Monday, 22 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day One

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This week, I am giving a writers’ workshop as part of the Aboyne Arts Festival. I thought that it would be an interesting experiment to give you an edited, written version of what I am talking about to the class each day, so that you can follow along from wherever you are in the world. It is quite a lot to read, and you may decide that this does not work in blog form, but I am going to try it out and see where it takes us. Let me know your thoughts.


Over the week, I am going to talk about writing in the abstract, the way a writer’s mind works, how to think of yourself as a writer, how perhaps to skew your perspective on the world just a little bit. Then I will give you some technical hints and tips and general advice – adjectives and semi-colons and narrative techniques. Then I might talk about the new places for you to develop your writing, blogs and social networking sites, in particular Twitter, which I think is much more interesting than most old media types seem to. Finally I shall give you some basic ideas about how to get published, how the world of publishing works, and why you should not do anything without an agent.

We are going to do some quick writing exercises to free up your writing muscles and get the fear monkey off your back. All writers live with fear, mostly the fear that the perfect book that lives in their head will never, ever make it to the page. Something happens between the head and the fingers – you sit down to type and that pristine story is gone, as if there is a vital neurone missing somewhere, a connection that did not quite fire.

And there are the other fears, that you will never get published again and end up broke and forgotten and people will give you pitying looks in the streets and the only time you will ever see any evidence that you existed is when you occasionally see a lone copy of one of your books in the remainder bin. So there’s quite a lot of terror to go round. But what you have to learn is to get it away from you while you are actually writing, to master the inner critic, who needs only the smallest excuse to start marching around your head bitching about how you really will never fully master the intricacies of the English language and you might as well give it all up and do something interesting with sheep.

The Fear.

The Fear takes many forms. The most profound is the secret, crippling conviction that you are not allowed to be a writer unless you have certain qualifications. You must be born in the right place, to the right parents, with the right education. You must also have a specific God-given talent, a feeling for words, the equivalent of a musical ear. The other form of the Fear is an internalised memory, of teachers mostly, telling you that no, no, it is not done that way, and if you do not do it in the correctly prescribed way you will never amount to anything. There are rules, there are criteria, there are things that people expect. All of this is nonsense. I cannot stress this enough. I will say it again: all of this is nonsense. The point about writing is that if you are willing to work hard enough, to listen closely to your own voice, to push past the terror, you will be able to do it. I’m not saying it will be easy. All good writers know that writing is hard. Bad writing is a simple matter, you just have to put your fingers on the keyboard and go. Serious writing, and writing is serious, is difficult. But if you put in the time, it is not beyond your reach.

So you have to bash past the voices in your head that tell you you don’t have the right stuff to be a writer, that you didn’t do it the correct way at school, that you don’t have the right pedigree. Start thinking of yourself as a writer; describe yourself as one, if you are brave enough. A useful psychological exercise is literally to give yourself permission. All humans need ritual and ceremony: send yourself a card, have a private inaugural of your writing life. Imagine your inner critic as an actual person, a bitter old crone called Glenda, and each morning before you begin to write, banish her from the room. Swear as much as you like while you do this, you will find it cathartic. Anything to crush the idea that somehow you do not have the right equipment, that you are not allowed. There is no secret password, it is not a club that only a select few may join. Anyone with fingers and an inquiring mind can write; it is a craft and the more you do it, the better you will get. Some of you will start off with a natural advantage, in the way that some people have an acute visual sense or a feeling for mathematics, but if you concentrate hard enough, you can produce good prose, even if you do not have lunch with Martin Amis every day.

The best way I have found to get around the fear, this idea that somehow you are not permitted to be a writer, is to do what writers do (and I don’t mean get drunk at parties and punch people in the nose and sleep with persons who are married to someone else). You need to write. Find a desk, set a time, close the door, turn off the telephone and do it. Writing is like a muscle, you need to flex it every day or it will grow soft and flabby. Good writing does not fall out of the sky like magical rain; it is built from day after day after day of honing that writing muscle until it is ready for the Olympics. Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting idea that genius is not born, not a genetic freak or a random lightning bolt of extreme talent, but that it is developed after ten thousand hours of practice. I don’t know where he got the figure of ten thousand from, but it sounds about right to me. The only reason I can now carry a tune is because I have been doing this thing pretty much every day for twenty years. I cannot just order myself a brilliant Virginia Woolf mind, but I can damn well train up those writing muscles until they hurl me down the track like Linford Christie in his pomp.


