Here’s a good piece on why most advice from writing workshop leaders should be taken with caution. Caveat Emptor. And on how one’s learns best by deadlines. Even self-imposed deadlines like writing a blog post or two or three a day.
Forget those creative writing workshops. If you want to write, get threatened
And don’t ask me for advice. I’d prefer you to never achieve anything. Ever
One of the side-effects of having your work appear in a public forum such as this is that people often email me asking for advice on how to break into writing, presumably figuring that if a drooling gum-brain like me can scrape a living witlessly pawing at a keyboard, there’s hope for anyone.
I rarely respond; partly because there isn’t much advice I can give them (apart from “keep writing and someone might notice”), and partly because I suspect they’re actually seeking encouragement rather than practical guidance. And I’m a terrible cheerleader. I can’t egg you on. I just can’t. My heart’s not in it. To be brutally honest, I’d prefer you to never achieve anything, ever. What if you create a timeless work of art that benefits all humankind? I’m never going to do that – why should you have all the glory? It’s selfish of you to even try. Don’t you dare so much as start a blog. Seriously. Don’t.
Sometimes people go further, asking for advice on the writing process itself. Here I’m equally unhelpful. I’ve been writing for a living for around 15 years now and whatever method I practise remains a mystery. It’s random. Some days I’ll rapidly thump out an article in a steady daze, scarcely aware of my own breath. Other times it’s like slowly dragging individual letters of the alphabet from a mire of cold glue. The difference, I think, is the degree of self-awareness. When you’re consciously trying to write, the words just don’t come out. Every sentence is a creaking struggle, and staring out the window with a vague sense of desperation rapidly becomes a coping strategy. To function efficiently as a writer, 95% of your brain has to teleport off into nowhere, taking its neuroses with it, leaving the confident, playful 5% alone to operate the controls. To put it another way: words are like cockroaches; only once the lights are off do they feel free to scuttle around on the kitchen floor. I’m sure I could think of a more terrible analogy than that given another 100,000 years.
Anyway the trick (which I routinely fail to pull off) is to teleport yourself into that productive trance-state as quickly as possible, thereby minimising procrastination and maximising output. I’m insanely jealous of prolific writers, who must either murder their inner critic and float into a productive reverie with ease, or have been fortunate enough to be born with absolutely zero self-critical reflex to begin with.
As for me, I’m stuck in a loveless relationship with myself, the backseat driver who can’t stop tutting and nagging. There’s no escape from me’s relentless criticism. Me even knows what I’m thinking, and routinely has a pop at Me for that. “You’re worrying about your obsessive degree of self-criticism again,” whines Me. “How pathetically solipsistic.” And then it complains about its own bleating tone of voice and starts petulantly kicking the back of the seat, asking if we’re there yet.
Some days, when a deadline’s looming and my brain’s refusing to co-operate, I’m tempted to perform some kind of psychological cleansing ceremony. More than once I’ve wondered whether I should prepare for the writing process by wishing my inner critic inside a nearby object – a tennis ball, say – which I could then symbolically hurl out of the window before taking a seat at my desk.
It sounds like the kind of thing Paul McKenna would do. He’s massively successful and can probably levitate.
But before I can even get round to it, I’m plagued with doubts. How far should I throw it? How hard? If I toss 95% of my personality into the garden, do I have to go and retrieve it later? What if it actually works? What if I wind up utterly dependent, and need to perform this ritual every time I’m called upon to do anything – even something as simple as asking for change in a newsagent’s – and before long I’m zealously carting a trolley full of tennis balls everywhere I go, violently hurling one into the distance at the start of every sentence, breath, facial expression or bowel movement, and before I know it I’ve woken up screaming in my own filth in a hospital bed until the man comes in with the needle to make it all go away again? What if that happens?
Yes, what if? So the tennis ball remains untossed, and those typing fingers move unsurely and slowly until the deadline draws sufficiently near enough to become a palpable threat; a looming iceberg whose ominous proximity transforms whines of self-doubt into cries of abject panic. And eventually the page is filled.
So then. To everyone who has ever emailed to ask me for advice on writing, my answer is: get a deadline. That’s all you really need. Forget about luck. Don’t fret about talent. Just pay someone larger than you to kick your knees until they fold the wrong way if you don’t hand in 800 words by five o’clock. You’ll be amazed at what comes out.