Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Writing Workshop, Day Three

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I want to say something quickly about being a writer. This is a very difficult subject to cover without sounding pretentious. I want to talk about it because often people who come to workshops or read them online may be trying to decide if writing is for them. I thought perhaps a swift list of pros and cons might illuminate the matter.

The pros are:

Your life is never boring. Because everything, even the smallest sentence spoken by the dullest person on the most inconsequential radio programme, may be of use, and everything is to be questioned, and every last received opinion is to be challenged, life is teeming with fascination. Even a ragingly dull person may become interesting in your eyes because you will one day want to invent the most boring character in the world. This sounds a bit excessive, and I might be exaggerating a little for effect, but it is mostly true. Everything: the world, the human condition, science, ephemera, politics, heartbreak, is grist. I have a vague memory of reading about someone watching his marriage fall apart, all the time horribly aware that the writing part of him was going Oh good, because it would provide such tremendous material.

This next sounds odd, but one gets one’s satisfaction in odd places: it is a good cohort to be part of. No one feels that happy, I imagine, to say that they work for an arms dealer or a tabloid. There is no pantheon of national heroines for tabloid journalists to look to. (This may be slightly cruel, but I am in full rage about the current revelations about The News of the World.) But if you are writing books, then you are following in the tradition of Eliot and Auden and Fitzgerald and Woolf. You are working in the language of Shakespeare and Milton. It’s just as well not to be saying this out loud in public, because people will think you unbearably flash and pretentious, but it is a warming thing to hold in your own mind.

You don’t have to go into an office and deal with bad lighting, bad coffee and stupid petty office politics.

You have a huge amount of liberty.

You do a job in which you actively aspire to be better every day. Bit chicken soup for the soulish, but important. Many jobs just require stasis.

One day, in the distant future, someone will come up to you, when you least expect it, and say: Thank you for that book, it made me feel less alone. And you will feel as if the entire Nobel Prize committee has just genuflected at your feet.

The Cons:

There is a danger that it makes your life too damn interesting. Sometimes regular and ordinary is more soothing. The Chinese had a curse that went: may you live in interesting times. It took me years to work out why that was a curse rather than a blessing. If you develop a writer’s mind, it is very hard to turn your brain off. It is hard to just live. It may also affect your sleep patterns.

Writing is really difficult to do well, and almost impossible to do as well as the heroes to which you aspire. In some ways, if every political life ends in failure, so does every writing life. The awful irony is that even the people who really were geniuses at it, like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, died drunk and young and miserable and alone. It did not bring them joy.

It pays really badly.

You have an enormous amount of liberty. This, as you see, goes in the pro and the con column. Liberty can be blessing and curse.

Unless you are visibly, financially successful, people you know will not take you seriously. Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon? Or similar.

In some ways, all this is unnecessary, because there will be a point when you know. You do not need lists; you do not need me to tell you. Most writers do it because they really can’t do anything else. It’s like a disease. I went on doing it even when I was sacked by both agent and publisher. It’s all my fingers know how to do.


And finally, as promised, I get to: Authenticity. Which is closely related, oddly, to The Fear.

The one most precious resource you have as a writer is you.

I’m going to say that again, because it is so important.

You are your most precious resource.

I know it sounds a bit cheesy and bumper stickerish, but it is true.

If you forget that, you will never be a good writer. You might be able to produce a decent sentence, or understand the semi-colon, but you will never be really, truly good.

This is not because every human contains in them some golden lode of brilliance, although most humans probably have more brilliance in them than they might allow. It is not because you are teeming with talent, if only you let yourself see it. You will, like all writers, have to work at writing, as hard as you can. I always say that good writing is hard, and it should be hard. It is right that it is hard, because anything worth doing is never easy.

It is because no one else has ever had your experiences, thought your thoughts, seen the world through the quirky prism through which you view it. No one has had your childhood, your memories, your hopes, your fears, your loves, your hates. Originality is one of the holy grails of writing; there is a reason that plagiarism is among its high crimes and misdemeanours.

What almost all readers look for is authenticity. This is why you are precious. They do not want to read some concocted soup of shop-worn opinions and second-hand ideas. They want to hear you sing your song.

This is where the fear comes in, and is so damaging. The fear says you are not interesting enough, not worldly enough, not dazzling enough. Who are you, with your small life and your limited brain? You have not shot big game in Kenya like Hemingway, or travelled in ocean going liners with cabin trunks like Scott Fitzgerald, or walked to Turkey like Paddy Leigh Fermor. You did not spend time with the aboriginals like Bruce Chatwin or consort with statesman like Gore Vidal, or be a statesman like Disraeli, although of course he was a better prime minister than writer.

