’s tips are my favourite. If you’re a poet, you have to read Rilke: there are no excuses.
I’d recommend a few books too. The Writer’s Life by Annie Dillard and On Writing by Stephen King are two very different takes, both containing good insight. For poets: The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. For novelists: How Fiction Works by James Wood, and The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera.
In addition, here are ten things I would have liked someone to say to me when I was starting out.
1. If you want to be a writer, you will be a writer. In fact, if you want to be a writer, you already are. Congratulations.
2. Writing is not a ‘career’. There is no salary, no job security, no promotion, no pension, no guarantee of work, no guarantee that anyone will ever notice what you do. Writing is a calling. If you are called, answer. Prepare for a life of intense work at curious hours, likely obscurity and regular self-doubt, punctuated by periods of wonder that somehow make it all worthwhile. If this doesn’t appeal, try local government.
3. There is such a thing as good writing, and there is such a thing as bad writing. Learn the difference. Strain to produce the former whilst accepting that you will, much of the time, produce the latter. As you grow in confidence, you’ll know which bits to throw away and which to keep and work on. Be shamelessly elitist in your pursuit of excellence. Writing is not a democratic activity; only you can know whether you’re doing what you are here to do. Read a lot, write a lot and don’t listen to any post-modern oaf who tells you that, after all, no-one can say whether Stieg Larsson is ‘better’ than Shakespeare.
4. Be modest. Be self-critical. Listen to advice, but learn to distinguish between advice that is useful – even (or especially) if you don’t like hearing it – and advice which is a distraction or worse. You grow as a writer through absorbing these lessons, and some of them are hard learned. Writing that you think is magnificent may not be.
5. Be aware that some people will not like what you do and, by extension, may not like you, or think they don’t. This is the age of the troll and the mob – there are people out there who enjoy being viciously negative about the work of others (anonymously, of course). If your work gets noticed, some of this will come your way. Learn to distinguish between the useful criticism and the pointless spite. Absorb the former and ignore the latter. Or just take Andy Warhol’s advice: never pay attention to what they write about you, just measure it in inches.
6. Be patient. I was writing poetry for twenty years before I got a book published. You will not get published right away. You may never get published at all. But keep at it. You need to believe in what you do: keep perfecting your craft, keep pushing your work out there. Don’t give up. If you’re doing it right, you’ll get there. Where ‘there’ is is another question. When you arrive, you may find it is not the place you thought you were heading for.
7. The Muse is real. That is to say: you will find, as your work deepens, that the real stuff seems to come from somewhere beyond you. You will sometimes feel like an aerial, conducting a story from beyond. When this happens, take it seriously. Perhaps it is Graves’ White Goddess of poetry claiming you. Any writer who has been on the job for several decades soon realises that writing is a form of magic; of spell-craft. Here is an essay of mine on writing as alchemy, which expands this point.
8. Let fate and posterity be your judges. Ignore the market. Ignore the bestseller lists. Ignore the prize nominations, or lack of them. Ignore any friends or contemporaries who are making more money than you or appearing on Newsnight Review while you toil away in your garret (you’d be better off staying in the garret.) All of this is easier said than done; try to do it nonetheless. You have a star to follow. Don’t be distracted from it by the rise and fall of fashions or fortunes, including your own. You have no idea how valuable your work is, and you probably never will. What you can be sure of is that value is not to be measured in sales figures or notoriety, attractive as these can certainly be.
This is the poet W. S. Merwin, writing in his poem Berryman of his youthful encounter with the older poet and the advice he received:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
8. When you feel like giving up, don’t.
9. Enjoy it. If you can achieve anything close to what you want to achieve with your writing, you are a lucky human being. If you can get someone to pay you for it, you are a very lucky one. Remember that the next time you can’t feed yourself, and remember also that hunger is good for you – metaphorically at least. Don’t allow yourself to get too full or satisfied. Stay outside, stay keen, follow your star. That’s all.