How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors
Edited by Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann
Rizzoli International £19.95, 192 pages
The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing
By David Morley Cambridge University Press £14.99, 290 pages
FT bookshop price: £11.99
A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist
By Louise Doughty
Pocket Books £7.99, 272 pages
FT bookshop price: £6.39
Your Writing Coach: From Concept to Character, from Pitch to Publication
By Jurgen Wolff
Nicholas Brearly £9.99, 280 pages
FT bookshop price: £7.99
NW15: The Anthology of New Writing
Edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Maggie Gee
Granta Books £9.99, 320 pages
FT bookshop price: £7.99
How do writers write? Can they be taught to do it? The answers to the first question are almost as many as there are writers. Some need a view to look at. A.M. Homes, for example, says she can’t manage without being able to see a tree. To others, it’s necessary to face a wall. A few like to have music playing, more require silence. (Nicholson Baker buys earplugs in packs of 200 off the web.) Talismanic objects may help – tin soldiers (Javier Marias), glass paperweights and bits of rock (A.S. Byatt). Joyce Carol Oates admits to looking at a portrait of herself. Superstition and solipsism apart, there are more practical methods and motivations. A.L. Kennedy takes a notebook everywhere, Alain de Botton needs a big desk. Tibor Fischer says that his main impetus can be summarised in one word: money.
These nostrums come from How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors. No one in this handsomely illustrated volume says much about readers, but a real or imagined audience is as important to most authors as anything else, not least to discourage them from writing nonsense. If Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann, who put the collection together, had been thinking hard enough about you and me, they might have changed the word “secret” in their title.
But while nothing can be secret once it is published, it’s true that the word has another meaning, to do with a knack or trick that can be imparted, as in the “secret” of someone’s success. Which is where teaching may or may not come in. Courses in writing, along with how-to books about it, have grown hugely in number in recent decades. But are there any secrets to writing, in the sense of tips that can be passed on?
In some respects writing is no different from any other human activity: cooking, for example, violin-playing, gardening or tennis. Given aptitude, anyone will benefit from the advice of a skilled practitioner, inspired motivator or bullying expert – not to mention an appreciative audience. Given a lot of aptitude and also a degree of obsession which, as Hanif Kureishi says here, is crucial to artists, outside help can sometimes be dispensed with. Even the most brilliant autodidacts, the naturals, often turn out to have had a guru of some kind along the way. But then there are those who have absolutely no aptitude. “Creativity”, it’s often claimed, is something we all have. If only. The fact is, some people just can’t write, just as some are tone deaf and some hopeless at catching a ball. For them, for us, no teacher will ever do any good.
The absolutely untalented, though, are not much more common than those at the other end of the spectrum. Most are somewhere in between: teachable. Yet there’s a strong prejudice that writing can’t be taught. People who send their children on a music summer school while they themselves spend a week being taught water-skiing, will confidently assert that “creative writing” is bogus. It may be the adjective that puts them off. Used in almost any situation from juggling “creatively” with accounts or arguments to pressing a few keys on a computer to “create” a file, the word and its cognates seem strangely suspect in connection with the arts. No one talks about “creative music” – and “creative sculpture” or “creative painting” would be a tautology. “Creative writing” isn’t, in fact, a new way of distinguishing artistic, imaginative dimensions of the activity from more practical ones. Still, there’s something pretentious about it.
Leave out the adjective, though, and you have to deal with some little-remembered facts. As The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing reminds us, writing, like reading, has always been central to the western educational curriculum. From ancient times until the renaissance (and in Scotland for much longer) it was called rhetoric. In British schools, by analogy with other curricular subjects such as Latin and French, it became known as “English”. English lessons involved, among other things, composition, tests of comprehension and exercises in precis. All of these were and are valuable to the writer – though how valuable depended, as with any teaching, on the qualities of the teacher. If you were told, as many children were, not only to write a composition entitled “My Holidays”, but to draft a story which began or ended with a given sentence, or a poem rhyming ababcc, you were being taught to write.
Yet the general assumption has always been that writers are born, not made. Asked what made a poet of Wilfred Owen, many readers would claim that the sheer force of his terrible experiences somehow poured through his nervous system and on to the page as if he was a medium or a lightning conductor. Owen encouraged this Romantic view of creative genius. “The poetry”, he famously wrote, “is in the pity.” But the poetry is also in the poetry: for example, in the experiments with half-rhyme which he shared with more skilled contemporaries such as Edward Thomas and Robert Frost – experiments they worked on and practised like musicians playing scales.
