How to be Bad and How to Be Good
Part of all of us does not like writing, or rather does not like effort. We displace that dislike on to our circumstances or on to other people in an effort to throw responsibility elsewhere. Some writers make this a lifestyle, but it is hell for those around them, and their teachers. There are other choices, and effort becomes a lot easier and routine with practice. It ceases to feel like effort, and this allows you to go beyond yourself as a writer. You escape the banal traps of personality, and write beyond your intelligence.
How to be Good
Being good simply comes down to having routine and little rituals, and getting on with believing in your work. Begin by finding the place that best suits your writing, and make this your territory: ‘a room of your own’. It could be a garage, café, library, outhouse or the traditional study if you can afford such luxury. Work in that space, and reward yourself in doing so, in small ways. After a while, the mere act of going to that place will begin to trigger the routine of writing.
Find the times of day that best suit your writing process, but bear in mind that you will find this time changes as you get older: young night owls end up as middle-aged nine-to-fivers. Stick to this time, though, while it works. Again, find some small way of rewarding yourself for beginning work, and for putting in the time at the end. Practise this daily, until it becomes ingrained, and you miss it when you do not follow it.
Having worked in your space for a fixed amount of time it will be tempting to start taking breaks—ten-minute vacations from concentration (smokers are especially culpable)—but such breaks disturb and corrupt creative momentum. The novelist Ron Carlson puts it strikingly, ‘If you want to be a writer, stay in the room!’ I take it that you want a life, as well as a life as a writer. If you are not a Stay-in-the-Room-Writer, then your work will take very much longer, and you then have less time for life. One old trick of politicians and businesspeople is to snap the working day into two sections, separated by lunch and a catnap, allowing one to continue the second session with as heightened a concentration as the first. It yields two days from one. The enforced discipline (rather than a self-enforced one) is a strong attraction of creative writing courses in universities. They offer you a strict timetable for reading, writing and re-writing; weekly support and criticism; and they force you to stay in the metaphorical “room” of the course. You then take these enforcements into your own life.
Being good can mean simply reaching a word-count chosen beforehand. It is not the amount of time, but the kind of time and how you use it. Journalists pick up this habit as part of their job. Both Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene allowed themselves a relatively low daily word limit of writing. It is a pattern to imitate; it frees the rest of the day for experience and incubation. Many novelists and nonfiction writers set themselves targets. Writing The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin suffered a lack of discipline, so he set up stones in a small cairn on the sandwalk outside his study. Each stone represented a point Darwin wanted to make within a daily quota of writing. Each time he made a point, he knocked a stone from the cairn. Some writers find easy composition unnatural, but still force themselves forward. For the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, two lines of poetry a day represented a good effort. Gustave Flaubert often wrote thirty-five words. Given this constant daily accretion, you will find that books make themselves slowly and surely, like cairns, before your eyes.
Being good also means completing your task for the day, which you set the day before. Within your working day, try to complete a section of a novel or a piece of creative nonfiction, or take a poem through to its pre-final draft. Do not ask too much of yourself, but make practical targets and stick with them, and quit while you are ahead. Do not leave something uncompleted; it will call for you psychologically, goading you to finish. It is a good tip to complete some aspect of work, then think about what you aim to achieve the following day, even beginning the first lines or sentences of that new work. Go no further into it than as if you were unlocking the cage around it, but leaving the door still closed. You may now leave the next day’s work to escape by itself; and it will do so unconsciously. You will find it waiting at the end of your fingertips the next morning, having nudged the cage-door open. Writers often find it useful to warm up their minds at the beginning of a writing session by revising and rewriting the work they have completed the day previously. This form of self-reading reminds you of what you were doing, and where you might want to get to next.
Your regime need not be puritanical and punishing for this would have the opposite effect in the end. As you get more experienced, you should increase your word-count, and include a substantial amount of re-writing time to begin your working day. You should build in time for reading, for daydreaming, and for creating moments of receptive idleness. Dorothea Brande believed that reading immediately before writing was a bad idea, and that you should build in time for what she called ‘wordless recreation’. She does not mean that you stop reading as a writer. She means you should stop prevaricating, and leave yourself open for your own language to emerge.
How to be Bad
Being good requires a certain degree of ruthlessness, but the ruthlessness is directed at your own character, not at others. The error made by some writers is to exact silence and servility from those around them in order to affect routine and order. What they create may prove in the end to be good writing, but no writing is good enough to require other people to suffer for its creation. Also, any conniving of circumstances to bring about your downfall is your own creation, a kind of anti-creation and self-destructiveness.
Do not whine about self-inflicted wounds in your time and work. Write about them, if you must. The corollaries of any inertia on your part are that no writing will get finished, and what writing there is will suffer in quality because it has received insufficient time and attention. Without a routine, the times when writing seems “given” will decrease or become erratic as your fluency stutters from lack of practice, and submerged guilt.
As any such creative moment arrives, should your discipline have been lax, anxiety can lead to panic. Literary panic is an estranging emotion. Like literary envy, it has physiological effects on the body and mind, leading sometimes to immediate action or, more often, to a disabled sense of skill, hopelessness and helplessness. The self-made wound becomes septic. Leave it and it will fester, and bring disappointment down on you, as you grow older, blaming everybody else except yourself for your lack of progress (or even success).
This is what psychologists term a kind of “learned helplessness”, and it needs to be confronted and understood as an insidious self-enemy, as you would if it were an addiction (for in some ways, for some writers, failure, like acclaim, is addictive). You must fight yourself by staying in practice, and knowing that you have only yourself to blame if you do not succeed. At least you and those around you will know how hard you tried. At least you might write from that experience.