So the temptation is to try and pretend to be something you are not. Because the fear is telling you that your puny self is to be dismissed, you may want to try on some bogus literary persona, to sound a bit more like your heroes. The moment you do this, you are lost. Readers are oddly forgiving. They will forgive workaday prose, if the story is good enough, which is why people read and love John Grisham or Alexander McCall Smith. Neither of those writers does anything interesting with language, but they can tell a hopping yarn.

On the other hand, if the language is like poetry, they will forgive the fact that nothing much happens, which is why they love Mrs Woolf. Hemingway once wrote an entire book in which the central event was a woman having her hair cut. It was published posthumously in 1986. I remember reading it at university, and it was so extraordinary that I finished it in one sitting.

The one thing that readers will not forgive is fakery. They can sense, almost like bats, when a writer is trying to be someone other than herself. If you do this, your writing will never ring true on the page. This is why the central need in a writer is the courage to be yourself. It does not matter how small your life is; most good writing is about the human heart, and you have one of those. Mine it. Remember that Jane Austen never went anywhere, hardly saw anything in her young, short life, was confined by the strict social mores of her age, when it was men who got to go out and do stuff. Yet she wrote three of the greatest novels in the English language. She once said that she painted in miniature, on ivory.

There is a second point to do with this matter of fear and authenticity. It is voice. There is a tremendous tendency in beginners to think that there is some kind of prescribed literary tone. You must use long words and flowing periods. You must be a Writer with a capital W. Look at me, you are saying: I know what antediluvian and gibbous and inchoate mean. I am not just writing, I am Writing.

This comes from the terror of being found out. The fear is that people will realise you are just a regular human like them, not some big literary titan up in a pantheon somewhere. It, too, will murder your writing stone dead.

Orwell once said one of the best things ever about good prose. He said: do not write anything that you would not say in ordinary conversation.

I tend to put it in a slightly different and less interesting way. I say: never use a long word where a short one would do. House is better than residence; car is better than vehicle; story is better than narrative. It is why Hemingway used the word nice because he meant to. (In the same way, short sentences are better than long ones; short paragraphs are better than long, rambling ones, especially now, in the age of the internet.)

This short word long word thing sounds very bare and small. It is not one of the great ideas of the world. But it is absolutely central to being a good writer. It is about being true to yourself and not falling into the pretention trap and not trying to be something you are not. It is about not being afraid. Never forget the power of the simple, declarative sentence.

It is also about trusting the reader. You neither have to impress your readers, nor spell every last damn thing out for them. Let them read between the lines; they are grown-ups, they can do it. You are not trying to dazzle them into submission; you are trying to tell them a story. You are trying to divert and entertain. You are trying to tell truths, however small. You are trying, I think, I hope, to touch the human heart.

So: be yourself, trust yourself, learn to hear your own voice. If you do that, you cannot go far wrong.

At the same time, do not think this means you have to limit yourself. You can be bold. You can play with the language, with the form, with the genre. (My friend The Man of Letters says that a day spent without Playing with the Form is a day wasted.) The paradox is that if you keep it simple, you actually have more opportunities for bashing away at the boundaries, not less. If you are permanently self-conscious, trying to do this twisted idea of high style that the fear tells you about, then all your mental energy is used up in this charade. You have no room for being playful, for experimenting, for letting yourself rip. Be your own lovely, true, flawed, frail, sweet self, and see where the music takes you.

Then go back and do a really, really strict second draft.


And the Pigeon says: Bugger them all if they can’t take a joke:

6 July 1


  1. Perfect! Thank you again for sharing your knowledge with us. And for that wonderful face to end with x

  2. what a brilliant piece thank you thank you x

  3. What a message: simple, honest and complete. Thank you.

  4. Free fall.
    How scary and exciting at the same time.
    Thank you, Tania!


  5. Sorry, Tania!
    That "free fall" comment is from me. I seemed to have been signed on to my sister's "blogger" account.


    appropriate wv: syllyies

  6. Enjoying the course very much - especially yesterday when I went home and wrote "from the heart" - I think it may be the first chapter of my book. I could not sleep last night for thinking of what I was going to write today and what I was going to add to what I'd already written. Thanks for making my life more meaningful and fulfilling and the workshop is just great. Fiona


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