The sheer hard work of writing, as of any art, is what gets talked about least. In the post-Warhol age of celebrity worship – a phenomenon which the current buzz about creativity is arguably part of – people tend to be more interested in whether writers talk to themselves when they’re inventing dialogue, as Jonathan Franzen does, or whether, as Neil LaBute claims, all he needs to get him going is a Sinatra album, than in being told that writing can be the most lonely and labour intensive of all art forms. Yet no work of art takes longer to produce than a novel.
Part of the point of Louise Doughty’s title A Novel in a Year is that it’s a challenge. Most novels are written over a much longer period, yet few of those who believe they “have a novel in them” seem prepared for the sheer job of writing, its dailiness.
This is one of the areas where handbooks such as Doughty’s, or Jurgen Wolff’s more media-focused Your Writing Coach, can be helpful. Wolff’s book – his fifth of its kind – is partly self-help-psychological: how to maintain your confidence, motivation and energy, how to manage your time. He’s full of encouraging examples, including some which ought to be discouraging but aren’t, such as how long it took J.K. Rowling to find a publisher and the fact that even when she got one, she was told she would never make any money out of writing for children. Most of Wolff’s book, though, consists of practical tips, many of them more far-reaching than they seem at first glance. The Commandments of Elmore Leonard, for example, quoted here, conclude: “10. Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” Wolff suggests a number of ways of getting the imagination going, such as his “what if ... ?” exercise. And he is commonsensical on matters such as whether it’s all right to send out multiple submissions and what agents charge.
Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year started life as a newspaper column combined with a website, and deals with issues raised by its readers and by the writing they submitted. Doughty favours a more experience-based approach than Wolff – she recommends spending a day in court, for example, or a trip in a helicopter. And her exercises are progressively more difficult and subtle – she moves from directly describing an accident one has experienced to using such a situation in a metaphorical way.
As in Wolff’s book, many of the most memorable bits are quotations from successful authors, such as Kingsley Amis’s maxim: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” The fact that such advice stands out suggests that even in so crowded a publishing market there may be room for another anthology-cum-commonplace book about writing. One item to include would be a thought-provoking essay by Julian Barnes published in a collection of new writing, NW15, edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Maggie Gee. The piece is about characterisation: in particular, how to handle factual detail in historically based fiction, and the adjustments of scale this may involve according to how important a character is to the story. The examples are taken from Barnes’s brilliant Arthur & George but the points made, especially about “fictional facts”, can be generalised and are fascinating.
Looking at the details of a particular process of writing in this way is among the most useful experience a novice writer can have. Simple, practical, encouraging handbooks such as Doughty’s and Wolff’s can also be of use, though some readers may want the bar set higher. David Morley’s Cambridge Introduction should satisfy anyone more ambitious, not least because his approach is that of a poet: someone to whom finding the right words matters more than finding a niche market. I happen to work with Morley but it would be a false scruple to let that prevent me saying what will be self-evident to anyone else who reads this book: that it is about writing not as a hobby or even a job but as a vocation, an ideal, a passion, sometimes a torture.
Morley teaches writing and deals head-on with doubts about the value of such work – he quotes Flannery O’Connor: “I am often asked if universities stifle writers. My view is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” In particular, he faces down those who claim that writer-teachers inevitably become institutionalised. Truly creative people, he argues, change and dynamise institutional structures rather than succumbing to them. And he insists that good writing comes from, among other things, good reading: “If you are not interested in reading the work of other authors ... why should anybody be interested in reading you?”
There’s another side to this argument. Just as reading makes you a better writer, writing makes you a more discriminating reader – in the same way as learning to play an instrument, however badly, enhances your enjoyment of music. No one, of course, wants to be told this when they’re starting out, when their dream is to be Jacqueline du Pre or Martha Gellhorn. Artists can be difficult, self-important people and any attempt to teach them is likely to involve collisions with their desire to differentiate themselves and their work.
Writing begins where it ends – in solitude: the writer’s solitude before the reader’s. And what goes on in the head of the lonely writer is as likely to be competitive and exploitative as anything more sociable. If I had ambitions as an imaginative writer and had been given this crop of volumes by a well-meaning friend, one I would find especially helpful is NW15: a lively anthology of new fiction, poetry and articles by 50 or so writers, some well-established such as Doris Lessing and Robin Robertson, but many of them just getting going. What I could use would come partly from its range – the sense that here, and here, are things I might try. And then there are master-class items such as Barnes’s. The main thing, though, would be that a stimulating proportion of its contents might help me cultivate the belief-cum-delusion crucial to all art: “I can do it better.”
And that, in turn, might get me writing. Because, in the end, if you really want to write, you just have to do it. Reading a book about it may help – but it may also be a bit like sitting disconsolately on the edge of the pool with a book called How to Swim.
Jeremy Treglown is professor of English literature at Warwick university and author of ‘V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life’ (Pimlico)