Let’s imagine we have Mary Poppins’ carpetbag. It’s essentially endless, yet totally portable (and sports a snazzy, fashionable print). You can put anything you like into it, up to and including livestock – though it might be an idea not to weigh yourself down too much with excess.
We’re going to put into it all the things we need to be a writer.
First of all, you need a spark of something impossible. You know those perpetual motion machines that aren’t supposed to exist, in reality? Well, sometimes I think a writer’s self-belief is a bit like one of those machines. It feeds on nothing, gets no input from anywhere, is barely maintained, and yet manages to keep running. So – yes. The first thing in our writer’s carpetbag is: something impossible.
Then, you need courage. Not just the type of courage that lets you take risks, but the type that sees the value in daydreaming and the type that knows how important it is to tell stories and the type that’s not afraid to dive down into the darkest bits of life. You need the sort of courage that means when you end up in a locked room with a minotaur, you don’t go down without a fight. Put your courage in beside your impossible thing, and let them nestle together.
After that, you need enthusiasm. You need to be able to keep yourself enthused in the face of boredom, general disinterest, rejection and even downright hatred, and you need to be able to maintain your focus on what makes it all worthwhile – the words that you love. (I find getting the sort of enthusiasm that you can sprinkle is the most useful. So, sprinkle in a big generous handful over your courage and your impossible thing, and watch them sparkle).
Now, this next one is a bit hard to handle, so you’ve got to be careful. You also need sticking power, the sort of thing that keeps you plugging away even when it feels like there’s no point. You need something to stick your impossible thing, your courage and your enthusiasm together (and to keep them stuck, through everything), and which will also help you to stick yourself to your chair, your schedule, your commitment – whatever you need sticking to. You’ve got to take your time with sticking power, though, and make sure you pick it up and treat it properly, and store it correctly. It can get everywhere, sticking you to the wrong things, and it also tends to go off quickly. So, be aware of that.
You need love – of stories, of words, of books and bookselling and publishing and the whole world that revolves around writing. You need to keep this love even when it seems like things aren’t going your way. You need to never reach a point where you couldn’t be bothered to read, or take an interest in others’ success, or in developments in the world of publishing, because if you reach that point it’s hard to claw your way back. If you don’t find yourself thrilled every day by the promise of a new book to read, a new story, a new exciting tale from the world of publishing, a new success for someone, somewhere, who’s walking the same path as you, it’s time to work on building up your love again. (Note: it’s always easier not to lose it in the first place). You should place your love right at the middle of the writerly mixture we’ve been creating so far, because that’s the best place for it.
And you need patience. So much of it. You need patience as you draft, you need patience as you edit, you need patience as you submit and resubmit and resubmit, you need patience as you wait to hear back from agents, you need patience as you systematically cross names off your lists as the rejections pile up, you need patience as you focus on a new project while waiting for your inbox to ‘ping’, and you need patience as you wait for the ‘yes’ that will, with any luck, be yours. But then the need for patience really gets important. You need patience while you’re on submission. You need patience while your book deal is forming. You need patience, endless patience, when dealing with publishing at every level. You need patience, and you need not to confuse hopeful patience with hopeless dejection. Sometimes it can feel like the same thing, but it’s not. So, put your patience on top of everything else, tucking it in well at the edges, and it should serve to keep everything neat and well-contained.
And after all this? Well, you’ve got to pick up that carpetbag and bring it with you all the time. Luckily, it’ll be light and you’ll barely notice you’re carrying it – but it’s important never to forget it, because you never know just when you’re going to need it, and every scrap of what’s inside it. Carrying the bag is not a guarantee of success, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it can’t hurt.