Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Writing, Day Two

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It always amazes me how these classes work. I say classes, but I am not really teaching. I don't think you can teach someone how to write. I tell my students everything I can think of that I know about writing, every last thing I have picked up over twenty years, and hope that some of it sticks. Sometimes, it is hard to know whether it is of any use. They are very polite, and listen quietly as I talk and talk and talk, and I cannot quite tell whether any of what I am saying is relevant to them, or what they signed up for, or of any practical use at all. Sometimes I see them looking gently puzzled, and I think: am I talking absolute nonsense? Are they fearing for my mental health when I speak of living with the voices in your head?

The problem with offering any writing advice is that what works for one person does nothing for another. I keep saying: there are no unimpeachable rules. Then I give them three golden rules. Kill your darlings; question all your assumptions; never use any other word except 'said' when writing dialogue. (She trilled, he sneered, she shrieked, he chortled are proper writing crimes, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.) Then I say: of course these are only rules if you want to make them so. A slight look of confusion comes over the class.

Anyway, yesterday I spoke of the great Dorothea Brande, and her seminal book, Becoming a Writer. Her great idea is that you should get out of bed every morning and go straight to your desk and write, without thinking, for twenty minutes. In this way, you build your writing muscle, and you tap into the subconscious, the dreaming part of your brain that is only accessible before the daily demands of the world catch you in their quotidian grip.

I think that twenty minutes, the moment you wake, is quite a lot to ask. But I do love the idea of this kind of free writing, as a regular exercise. Even if it is only five minutes, some time towards the start of the day, it can produce unexpected miracles.

Today I said, tentatively: did anyone do morning writing? Hands shot up; faces broke into smiles. I was astounded. One gentleman was so excited by his morning writing that he asked if he could read it out.

It was marvellous. It was poetic and mysterious and unexpected. He was so thrilled by what he had done that his enthusiasm filled the room. 'It was like a gift,' he said. It shifted the entire dynamic of the group. Everyone else seemed to catch his excitement; I felt amazingly vindicated, thinking that perhaps what I was saying did have some use after all. A new purpose and spirit entered the class. I threw away my lesson notes, and talked instead of some of the things that had come up in the short piece of writing we had just heard.

People seemed emboldened. There were interesting questions and intelligent interjections. We did a five minute writing exercise, which produced such tremendous work that we did not even stop for lunch, but just charged on until two o'clock.

They are good and brave, my students. Today, I asked them to write about fear, and even though it frightened them, they did it well and honestly. I can tell them about voice and point of view and whether you should make a detailed book plan or not, but I think the most important thing I can do is try to give them a safe place where they can allow their own unique voice to take wing. I want them to leave their doubts at the door, and show themselves what they are capable of.


Here are a few of the things I said today:

I talk a great deal about writing habits. This does not just mean getting into a solid routine, or learning to still the cruel critical voices in your head, or doing your free writing exercises. It is also about state of mind. I think that writers notice everything, question everything, invest small, overlooked things with significance. Nothing is dull, to a writer. Even dullness is interesting, once you really start thinking about it.

If there is one rule it is: read, read, read. Read until your eyes ache and the light is gone. Personally, I think you should read up. You may never reach the diamond perfection of The Great Gatsby, but read Fitzgerald to see what a master can do with prose. Read the best writers in your chosen field, so that you have something marvellous to aspire to. Set the bar high. Do not be intimidated if you fail to reach it; you will never be quite as good as you wish to be, and that's all right. If you are shooting for the moon and you miss, at least you will be aiming in the right direction.

If you feel stale and tight, and you have a day when your savour for language is gone, and words feel dusty under your fingers, go to the great poets. I find a salutary dose of TS Eliot will bring vigour back, every time. That yellow fog that rubs its back along the window pane; those women, in the room, coming and going, talking of Michelangelo. Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare eat a peach? Yes, yes, yes, I do.

There are some people for whom a short word is always better than a long one. A short sentence and a brief paragraph always go better than long, winding efforts. The lovely William Zinsser is a great advocate of this school of thought. I sometimes love a long word; occasionally, I indulge in the sub-clause. There is a matter of subjective taste, here. But I do think that this simple idea gets at a deeper truth. When people begin to write, they often think that there is such a thing as the Literary Style. They believe that they must Write, with a capital W; they cannot just be a writer, they must be a Writer. They put on their metaphorical Sunday best and sit up straight and adopt a sonorous voice. In doing this, they instantly lose their own voice, their lovely idiosyncrasies, their distinct sound. To your own self be true, my darlings. There is no Literary style; there is only your style.

On this theme: a short, clean, everyday word is often better than a longer, pretentious word. House is always better than residence. Car is always better than vehicle. Me is always, always, always better than myself.

Never forget the power of the plain, declarative sentence.

It is obvious, and sometimes tiring, and occasionally maddening, but: practice, practice, practice. You cannot play a sonata unless you do your scales every day. Good writing does not fall like magic on the chosen few. It is the product of work and thought.

Remember the Buddhist idea of being in the moment. It is a hard but good idea for life, and it is a brilliant tool for writing. Stop thinking about what happened yesterday, or what you must do tomorrow; still your mind, and concentrate on the instant. Be present.


For what I did on this day last year, follow the link here. You will see that it was quite different from what I ended up talking about today. I rather love that this year's class took on a life quite of its own, deviating wildly from what I had planned. Plans are made to be broken.


Today's pictures are from the garden, taken last night at about nine o'clock:


My lovely old-fashioned tea rose has suddenly burst into flower. I swear that was not there the day before. I actually exclaimed out loud when I saw it, as if someone had sent me a present.


The first of the nepeta is just coming into bloom.


The astilbe is putting on its pomp.


My newest geranium is slightly out of focus, but rather delightful for all that.


And over it all was a deep, singing sky, traced with blue clouds.

PS. Thank you so much for all your enchanting comments of the last two days. Forgive me for not replying to them individually; this writing class takes enormous reserves of energy and when I come home I find it is all I can do to write the blog and prepare tomorrow's lesson.


  1. What an absolutely fascinating blogpost Tania....your students are really fortunate just to be able to listen to you.

    I could almost hear you talking when I read this....and I love what you said about reading everything you can get your hands on - only of course you put it so much better than me!

    And I love the garden shots as always, just beautiful.


  2. I'm going to read through this slowly tomorrow morning when I get up. Thank you for sharing this.

    Your tea rose is beautiful. My Magnolia Grandiflora flowered on Saturday, I was so delighted I took a picture and blogged it. I love it when a flower blooms xx

  3. You are doing something right though you are doubting yourself! If your students are actually following your advice, and are happy then you are more than doing your part - and very well at that. I do wish I could be there though!

    Your post is as Christina says one that should be read very, very slowly!!! It should be savoured not rushed through.

  4. This is fabulous! And I would add the bit of advice given me by Miss Whistle when I discovered (much to my horror) that my mother read my blog: "Write as though everyone you know is dead.". Not always possible but helpful nonetheless!
    Mrs. L

  5. I'm really not a morning person but I've tried writing before bed and that really works for me... I am extremely nocturnal though. I will try with the mornings though because it makes sense.

    I am reading the new collection of Fitzgerald's short stories- just one so far last night, Babylon Revisited, his prose is like Orwell, so spare but precise. I read the story once for the story and a second time to see just how he wrote.

  6. ..and a gift of a post for writers and readers alike. Thank you for sharing these tips in a heartfelt yet practical manner. A literary godmother if ever there was one.


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