Authenticity is possibly the single most important thing in good writing. By authenticity I mean that when you write you must express your actual true self, not some dressed up Sunday best version of what you think a writer should sound like. Any fakery or phoniness will destroy any attempt at good writing. You have to have the audacity and the faith to be absolutely yourself. If you start using long words and fancy phrases because you think they sound ‘literary’, you are doomed. Ernest Hemingway built an entire glittering career on words of one syllable.

Tell the stories that fascinate you (as someone whose name I cannot remember once said: if your writing does not keep you up nights it will not keep anyone else up either); use the words that you love; map the people you understand; throw about the ideas that stimulate you. The moment you start thinking about an audience, or agents, or publishers, or, God forbid, the market, your writing will die on the page. Writing is like a dog like that, one false move, and it lies down on the carpet and plays dead. The false note is death to writing, because the readers get it at once, they have some superhuman radar that lets them know when it is not your heart that is in it, and they, like Dorothy Parker, do not just put the book down, they hurl it with great force. As they damn well should. If you have to put on a front because you don’t trust yourself to be interesting enough why should anyone be interested in you? So the paradox is, and writing is filled with paradox, that in order to give the greatest amount of pleasure you have to be solipsistic – the only person you should ever write for is you. If you entrance and delight and tickle yourself, chances are that you will have the same effect on other people.

The other paradox is that while you are having all this belief in your one true self and trusting your instincts, you must also work constantly at refining and developing your craft. I know it sounds madly pretentious and phoney to talk about ‘your craft’, but that is the best description for what it is. So while you should trust your voice, you should not be so overcome by its innate brilliance that you neglect to throw a whole bucket of work at it. This is what second and third and fourth drafts are for. It is here that you may cut and polish and edit. You should not confuse self-belief, which you should welcome in, with self-indulgence, which you must ruthlessly exclude. The best writers in the world will write a rotten or pointless or redundant paragraph. What makes them good is that they have the discipline to cut that paragraph and not look back. Your words are precious but they are not set in stone. You must hunt down worn phrases and repetition and waffle like a beagle and throw them out. But before you do that you need to develop a trust in your very own voice, your unique thoughts, your own ideas, or you will have nothing to work on but a poor pastiche that struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

An exercise:

Now, try a five minute writing exercise. It can be a snapshot, a haiku, a stream of consciousness; it can be completely abstract, just words on a page, a very specific description of something, a memory, a conversation, even a miniature story. You can write a story in six words, they had a competition for it once. ‘Man bites dog, dog tells all’ is a story, even though it plainly breaks the law of physics and involves a canine who can speak. But it is a story.

There is no SHOULD in this exercise. There is no A plus. It’s just to loosen you up and shake the demons and the gremlins out and to get your hand moving across the page. It’s to get rid of any self-consciousness and fear. I want you to do it without editing, without thought, without stopping; work on pure instinct and see where it takes you. The point of this exercise is to get past the Fear, to let your one true voice out, and also to see your strengths. You will be able to see if you have a vivid visual sense or a facility for language or a natural feel for rhythm (rhythm is very important in writing; one syllable too many or too few, and a sentence will collapse on itself; the exact right number of beats, and it will sing). Let your mind run free. You may surprise yourself.

I’m going to give you a word and I want you to write for five minutes and the word is Blue.

A practical note.

Possibly the best book on writing ever written is almost a hundred years old and still in print. It is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. And the most valuable piece of practical advice that she gives in that marvellous book is that every morning, before you are even really awake, you should roll out of bed, go straight to your desk, and write without thought or reflection for twenty minutes. The idea is that you tone up your writing muscle and you also access your subconscious, because you are still in a dreaming state; the hard, ruthless, rational part of your brain has not yet had time to kick in, and so you will find hidden jewels, unexpected ideas, thoughts you did not even know you had.

I have a slightly refined version of this, since it is not always possible to write the moment you wake (baths must be taken, breakfast made, children taken to school), and, also, you may find twenty minutes is a long time to do free writing in this way. My version is to set aside ten minutes at any quiet time of the day, vow to yourself that no one will ever see what you are about to write, thus giving yourself absolute freedom to make a mess and embarrass yourself, and then write fast about anything at all that is in your head until your time is up. This trains up your writing muscle, helps you vanquish the Fear (no one will ever see, so no one can point and laugh), and, most important of all, builds up the habit of writing. Habits actually create grooves in the brain, worn connections between neurones, which is why they are so hard to break. But a good habit, developed over time, can make something feel like second nature to you. You begin to get withdrawal symptoms if you do not do it. In this way, writing becomes not a chore or a duty or something to be dreaded, but a familiar, known, loved friend.

