Thursday, 8 July 2010

Writing, Day Four

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am demanding of my class. I gather them into a room and talk and talk and talk at them. I get rather over-excited and wave my arms about like that professor with the moustache from my childhood. Was he called Magnus Something? I rattle along at seventy miles an hour. I hit them with endless Hemingway quotes.

(Although, actually, why would I not? He was such a beautiful writer, and he said such achingly true things about writing.)

Then, then, I make them do five minutes of free writing. I tell them not to think, not to edit, not to listen to any of the critical voices in their heads, but to keep their hand moving over the page until I say stop.

As if that were not enough, I make them read what they have written, out loud. I know it is not climbing a savage mountain, or fighting in the desert, or racing at Le Mans, but it is a very, very frightening thing to have to do. They must reveal themselves in front of a room of strangers.

What they write is always good, even if they hardly believe that themselves. There is always something in each piece that surprises and delights. But sometimes, it is more than good. Sometimes, it is great. Today, they did great writing. It was as if they had all gone off into a huddle and decided that this was the moment to raise their game. And it wasn't just that there was one remarkable piece; they were all remarkable. Each one, in its radically different way, was a thing of beauty. I cannot tell you how happy it made me.

I  keep saying: if you are true to yourself, and you do honour to the language, you can write well. I keep saying there is not some special writers' club to which you must belong; there is not a writers' pedigree, or upbringing, or qualification. It is not invitation only. I think this is absolutely true. I start to think: the only difference between the writer and the  non-writer is the willingness to work at it, to do it every day, to accept the graft, and the inevitable disappointments, and the dark night of the soul moments. It damn well is hard, but I think perhaps the only line between achieving it or not is a determination to persevere.

Here is some of what I spoke of today:

I talked of grammar, which I don't think I mentioned last year. I am a stickler, not because I am one of those grumbly, everything's gone to the dogs types, but because I crave clarity above all things. Most grammatical rules exist so that the reader does not become confused. The misuse of the apostrophe, and the howler that is the dangling modifier are the worst in this regard. They make the reader stop, in order to work out exactly what it is you are trying to say. Baffling your reader is a cardinal sin. So: become the mistress of the apostrophe; hunt down every last dangler and shoot it on sight. The lovely Miss Lynne Truss is your best friend in this quest. Get a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves if you have any doubts. She says everything that needs to be said much better than I ever could.

On the other hand, some grammatical rules may be broken. I think it is important to know the major ones before you trangress. Correct usage is not some horrid straitjacket, but a liberation. If you know what you should be doing, you are much freer to decide how much you want to play with the language. Uncertainty is not liberating. I always think of Picasso, and his blue period. He became a master draftsman; he knew all the rules of perspective and form. Once he had done that, he could let himself go, and put people's noses behind their knees.

As long as there is clarity, you can please yourself. I quite often start a sentence with a preposition. I love the subjunctive, but it is not entirely necessary. 'If I was rich,' is as clear as 'If I were rich'. Somerset Maugham said: 'The subjunctive form is in its death throes, and the best thing to do is to put it out of its misery as soon as possible.' In the same way, occasionally an infinitive may be split. Sometimes you need to boldly go. Raymond Chandler famously declared: 'When I split an infinitive, it damn well stays split'.

I do think that the semi-colon is your finest friend. This is a small, enduring obsession of my own, so feel free to ignore it. I find it such a lovely, supple, subtle piece of punctuation, and could not exist without it.

I think that the exclamation mark is your deadliest foe. Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own jokes. I would suggest that you only use it if there is absolutely no other way that you can achieve the effect you crave. The jingly little rule 'If in doubt, leave it out' is apposite here.

I talked also of memory. Your memories are your treasure chest. Mine them, use them, let them act as seeds from which characters and stories may grow. We are the sum of our memories. Do not worry too much about utter accuracy. Three people will remember a single event in radically different ways. In a sense, all three will be right. Don't let anyone say: no, you are wrong, it did not happen like that. Your recollections belong to you.

Never forget that what may seem quite mundane and commonplace to you will be exotic and fascinating to someone else. The small, everyday things can be the most telling. I love the mass observation diaries of the Second World War, which were often written by unsung, ordinary women. They were people who were miles from the centres of power; they were not on the front line; they were not the makers of policy or the titans of history. Yet in some ways I find their daily records more riveting than those written by famous men.

One of my students asked: what do you do with all the ideas rushing about in your head? It was a good question. First, I said, thank the inspiration angels that you have a surfeit of ideas, rather than a surly, blank mind. I am so used to having a head full of quarrelling thoughts that I take it for granted. It is like that great Daisy Ashford line about the gentleman leaping on his horse and riding off in all directions. But I see that if it is not a familiar state, it can feel overwhelming. So: write them all down. Put them in folders and files. Some will never come to anything; accept the redundancy. Do not mourn stillborn ideas; trust that many more will come. Once you start noticing everything and questioning everything and practising the idea I spoke of before about being present, you will have ideas a go-go.

Sometimes, you will choose one of your thrilling ideas and start to make a story of it. You may find that you get to chapter three and the whole thing stutters to a halt. Give it a week or so. You may be caught in the fear trap, or stunned by your critical voices. If the thing does not fire up after that time, graciously let it go.

I think you can generally tell which of your ideas is the really good one, because it will not let you go. It will bug you. It will tug at your sleeve like a small child who yearns for ice cream. It will wake you at absurd hours of the night. That's the one. It might not be the one which you consider most commercial, or which you think will impress some grand London publisher, or which you are sure will hurl you to the top of the bestseller list. Don't worry about that. Remember that JK Rowling was turned down by publisher after publisher because they all said no-one wanted to read boarding school stories any more. Trying to second-guess the market is a fool's errand. Write the idea that you absolutely must write, because if you don't, it will give you no peace.


Today's photographs follow on from one of the themes of today's class, about not overlooking the small, the usual, the seemingly unremarkable. One of the things I like to do with my enchanting new camera is take pictures of things which are not particularly beautiful or special, and see if, by fiddling with the light or the colour of the angle, I can invest them with something interesting. I am not at all certain that I succeed, but I like the experiment:


An old, papery, cracked garlic.


A dead marjoram flower, which did not get cut back from last year.


A strand of wild grass.


A nettle.


Tree bark, one of my perennial obsessions.


A dry, fallen leaf.




A blown rose.

If you have any energy left to read, here is what I did in last year's class.

Thank you all so much for bearing with me. I meant to make these posts much leaner and meaner than those I wrote last year, but my fatal tendency to ramble has, as usual, got the better of me. Thank you for your lovely, generous comments. It is thrilling to know that you are out there, reading along.


  1. I don't think I'll ever get past just writing for the blog, but I love the fact that I feel I could after reading yours. I know I'll come back and read it again later, thanks for the thoughts

  2. Tania, you are a generous soul to share your teaching. You make it seem absolutely possible.

  3. Whoops, the above comment is from me, not Anon x

  4. Perfect perfect gems - F Scott's collection Flappers and Philosophers is out now with a new introduction - I keep picking it up and re-reading perfect perfect sentences - 'dust on a butterfly's wing' indeed.

  5. I also love the semi-colon, but I fear it is falling out of fashion. Thanks for sharing your very good advice with those of us who just pop in from time to time without the patience or the proximity to sit in your classroom.


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin