Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Count me among the Blockheads: N M Browne

Most years I supervise students doing MA dissertations in Creative Writing. I read their work in progress, meet with them individually to talk over what is working and what isn’t.  I make suggestions  and am always staggered by how much easier it is to have innovative plot ideas when the plot isn’t yours and you don’t have to write it. Ditto for world building. 
  Inevitably we often talk about how to work as a writer, by which I mean how to organise  writing time: the other part, the how to 'work' and make money is an altogether different question to which I don’t have a very useful answer. In all honesty I can’t tell students how to organise themselves with any confidence. I try not to be a hypocrite and I couldn’t organise my way out of my office as anyone who has visited it will testify. I do however try to encourage them to find out what works for them and to ignore all writing advice that doesn't. The harder job is to help motivate them through the bleak moments when their story loses its magic and all they have is the memory of the great idea that was going to make their fortune and a lot of printed pages destined for the recycling.  I assume we’ve all been there?  There are certainly times when I feel like I have upped sticks and settled there permanently on the Highway to Nowhere on the very cusp of Over the Hill. I know it isn’t a permanent abode only because I’ve done a midnight flit more than once. (Furthermore I don’t believe in allowing extended metaphors to become reality.)
 Students don’t always take notice of my genius plot ideas, nor do they necessarily accept all my more insightful remarks on sentence structure and point of view, my opinions on pace and peril, in short all the elements for which the university pays me. What they seem to care about most is my advice on getting through the bad bits, because only another writer really gets it. Only other writer understands the bleak sense of failure when nothing works.
I wish I could say I had a piece of advice that helped make them feel better every time. If I did I could probably abandon writing altogether and become a highly successful therapist to the creative classes, but I wouldn’t because I like writing. And in the end that is all I can tell my students. If you like writing it will be OK. If you like writing enough for its own sake you will return  to your draft even after a terrible day in which you delete two words for every one you write, even when you lose all faith in the story, your idea and your ability to write at all. If you love it you will find a way through eventually becauce whatever hole you have written yourself into you can write yourself out of. All it takes is a bit of belief that the story is worth the effort; all it takes is a bit of belief  that the effort itself  is worthwhile.  
In the end my writing advice is the same as my reading advice. I’m afraid I am a hedonist through and through. I don’t read to improve my mind or my morals, I read because I love it and I write from the same impulse.  For me that is what writing is about, the pleasure of making things up. Perhaps it is true that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’ as Dr Johnson would have it, but I am with the blockheads: I think one should write because you love it or not at all. 




14 comments:

JO said...

How can anyone write if they don't love it? Why put yourself through all the angst if not for those wonderful moments when everything - like magic - makes sense?

Jan Needle said...

always have your name on the cover of your book?

Lee said...

It's a lot more complicated than merely loving an activity -- whatever that may mean (and yes, we do have to think about what that actually means). I love playing chess but have never become good enough to enter a tournament, far less win one. I love cooking but will never be an Ottolenghi. Love may be part of the initial impulse, maybe even part of the ongoing process, but lots of other stuff keeps you going: habit (don't ever knock habit), stubbornness (damn right I'm going to show them), and probably much more.

Nicky said...

Actually writing is only about loving it. I'm not talking about publishing - many of my students will never publish anything. It is a creative endeavour like many others but if at root you don't love doing it - why would you bother? There is nothing intrinsically virtuous or necessary about writing.

Susan Price said...

I agree with a lot you say, Lee - specially about stubborness and showing them. But I think you have to love it too. You have to love inventing stories, figuring out characters, finding the right word - and, as Jo says, the sheer exhilaration when the words seem to be finding themselves and everything works. There's so much failure involved in 'the writing life' that only loving it more than anything else could carry you through. Same with an acting or music 'career' I suppose.
And I bet Dr Johnson loved it too.

Nick Green said...

Getting through the dry, dead, difficult bits. Oh yes. I made myself a mantra to try and cope with that.

Gold is found in stony ground.

I reckon that if the writing comes too easily, you're not digging deep enough. Sometimes.

Lydia Bennet said...

The love and the duff stuff go together, sometimes the admin and the promo activity we have to do these days gets in the way of the enjoyment though! I'm sure your students enjoy your sessions and I'm pleased to hear your office is a disorganised place, lecturers have become too businesslike these days - I remember some who were not only eccentric but drunk at times, ah the fun.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I think write for love, publish for money may be a better dictum than Dr Johnson's. But even though I do love what I do, I still find myself agreeing with Lee here. I suppose it depends on what love really means. The people I know who have made it as professional actors had love, but they had so much more. They had a dogged determination, a single mindedness that verged on obsession. Similarly, artist friends often don't seem to love what they do so much as to be completely driven to work on something to the exclusion of everything and everybody else. It doesn't always make them very happy, but then I don't suppose love does either!

Nicky said...


Oh to be good/successful/ published etc you have to have more than love there's no doubt, but if love isn't your starting point I'm not sure why anyone would bother.

Umberto Tosi said...

Call me a blockhead too. Once I was complaining to a non-writer friend about being stuck. She said: "You sound very frustrated. Have you thought of taking up something that's fun for you. Why do what makes you miserable?"
I answered: "You busted me. I hate it, but I really do love it!"
It all reminds me of the old joke about the nebbish at the tail end of a circus parade sweeping up the animal droppings.
Somebody shouts: "What a stinky job. You should find some other line of work."
The sweeper looks up and says: "What? And give up show business?!!!

Lee said...

I'm still not convinced that we need to love an endeavour to bother doing it. There are probably as many reasons for writing as there are writers -- well, maybe I'm exaggerating a tad -- but the desire/need to create seems to be just as crucial, and possibly even innate in human nature. And this need is not identical to love.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

Catherine, yes to obsession! I doubt that obsessive people necessarily love what they're doing. Certainly I don't -- or only so rarely that it hardly counts.

(Nicky, I'm not talking about publishing. Since I'm one of those people who give their stuff away for free, and plan always to do so, even self-publishing is useful but not of major concern to me. Of course, I'm only speaking for myself.)

30 April 2015 at 10:23 Delete

Nicky said...

Maybe our definition of love differs? I don't see it as uncomplicated or necessarily always a source of pleasure. Maybe some writers are just scratching an itch and they could just as easily be hand washing twenty times a day, but I doubt it. However I'll bear it in mind in case I do meet any.