Tag Archives: what do you need to be a writer

A Writer’s Carpetbag

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.

Photo Credit: clothalbatross via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: clothalbatross via Compfight cc

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.

The Inevitable Writer

At the weekend, I caught myself doing something that – I now realise – I’ve been doing all my life, without really appreciating its significance. It’s something that’s as natural to me as being, and it’s the reason why, I think, that I love to make up stuff that’s not true.

Photo Credit: pfv. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: pfv. via Compfight cc

I was in the company of one of my oldest friends on Saturday. He, his wife and their little girl were in attendance at a family event, and since it’s been some time since we’ve seen each other, we got talking. Inevitably, the conversation turned to work and what we were doing with our lives now, and he began to tell me about his professional life, his role at his workplace, and how he feels about his job.

As he spoke, my brain filled up with images – like I was watching a movie – and I saw my friend striding across an office landscape, making for a desk that turned out to be his, in a cubicle surrounded by several others, all of which were occupied. I saw him settling himself at his workstation, a photograph of his family beside his screen, and rolling up his sleeves as he got to work. It was as real as the surroundings we were sitting in; I felt like I was standing right behind his shoulder as he turned his computer on. However, all he was telling me was what he did for a living; he mentioned nothing about his work environment, what it looked like, whether he had colleagues in his immediate vicinity, whether he even worked in a cubicle – but my brain was busy filling in the gaps, nonetheless. I was fully engaged in listening to what he was saying, but another level of my mind was simultaneously telling his ‘story’.

It might sound strange, but it’s pretty much ‘all systems normal’ for me.

Whenever I am in a car, or a bus, or any vehicle really, I find myself being distracted by thinking about the houses and buildings that I’m passing. Who lives there? I ask. What are they like? What sort of house is it? I see buildings that, for whatever reason, will catch my imagination and I’ll let my mind’s eye flood with ideas about what would greet me if I walked up to the front door and opened it, what sort of hallway I’d see, the people I’d meet, the family dynamic they have. I am constantly burning with curiosity about the things I see – who built that? Why is this here? What was the point of that structure? – and sometimes I think it’s sad that I’m never going to see what it’s like inside the houses I’m passing, or meet the people who live in them and find out what their individual tales are. I wish I could see behind every door, peep through every window (not in a weird way, of course; simply out of curiosity! Don’t worry, neighbours – I don’t have telescopes trained on your domiciles right at this very moment MWAHAHAHAA… No, seriously, I don’t) and talk to the people I meet about their lives. But then I think that imagining these things, creating them for myself, is just as good. On an average bus journey, I’ve written a hundred stories in my head, all of which are ephemeral as dreams and which have faded away by the time I reach my destination – but the important thing is they existed, if only for a fleeting moment. It keeps my imagination-muscles primed and ready, and it lets my mind stretch, which means by the time it comes to actually creating stories I have plenty of brain-room to work with.

I think to be a writer you need a few things: an ability (nay, a compulsion) to work alone, on your own terms and entirely self-motivated; a strange mix of humility and utter delusion about your own ability; a comfortable chair; a supportive family; a background of reading; an ability to live on very little money, and – probably most importantly – a never-ending, insatiable curiosity about life, people, and stories, which will feed your imagination, which will then go on to create  worlds that seem better, in so many ways, than the reality you’re living in. So, daydreaming is a good thing. Time alone to think is a good thing. If you see someone’s eyes wander off while you’re talking to them, it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you’re boring; maybe it means that what you’re saying has grabbed their mind, and that they’re busily imagining everything you’re telling them.

It could mean you’re boring, of course. But let’s pretend otherwise, just for fun…