Recently I volunteered to teach creative writing at the local resource Centre. It’s a foundation course, designed to introduce the subject to people who have thought about writing but don’t know where to begin.
Of course, no sooner had I agreed to do this than I started to panic. How do I begin?
Two cups of tea and lot of staring at the visiting cats in my back garden later, here’s my exceedingly mixed-metaphoric guide to becoming a creative writer:
It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you do start
That’s easier said than done, of course. I remember when I began writing as a teenager; I knew I wanted to write, believed I had some talent, but what I didn’t know was what I should write about.
New writers are constantly being told ‘write what you know’, but what if you’re still too young to know much? What if you have no confidence in the things you do know? This is where I initially got stuck and it took me years to get beyond it. A good teacher would have steered me in the write… sorry, right direction, but all I had was one of those ‘Teach Yourself’ books. In this case, ‘Teach Yourself Creative Writing.’ Either I or the book was deficient because I couldn’t teach myself anything of worth. I did, however, learn enough to know I was going to find a way to write somehow.
If you are stuck at this point, or if my students are, I’d change the traditional advice to this:
Write what you love
If you’re just starting out and you love football, then write about football. If you love music, then write about that. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Only, for some reason, we tend to miss it. Perhaps we assume we must create ‘literature’ or some deeply introspective memoir. It’s good to have goals, the loftier the better, but you need to learn your trade before you can build castles. Think of writing what you love as playing with sandcastles. It’s fun, it teaches you the basics, and it helps build your confidence. Before you know it you’ll be moving whole mountains clear off the ground.
Some people start writing fan-fiction. This is how they learn to create characters, develop plots, use language. It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, only that the writer took pains to create a story and, we hope, learned something in the process.
If you write about something you already love, your writing will feel like an extension of that passion. This means you’re more likely to stick with it. The writing, I mean. If you’ve already fantasized about being the world’s next David Beckham, or touring with your band, then start there. Take your imagination out for a spin. You’ve no idea where you might end up.
It’s funny, but people don’t expect to sit down at a piano and play a concerto, unless they’ve had a great many lessons, and yet many figure they can churn out a best-selling novel without breaking a sweat. Are you kidding me?
That old chestnut ‘everyone has a book inside them’ is rubbish. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but there it is. The only way some people might have a book in them would be if they tore up a copy of The Old Man and the Sea and ate it.
Why is it people never say everyone has a symphony in them? Or a diptych?
Now, obviously, everyone has life experience and almost everyone has some tale to tell. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that their life, as they’ve lived it, can translate into a viable piece of fiction. The challenge is finding what aspect of that life contains the drama. “Where’s the beef?” as an old American fast-food ad used to ask.
The “beef”, in this instance, is what’s unique or interesting. And beef, on its own, isn’t a particularly exciting meal. You need chips, garlic bread, and a great salad to make it into a meal. Likewise, real life event that inspires the story needs some ‘fixin’s’ (as my American friends call them), too.
So how do you find your beef? (Steady.) Maybe you should Bridget Jones it.
Remember when Bridget was learning how to make introductions? “Introduce people with thoughtful details,” she’s told. Well, how would someone introduce you? Probably not with the words, “This is Mike. He’s a bit of a loser. Still lives in his parents’ basement and the only interesting thing about him is he has never done an interesting thing in his life.” No, they’d say, “This is Mike. He knows the words to all the songs in The Rocky Horror Show and he once arm-wrestled Charlie Sheen in a Dublin bathroom.” Who couldn’t make a story out of that?
Even with sad-sack-Mike, you’d want to know, wouldn’t you, why he’s such a loser? Is he agoraphobic? Pining for a secret lost love? Plotting world domination?
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is often a lot more interesting. Fiction is the ‘fixin’s’.
What is unique about your experience? Identify that and you can make a start. Just don’t sit there with your arms folded telling me you’ve got a story in you unless you’re prepared to work your socks off to turn it into fiction. Let’s face it, if it were that easy, everyone would write a book.
You have to decide up front how important writing is to you. If it’s just a casual hobby, that’s fine, there’s no shame in it. But be honest with yourself: You’re not going to produce an important piece of fiction if you just dabble from time to time. I know your mother told you this but I’m going to say it anyway: You only get as much out of any endeavour as you put in. So, choose. Choose now. Are you in or are you out?
In? Excellent. Then be prepared to put in the work. At least one page a day. That’s a paltry 250 words. You can do that. Every. Single. Day. More, if you can manage it. Just see how great those sandcastles are starting to look. You’ve started to add turrets and moats. You’re imagining the people who live there. Maybe it’s time to move on to something more challenging.
Explore the possibilities
Different people are drawn to different things. Yes, I’m in a deeply philosophical frame of mind today, friends. What I’m trying to say is some writers are natural poets. Others achieve their greatest success with the short story, or the novel. The thing is, you can’t know until you try.
The story decides how long it should be. It’s like Harry Potter’s sorting hat: it already knows in which house the tale belongs. There’s no point fighting it. A short story that’s filled with, er, filler, isn’t a novel, it’s just a very bad short story. And a short story with fifty characters and three subplots isn’t a short story, it’s a rubbish War and Peace in disguise.
Decide what story you want to tell and tell it. The time for worrying about length, format and publication comes much later. You’re still playing with sandcastles, remember? Very pretty, and pretty elaborate they may be, but they’re still sandcastles.
Also, remember, you’re still testing the waters which are undoubtedly lying adjacent to the sand. Just because this story is a short piece, doesn’t mean you’ll never write a novel. Just because you started with one format, it doesn’t mean you can’t explore others. In the past year I’ve written a novel, four short stories, several articles, a weekly blog, and a play. And you know what: they all taught me something new. Which brings me to:
It’s the Journey That Counts
Someone once said that most people don’t want to write, they want to have written. In other words, they want to write ‘The End’ and cash the cheque. Now, if you’ve written several drafts, polished your tale till it gleams, then by all means, write that immortal phrase, and start planning your next piece.
But if all you’ve written is one draft then… no. You’re not done yet.
Going back to our would-be concert pianist: do you think he’s ready to play the Opera House just because he’s learned how to read scales? OK, there’s Mozart but, guess what, Mozart was a genius. Are you a genius? Then stop arguing and knuckle down.
Writing isn’t about hurrying through a story as fast as you can, sending it to an editor, getting paid millions of pounds / dollars / euros (ha!) and retiring to the Bahamas. It’s an art form. That means hard work. Yes, I know Wordsworth sold us all a bill of goods when he waffled on about the poetic temperament and all that tripe. I plan on giving him a good talking-to when I meet him at the Pearly Gates (assuming Coleridge hasn’t already beaten the snot out of him), because writers have been suffering under a delusion ever since.
Writing is not some fancy-schmancy commune with the Great Spirit. It’s bloody hard work. Even the little stuff, like this blog, takes several hours of drafting, writing, and rewriting until I’m sure it’s as good as I can make it.
Take pride in your work. People you’ve never met will read your words and draw conclusions about you. It’s worth making the effort. Who who knows where it may take you and, in the meantime, enjoy the journey.
Serving your Apprenticeship
It takes time to master the basics. You won’t start out an expert, but if you work hard and if you keep trying then you can certainly get there. All of writing is an apprenticeship. Even the greats — the Becketts and the Austens and the Shakespeares — would say they were still learning. They were great because they understood writing is a process and that none of us will ever be a true master in our own eyes. That’s not depressing, it’s inspiring. It tells us that we’re all united in our quest to achieve something true.
Writers rule the world. Pass it on.