One final note:

Please forgive any editing errors in this. I have to prepare for tomorrow’s class, and very much want to get this up on the blog, so I have not been as rigorous as I would like about doing my usual edit for grammar and repetition and general typing. Not quite practising what I preach, but maybe the best rule of all in writing is that rules are made to be broken. Any piece of prose without a little transgression in it is a sad thing.


  1. I spent the majority of my twenties shit scared about writing. I worked at Condé Nast as an editor, and every time I was asked to work up 100 words for a news piece I had no idea if I was doing it right. (I read Theology at Uni not Journalism, so no practice at all.) I wld sit on the fire stairs with a sub friend from Tatler mercilessly pressing her, "is it okay? Can I write? Will they like it?".

    She now tells this story quite frequently. It makes her laugh. Hmm.

    I now earn my living as a writer. I have an agent. I write every single day. But it's taken me fifteen years to get here. LLGxx

  2. ps I recommend EB White's Elements of Style, and esp his advice to look at every sentence and see which words you could lose. Overwriting is the worst sin of all.

    About Elements, "Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It's as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility." -- The New York Times

    "The work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct, and delightful." -- The New Yorker

  3. LLG - LOVE yr Tatler story. Also, thank you for reminding me about genius of EB White; he is somewhere on the shelf, I am going to hunt him down. John Gardner also wrote a rather good book about writing, twenty years ago, that I used to study.

    Meant to say on last post: vv pleased you appreciated the picture of the coo. xx

  4. The usual wonderful post - love to read your work!

    May I add my own favorite book on writing? It is Brenda Ueland's "If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit."

  5. Debra - lovely to hear from you. Yes, yes, I adore Brenda Ueland, although I have not read her for years. I remember her getting me through teething pains in my twenties. Very soulful and encouraging, if I recall correctly. Thank you for reminding me.

  6. What a lovely lovely idea, T. I printed this out to read on the bus home - just like everyone else, I filled notebook after notebook in my youth and still you don't quite think you might ever write anything quite good enough, (and makes me think thank goodness for blogs, as really the thought of all the trees condemned to be covered in peculiar ravings and practice rantings makes me feel quite ill).

    I enrolled on the London Food Writing & Journalism course to sharpen up my edges, (now sadly alas apparently about to be defunct - why???), which was a mighty godsend. After that, it is sheer and bloody persistence and determination to get where you want to be.

    I will also take those book suggestions on board - mighty useful.

  7. From The Writers Almanac:
    It was on this day in 1868 that the typewriter was patented, by Christopher Sholes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1873, he sold the patent to the Remington Arms Co., a famous gun maker, for $12,000. There had been typewriters before, but they weren't very practical — it took longer to type a letter than to write it by hand. The first commercial typewriter based on Sholes' design, a Remington Model 1, went on the market in 1874.

    Ernest Hemingway, (books by this author) loved his Royal typewriter. He kept it in his bedroom so it would never be too far away, and he put it on top of a bookshelf and wrote standing up.

    Hunter S. Thompson, (books by this author) wrote on a red IBM Selectric. One of his first jobs was as a copy boy for Time, and while he was supposed to be working, he used a typewriter and typed out, word for word, all of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, in order to learn something about writing style.

    Jack Kerouac, (books by this author) was fast at typing, and it frustrated him to have to change the paper so often. So he took long sheets of drawing paper, trimmed them to fit in the machine, and wrote all of On the Road that way. When he taped them together at the end, the manuscript was 120 feet long.

  8. Jo - love the sheer and bloody persistence. That might be the crux of the whole matter. x

  9. A friend just recommended your site to me. It couldn't have come at a better time. I have a blog. I was surprised at the amount of traffic and positive support i got from readers. So, I promptly stopped. Your posts have really helped. Thank you!

  10. Darling Tania , all my life i have longed to write write and write a little more , never finding the courage to set down on paper the thoughts and ideas that flood my mind every single day.. reading your blog on your creative writing course you have given me the confidence and courage to just do it ... so thankyou vanessa


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