The Seven Writing Myths
Published on: 5 Awst 2013 Author: Anna McKerrow
A lot of my work at BookTrust is about encouraging people to start writing – both children and adults, and it's really rewarding and meaningful when you see people who didn't think they could write produce something great, and see their confidence increase.
I think if everyone believed in their creative abilities a bit more, the world would be a happier, more productive place.
There's a difference, however, between enjoying something and it making a creative difference to your life – like playing the tuba in your spare time – and deciding that thing is going to be your occupation, or that you're going to try and make money out of it (with writing, this is by no means a safe assumption). All of a sudden, it's about tuba playing/writing as work. Not that writing suddenly becomes less fun, but now you've started and got confident, you need to try and do it well.
I recently attended the Great Writing conference at Imperial College and spent a luxuriously intellectual day mulling creative writing from a university perspective – people who specialise in thinking about how to write well – and what writing well means. The schedule was varied, and I attended sessions as diverse as Flannery O'Connor's experience of the Iowa Writer's Workshop (I've often used her brilliant short story A Stroke of Good Fortune in writing workshops), the science of memory in relation to writing and reality TV and the construction of character - in which I learnt to look at Gok Wan in an entirely new and fascinating light.
One session I found particularly of interest was David Rain's presentation of his Seven Writing Myths. As a writer as well as a creative writing tutor when I'm not at BookTrust, I've certainly come across all of these at one time or another. In a sense, I think they're the continuing challenges of the craft of writing – spectres you may never completely vanquish, but also familiar ghosts that we must strive to master and tame, so that their haunting voices will not stop our pens altogether. Because that's what all of these myths are – illusory reasons for not writing.
So what are they?
1. The Myth of the Perfect Idea
I'm going to write a book. I'm just waiting for the big idea to hit me.
Perfect ideas don't happen in a vacuum, and fully formed perfect books/poems/stories/ideas for fictional documentaries don't just emerge out of the ether to someone who has never put pen to paper. They are far more likely to come when you are already writing. David used the common analogy that writing is like turning on a rusty tap. Initially all that comes out is muddy and spurty, but after the tap has run for a while, clear water comes out. Good ideas, new ideas, come when you are writing something else – when you are in the flow of writing.
You don't need a perfect idea to start writing. This would imply that stories/poems etc are perfectly formed at the beginning, too – it's far more common that whatever you are working on evolves over time. The important thing is to write. Anything. Just start.
2. The Myth of Perfect Preparation
Research is very appealing to a lot of writers. (Not me. I'm probably too far the other way. I dislike the restrictions of reality).
I've had a number of students who have been working on, say, a short story set in the Tudor period, and have got so preoccupied with researching the period that they've stopped writing the story, either because they ran out of time or because (more commonly) they got swamped with the sheer amount of historical detail and the worry that they had to get everything 'right' before starting.
David's comment was that without really clear requirements, research is a bottomless pit. Research is good, and necessary, but you have to know what you need to know before doing it, otherwise the Myth of Perfect Preparation will get you and – pfft, before you know it – no writing on the page. Write first, and research the specifics - what the popular skirt length was, or what bowls were made of - later. These are not things that are integral to your story.
3. The Myth of Perfect Writing Time
I would like to write more, but I just don't have the time.
I've said this before. Namely, when I was in my 20s and all I had was time to sit around and pontificate about life. This was also the period that I was least productive as a writer.
When I started teaching and students in my writing class didn't do any writing at home, I used to make sympathetic noises and say that yes, life was busy, wasn't it. But after a while I realised this approach wasn't helping anyone. Now, on day one I tell them that they have to write at home in the week, and that to really be successful with writing, they need to build the habit of writing regularly. Because, as David said, life is never going to get less busy. I use the analogy of the Olympics. You don't win gold by going on a run once a year.
Most writers have full time jobs, families, problems – everything that takes up time. But the most successful and productive writers I know make time to write, whether that means getting up every day at 4 or 5am before their working day, staying up late and resisting the TV, or whatever.
I was so desperate to write after my son was born, and all the opportunities for lying around thinking about what my great work might be had vanished, that I used any time I could get to write my novel – erratic naptimes and the precious hour in-between eating my dinner and going to bed. My husband looked at me like I was a crazy person, but I typed away furiously, making the most of that hour even though I was exhausted. It kept me sane. It made me feel like me in the sleep-deprived, worry-mad chaos of new motherhood. Restricted time also exploded the myth of inspiration for me – the idea that you wait to feel creative to start writing. I just wrote when I could, and it worked.
4. The Myth of the Perfect Writing Place
I'd love to write, but I don't have anywhere to do it.
Do you have a chair of some kind, or a bed, a writing implement and something to write on? Then you have your writing space.
Few writers have a perfect writing place – and we'd all imagine that as a different thing, but presumably some kind of oak panelled library/study, or an amazing view, or an extremely expensive ergonomic desk. I had a student in my class once who decorated her attic as a writing room. Lovely, but it didn't make any difference to her writing.
Stephen King, in On Writing, talks about how when he started as a writer he was doing it in extremely limited spare time, with a young family and two jobs (see point 3), and, one imagines, wherever in the house he could get an hour's peace. When he got to be very famous and was enjoying all the trappings of success (and, he admits, not writing his best stuff), his writing space became a palatial room with a huge antique desk. Later, when he stopped drinking and taking drugs, he worked on a smaller desk in the corner of the room. He realised that the writing was more important than the egotistic persona of the writer. The idea of being a writer versus actually being a writer.
Roald Dahl wrote in a cramped shed. Be comfortable, but don't think you need somewhere special to write. You don't.
5. The Myth of Perfect Attitude
David made the enlightening comparison of happiness to being in the mood to write, quoting Victor Frankel: 'You can't plan for happiness. It just happens'.
Similarly, waiting for the creative mood to float down upon you before writing is redundant. The creative mood, or whatever you want to call it, will happen, but it will happen when you are in the process of writing. As with running – the endorphins will kick in once you start, but it might hurt at first.
Don't wait to feel like writing. Just write.
6. The Myth of the Perfect Draft
David talked about the common misconception (in my view, among new writers and people who don't write at all) that a written work is written as it appears in finished form the first time – beginning, middle, end, perfect, straight from a creative genius.
Putting this kind of pressure on yourself as a writer is terrible, and will probably stop you writing altogether. The reality is that writers draft and redraft over and over again. Many, many times. Then they get some feedback. Then they rewrite again.
So don't feel like you have to write it perfectly the first time around. Diamonds have to be polished. They come out of the rock looking pretty boring.
7. The Myth of the Perfect Response
David quoted Truman Capote, saying 'After I've written something, all I want to hear is praise,'
Sadly, the writer's life is full of rejection. And waiting. And waiting for rejection. Once you get to the stage where you have written something and worked on it until it's the literary equivalent of the Hope Diamond, you'll want to send it to a magazine, or an agent, or a publisher. And then, the inevitable long wait (I am the most impatient person, possibly, on earth) for a response. If you get one at all.
Despite the fact that you love what you've written (hopefully), your dog loves it, and, in my case, my dad loves it (he's always very supportive), it's likely that whoever you send it to, at first, will not love it. You will not hear praise. It doesn't mean it's bad – I mean, it might be bad – but also it just really might not be right for them. Not the right genre, length, theme, feel, tone – or they might have stopped accepting submissions for now, or a hundred other reasons. And they will probably not contact you to tell you about why they don't like it. This is common practice.
Actually getting some feedback telling you what was wrong with your poem/story/autobiography etc is pretty close to a perfect response, because it means the person is interested enough to ask you to change it. And then, maybe, one day, you get a brief email saying 'Great stuff, love it, it'll come out next year,'
But that might not happen for a long time. Till then, if all you hear is a thunderous silence, or the polite flutter of thin rejection slips in thin envelopes, keep writing, and keep your eyes on the prize. You'll get there if you really want it, and if you work hard enough.
And in the meantime – live. You're not a writer with nothing to write about.