T.S. Eliot’s letter of advice to a sixteen year old aspiring writer

“Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one,” literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his fifteen-year old daughter in 1936. Sixteen years later, an aspiring young author, born in that year, called Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot – by that point one of the most famous writers in the world – in search of advice and guidance. The sixteen year old asked the poet who masterminded The Wasteland whether he could answer questions about the creative process, and – since nobody just “becomes” a writer – how he himself developed his poetic sensibilities and skills.

While Eliot was not known for responding to fan letters, something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His warm, wry response, full of writerly wisdom, may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet — a lovely and perhaps sadly forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Eliot’s response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.

Four years after he received the Nobel prize for literature, Eliot writes to the young writer:

Dear Miss Alice Quinn,

I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter.

[…]

I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.

My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.”

At one point in the letter, Eliot reflects on an accusation and criticism levied against the poet – that his work is elitist and exclusive. On this question, he reflects:

“I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.”

He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:

“One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics […] that is the right beginning.

I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.

With best wishes,

T.S. Eliot”

Complement T.S. Eliot’s timeless wisdom with some of our collected writing tips; for writers, from writers.

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Politics of the Asylum

politics of asylumA new novel from award-winning poet, Adam Steiner, looks set to cast a shattering light upon the internal chaos currently ripping through the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).

Inspired by the author’s own experience working in the NHS, Politics of the Asylum is a nightmare vision of working and surviving in a modern healthcare system – and one man’s compelling and gripping battle to maintain his own sanity.

A blurb for the new novel reads:

Nathan Finewax is a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart, working on a ward where staff cheat/lie/steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care and every day the same mistakes are repeated. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself.

Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu is eagerly anticipating the opportunity to read Steiner’s new book, saying:

“At a time when the NHS seems destined to continually move from crisis to crisis, under the steerage of a catastrophic conservative government, we need books that challenge the government’s narrative that privatisation and cuts in funding can do anything other than destroy one of the UK’s greatest institutions.”

“As we said during our ‘Haikus for the NHS‘ poetry project last year, poetry and fiction – writing itself – are crucial tools in the battle to save the NHS and maintain a service that was designed by the people; for the people. Steiner’s novel looks like another vital weapon we can use in our fight against prevailing neoliberal ideologies and ideologues, and we here at Nothing in the Rulebook can’t wait to read it.”

Politics of the Asylum is published by Urbane Publications

Coming back for seconds

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What happens when you realise you may have written the “wrong” first draft of your novel? 

Here’s the thing about writing a novel: once you’ve done it, you think you can do it again. It won’t be easy, of course, but it will be easier. You now understand the skeleton of a novel. You have already answered ‘but good god, how does it all come together?’ in your moments of bright panic. You’ve done it. You’re out – on the other side.

So when I sat down to write my second novel, I was clear that I would be experimental. I understood how the novel worked, and now wanted to push boundaries with language and style. I spent two years working on the first draft. I did my research, including visiting the personal library of the Maharana of Udaipur and reading some incredible books, developed a complex plot and wove synaesthesia into the voice.

“A well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess”

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“My novel’s skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck”

And when I was done, I found I had done everything I set out to do: good language and great research. Except, you know, my skeleton had its skull on its knee, an arm curving out of its ribcage like a hook and a leg growing up from its neck, bony toes wriggling in the air. It was a well-written, philosophical, carefully structured mess.

They talk a lot about first drafts in creative writing classes. Or blogs. Or Twitter. With good reason, I suppose. Getting your first draft out is difficult and the fear of not being perfect paralyses most writers. A first draft is hope. It tells you: this idea has a life beyond your mind or that this idea can find a home in language. It says: you can do it.

And it’s not lying. But very few people talk about the wrong first draft. The draft that is born but is dead. The draft that has the idea you think is the centre of your novel, but is nothing but a decoy. No one tells you about the novel that should be perfect, cherub cheeks and curly brown hair, but who is laughing at you from behind a tree – mischievous and mocking – because you’ve got it wrong, very wrong, and you can’t see it.

