Are you sitting comfortably? If you’re craning your neck forward like a dowager without her glasses, flexing your wrists and elbows like a mantis, or perching somewhere at an angle – don’t. You’re worth consideration. You’re managing someone who’s trying to write: be a good boss. Your body is designed for forest foraging, not hours of writing: if you’re not kind to it you’ll get all the chronic pain issues that most writers do, because our minds are elsewhere while our structures are contorted.
Work out whether you’re a standing, sitting, or recumbent writer and prepare accordingly. Do you need silence, would music help, is your light bright enough? Diminish any relevant keyboard’s risks of causing RSI, get a beverage and set an alarm for 60 minutes hence to give yourself a break. You don’t have to stop thinking, just wander about. Make another cuppa. If life interrupts you without asking – good, it may be saving your spine. While you’re feeding that child, catching that goat, extinguishing that fire, your next section can quietly unroll and ready itself to be written.
If you have prepared sufficiently this will happen. It’s our great secret – we don’t do this by ourselves. If your project is waking you up at 3am, if it feels irresistible, if you can answer any question on your character’s behalf with inhabited certainty, if you’re going glassy-eyed on social occasions, because you’ve just solved that niggling problem – woo-hoo – then you’re ready. Let the piece which came to you to be expressed assist you and take its first steps. If you couldn’t describe the essence of your piece in a few sentences to a child – ask yourself more questions about what you already know. Questions are scary – what if they have no answers? They’re not as scary as trying to write without adequate information.
So now you’ve opened the file, picked up the pen and you’re about to lay down, for example, that killer novel opening. To paraphrase Chekhov, you’re going to summon your reader.
Terrifying isn’t? I mean, dear lord, you could waste a year or more on this heap of crap and it still fail spectacularly. Suddenly you’re both petrified and really tired.
This is okay. You’re about to create something that will intrude on someone else’s mind. It’s appropriate to care about whether you’ll do this well. So take that care, put it somewhere safe and pull it out when you’re rewriting. You’ll need it then. We all get scared – our job matters, it contributes to the democratic project and makes people less alone. That should be scary, and also wonderful. When you’re sure of your material, this will mean that when you write you won’t be flying solo, your knowledge of your piece and your characters will genuinely assist and advise you. If you know enough to begin, take the leap of faith. Believe there is ground beneath your feet and there will be. That’s how this works. You’re accessing a fundamental human power. Enjoy.
This is the second in a new series of ‘How To...’ guides for writers, written in 2018/19 by A. L. Kennedy.
A. L. Kennedy was born in Dundee in 1965. She is the author of 17 books: 6 literary novels, 1 science fiction novel, 7 short story collections and 3 works of non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was twice included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.
Her prose is published in a number of languages. She has won awards including the 2007 Costa Book Award and the Austrian State Prize for International Literature. She is also a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV and film. She is an essayist and regularly reads her work on BBC radio. She occasionally writes and performs one-person shows. She writes for a number of UK and overseas publications and for The Guardian Online.