Useful resources for the aspiring writer

the-writers-desk-debra-and-dave-vanderlaan

Typewriters at the ready, comrades. Here are some priceless resources to help you with your writing!

Filled with creative passion? Determined to make this year the year that you finally finish writing that novel you’ve been working on? We’re here to help. Can we write your novel for you? We would if only we could. Alas, that part is down to you; however, we can provide you with useful tools and resources that will help improve your writing process, and even the quality of the words you put to paper.

Just as a good handyman should have a box for his tools, so too should a good writer have at the ready those tools and resources that help him write. As such, we’ve compiled a list below of writing resources.

All power to your pens, comrades!

First things first – the site that plans your writing schedule

Is there such a thing as the perfect daily routine for writing? There’s certainly no one size fits all formula – you have to find the routine that suits you. But one thing all writers must do is (and this may sound obvious) to find the time to actually write. We work in myriad versions of uncomfortable hours and lead different lifestyles – but Pacemaker.press is a tool that helps you plan your writing schedule, and can make sure you stick to it. Check it out!

Keep track of your daily word counts 

While this article charts the daily word counts of famous authors, keep track of your own daily writing output using wordcounter – a website that not only counts words; but also features different tools that help users meet certain requirements for paragraphs, typing and reading speed, keyword density, and more. In other good news, the website does not collect fees from its users.

Get your vocabulary sorted: get your dictionary

David Foster Wallace claimed that all students of writing should carry a dictionary with them at all times. Save yourself an ounce of weight with OneLook.com, which helps you find, define, and translate words all at one site.

The site that analyses your writing for readability, syllables, word length and more

Introducing wordcounttools.com – the go-to-place to gain an analytical breakdown of your writing. Valuable insights to be found!

Writing tips from a creative writing lecturer

Julia Bell is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on creative writing. Here, she shares with us the top ten pieces of advice she gives her students at the start of each year. Whether you enjoy writing simply for the pleasure it gives you, or if you are looking to develop and improve, these top tips will set you on your way!

Get talking: subscribe to your friendly local subreddit

They don’t call Reddit the front page of the internet for nothing. But while its front page of cat GIFs and interesting and obscure facts is all very well, the real value of the site comes from the users who make its communities (‘subreddits’) great places to share thoughts, ideas, and your own work.

Try some of the best ones specifically curated for and by writers:

r/writing

r/KeepWriting

r/writers

r/writinginsights

General writing skills: Writer’s digest

Writer’s Digest offers information on writing better and getting published. The site also includes community forums, blogs and huge lists of resources for writers.

Avoid the grammar Nazis! A crash course in English punctuation and grammar

A quick and useful crash course in English punctuation.

Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty’s quick and dirty tips for better writing. Grammar Girl provides short, friendly tips to improve your writing. Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

Vital reading for all writers: The Elements of Style

A freely available online version of the book “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., the classic reference book. (Of course, you should also buy the hard copy, too!)

Get your reading hats on: free sites to download literature

While we of course advocate supporting your local independent book store – and independent publishing houses – and would urge you to purchase copies of your books where you can afford to, here you can find a collection of 55 websites where you can download tens of thousands of books, plays and texts for free. Oh, and these sites are also all completely legal, of course!

Further reading: A subscription to Brain Pickings

An inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more. If you’re seeking inspiration, you’ll find it here.

A  list of all the writing  competitions that you can submit your work to in the year ahead!

Now that you are armed with the resources you need to take your writing to the next level, consider getting your stories out there. Submit your work to these writing competitions taking place in the coming months.

An in-depth guide to publishing your own e-book

Fancy testing the waters of the publishing world yourself? Here’s a complete guide to creating an e-book, covering every single step from conception through to release and marketing. Self-publishing isn’t for everyone; but it is for some! If you are considering it, make sure you read this guide as a starting point.

And now for the big one: a site that contains the information of thousands of literary agents

You’ve got the schedule down. You’ve done the analytics of your writing. You’ve learned how to rewrite. You’ve done the extra curricular reading. Now, with your finished novel – get an agent!

Finally – advice on how to get one of these literary agents for yourself

Having the contact details of literary agents is all very well; but how do you actually go about getting one? Help reduce the risk of getting those morale-crushing rejection letters by following the sage advice of an author who has been there and done that, Charlotte Salter.

Advertisements

Self-doubt and the cure for procrastination

procrastinate

The well-known ailment of any artist, writer, illustrator, photographer, comedian, actor – anyone creatively inclined at all, in fact – is of course creative block. So often, this mental obstacle that seems to stifle our ability to think clearly about creative challenges is met with hours of another well-known symptom: procrastination.

Indeed, this symptom is increasingly common throughout the world – in office blocks and class rooms, in the student dormitories of undergraduates and post graduates not working on their theses or essays, and in our own homes, where chores are put off in favour of watching that latest episode of Catastrophe, or simply staring at a spot in the wall above the fireplace until you can’t tell whether you’re asleep, awake, or in some crazed semi-reality where everything is off-white and always out of focus.

These life-draining hours spent putting off new projects is often predicated on the illusion that tomorrow will contain more favourable – or even optimal – conditions for beginning it. And this theory itself is of course based on the clear untruth that there will ever be any perfect or optimal conditions for doing anything, anything at all.