Emergency surgery

Because no one told me about the wrong first draft (or maybe because I was too attached to see it), I decided that what my perfect mess needed was a surgeon. Leg rising out of the neck? No problem – give it some surgery. Knee on skull? No problem – just remove it and put in the right place. An arm out of a ribcage can actually be quite useful, a bit like an elephant’s trunk but lower… It’s fine. It’s all there. Of course it’s all there. It’s the first draft, isn’t it? Rewriting is hard work, but it is re-writing; you work with what’s there. So that’s what I did. I sat down and performed surgery.

Except the more I cut and arranged, the more everything fell apart. Sections didn’t want to be moved up. Characters weren’t happy with debuting later in the story. Perfectly good conflict scenes crumbled on themselves when removed from what came before and after – in protest, I am convinced. The harder I tried, the more it became apparent that I wasn’t operating on a skeletal structure at all. The bones turned to mush when removed from their original positions and then into dust. My mess didn’t want to be perfected; it could only exist as the mess.

On the 52nd attempt to write the novel’s first paragraph, I gave up.

“Like being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook” 

I wish I could I could tell you this was a peaceful letting go – like releasing your pet sparrow into the wild or some similar poetic image that comes to mind. It wasn’t. It was falling down a cliff face because you’ve lost your grip. Being punched in the face because you didn’t see that left hook, blood gathering in your mouth and the world turning black. Curling up on your bed in a foetal position because you don’t want to uncurl anymore – because you’re not sure you even could.

And it was there – falling, blacked-out on the mat, in that foetal position – that I had to accept I knew nothing at all. I had learnt a whole collection of lessons from the first book and none of them were applicable for this one. I had learnt a collection of lessons in writing this first draft – and none of them were applicable for fixing it. I was lost and I didn’t know how to find my way. I didn’t even know where I wanted to go.

The rescue

I was rescued on a flight back from Delhi. It was on Diwali, so the plane was near empty, which is the closest I have come to experiencing a private jet. I drank rum, played sad Andrea Bocelli songs and accepted that this couldn’t go on; I couldn’t come close to tears every time someone asked so, how’s the writing going? I had to tell my publisher the book was unfeasible.

And, like a moody lover who has realised their playing-hard-to-get may lead to them being abandoned, the writing came. Whole paragraphs wrote themselves in my mind, then whole pages, then the story. It wasn’t the novel, of course; writing is still a moody lover, even when it is giving. But it was a new work and it was alive. I didn’t care about skeletons anymore. I didn’t think, where does this leg go or is this arm functioning? I went straight to creating the heart.

I want to be clear: writing is incredibly hard work. Even with moments like these, there is still structuring, planning, moments of heart-breaking doubt and pruning the whole. But this time it was different. I wasn’t writing for the novel’s structure, I wasn’t looking at how plot unfolded, I wasn’t thinking about story. I kept my eyes on the landscape of feeling beneath the book, the nebulous thing that quivers under the surface of the words, and I listened. I looked at the text, actually looked, and went where it wanted to go. I let it become, even if it wanted to become a mess.

Two months later and the draft is done. It’s a first draft like they always talk about – it’s all there, but will need more work. But it lives.

Hope

And somewhere in those two months, this second novel I’ve been talking about, this second draft that broke me, arrived as well. I woke up to find the first paragraph in my mind, along with the story’s shape and heart. A character was sitting on the edge of my bed and staring at me admonishingly. She was a side character – but, apparently, she wasn’t. She was the book.

So, technically – and I’m aware I contradicting myself but writing is a hard business, okay? – it was all there in the first draft. It was just the wrong story. The real story was sitting behind my choice of voice, perspective and plot, waiting for me to pay attention. I should say that I don’t actually begin this rewrite for a couple of months. So I may be wrong and this book may slip through my fingers again. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.

But in those ‘maybes’, there is hope.

About the author

dRcLjbx7Tashan Mehta is a novelist based in Mumbai. Above all, her interest lies in form: the shape of a letter, the construction of a sentence, the meeting and parting of two plot threads, or the novel as a whole as it tries to capture and tack onto the mindscape. Or how it fails.

Her debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, has been published by Juggernaut Books in 2017. She is currently working on the second. She was part of the 2015 Sangam House Writers’ Residency and studied at the universities of Warwick and Cambridge, an education that allowed her to prise open and play with language. It also gave her an abiding love for tea.