I hesitate to put pen to paper here, to presume that I have anything interesting to say about writing, to add to that great teetering pile of samizdat photocopied articles, and online brain pickings, and social media-shared inspiring quotations, and all those big, various, serious books by writers keen to offer their big, various, serious insights into the writing process. To rephrase Rebecca Solnit, in Men Explain Things to Me (2014), writers explain things to me, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. And I really don’t want to be one of those people. I am keen, at all costs, to avoid authorsplaining – though I will fail, of course, to avoid authorsplaining. I’m an author: I’m no better than the rest of us.
The best piece of advice I can offer my fellow writers – indeed, the only piece of writing advice about which I can feel any real confidence in offering – is that in order to write, you have to write.
Like a lot of ‘How To’ writing advice – be yourself, read widely, do this, don’t do that, blah, blah, whatever – this of course seems entirely obvious and perhaps rather less than useful. But unlike most writing advice, it has the advantage of being demonstrably true.
In order to begin to write, most of us have to overcome a sense of inadequacy. One occasionally meets writers who are convinced of their own brilliance and prowess, but it’s much more common to meet people who have the skills and the inclinations and the ideas to write, but who also believe that they’re the wrong age, the wrong class, the wrong colour, in the wrong job, or just living the wrong sort of life to be able to do so.
In his book Learned Optimism (1990), the psychologist Martin Seligman argues that ‘A composer can have all the talent of Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing.’ He has a point. Certain kinds of self-belief can be dangerous and damaging, but if you’re going to write anything, you have to at least believe that you’re capable of writing something.
This is why a lot of writers keep notebooks and journals. Your musings and jottings may not be much, but they are something; they’re a start. They may even be more than a start: they may be the cure; they might be the answer. In her biography of Henry Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls identifies a particular day in November 1850 when Thoreau’s life completely changed, when he ‘stopped using his Journal as the means to the “real” work of art somewhere else and started treating the Journal itself as the work of art’. ‘I have learned what art really is’, writes Lydia Davis in her short story ‘Extracts from a life’, ‘Art is not in some far-off place.’
You are here. It’s as good a place as any to begin.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.