Yet what so often happens when trying to begin a new creative project – or that novel you’ve been working on – is that the more we stall and procrastinate after the initial spark of inspiration, the more we stifle the force it fired within us, until eventually – tragically, inevitably – we douse it completely without catalysing a beginning at all.

Part of this may have to do with overthinking, which is an especially common form of procrastination. Picasso famously captured the error with thinking that art can begin with planning or a novel can begin with a thousand post-it notes when he said: “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

Another great artist articulates the psychological underpinnings of this tendency with an uncommon clarity and vulnerability. Eugene Delacroix’s journal provides us with a transcendental, moving meditation on procrastination and self-doubt.

delacroix self-portrait, 1837

Eugene Delacroix – Self Portrait, 1837

In an entry from April of 1824, two weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix writes:

“I’m always having excellent ideas, but instead of working on them while they are still fresh in my imagination, I keep telling myself that I will do them later on — but when? Then I forget about them, or worse still, can no longer see anything interesting in ideas that seemed certain to inspire me. The trouble is, that with a roving and impressionable mind like mine, one idea drives another out of my head quicker than the changing wind alters the direction of a windmill’s sails. And when I have a number of different ideas for subjects in mind at once, what am I to do? Am I to keep them in stock, so to speak, quietly waiting their turn? If I do that, no sudden inspiration will quicken them with the touch of Prometheus’s breath. Must I take them out of a drawer when I want to paint a picture? That would mean the death of genius.”

Delacroix’s solution to this is to turn to the classics as a clarifying force of inspiration:

“I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there. For really, what could be more stupid? How am I to choose between all the subjects I have remembered because they once seemed beautiful to me, now that I feel much the same about them all? The very fact that I am able to hesitate between two of them suggests lack of inspiration… What I must do to find a subject is to open some book capable of giving me inspiration, and then allow myself to be guided by my mood.”

Four days later, he returns to this topic, reasoning that at the heart of procrastination lies self-doubt – and the most effective cure for it is immediate action:

“I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me. And as for this ridiculous fear of doing things that are beneath my full powers…. No, this is the very root of the evil! This is the mistake which I must correct. Vain mortal, can nothing retrain you, neither your bad memory and feeble strength, nor your unsuitable mind that fights against ideas as soon as you receive them? Something at the back of your mind is always saying: “You who are withdrawn from eternity for so short a time, think how precious these moments are. Remember that your life must bring to you everything that other mortals extract from theirs.” But I know what I mean. I think that everyone who has ever lived must have been tortured by this idea to some degree.”

Procrastination is by no-means a modern phenomenon. No doubt Homer spent days picking sand from his toes after walking on the beaches of the Aegean rather than pen the Iliad. Shakespeare undoubtedly spent many weeks talking about how high the price of apples were rather than start working on Romeo and Juliet.  And it spares no-one: not the troubled French artist nor those writers we celebrate as geniuses: after all, Steinbeck reasoned, that to avoid procrastination, one simply had to get on with it: “One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all […] I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.”

delacroixfaust

One of Delacroix’s stunning illustrations in Goethe’s Faust.

Yet in our digital world, it is undoubtedly harder to concentrate, and procrastination is far easier to fuel when the means of distraction are all around. We know, for instance, that digital devices are disrupting our creative tendencies when all we really need is silence and – in fact – boredom.

To steady ourselves in a thrashing sea of distraction and procrastination, then, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix remains an invaluable source and reference book for all creatives struggling with creative block – and two centuries after it was first written. Not only does it provide readers with an invaluable record of the inner life of one of humanity’s greatest artists; but also serves as a timeless trove of insight into the universal afflictions (and their cures) which take the challenges of the creative life and turn them into art.

 

Productivity vs creativity: writing and the stock exchange

 

lead-to-creativity

How many of us have ushered the phrase ‘I work to live; not the other way around’, insisting that we believe this to be true even while we toil away at our desks for hours after hours? Apart from the general unpleasantness of finding ourselves caught in this corporate entrapment – which is entirely unnecessary, by the way – such soul sucking drains are also incredibly dangerous to our creative sensibilities, and our writing abilities. After all, we need silence, and boredom, and time to compose our thoughts and creative inclinations – none of which come easily in the hustling, hurly-burly world of the 24/7 post-fordist society.

How can we break free from such trappings? Well, fortunately we have an inspiring example set to us by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, who struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.

In 1906, Willa Cather left teaching and moved to New York City to join the most successful and prestigious periodical magazine of the era: McClure’s Magazine. Famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing spearheading, radical fiction writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, the magazine’s success had been driven not by artistic endeavour but by brutally ruthless corporate management, which saw journalism as business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today.

Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but after a mass staff walk out over employee discontentment with the magazine’s corporate ruthlessness, she found herself leading an intense investigative project, which became such a sensation that the magazine’s circulation exploded.

“Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me,” Cather wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.

Cather’s natural ability saw her excel at the role, and at first she noted being enticed by the trappings of being called an “executive”, as well as the gratifications of attractive pay. Yet she soon began to reflect that the relentless intensity of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, which she felt was blocking her from her true calling as a literary writer.

Yet despite her misgivings, she found she was unable to tear herself away from the role – for the same complex, conflicting and often contradictory reasons any of us stay in thankless jobs, or other situations that restrict, rather than expand, our creative spirit – that do not let our souls grow.

willacather_stamp

In a letter, Cather discerns that this is, in part, down to corporate manipulation on the part of her employers. She notes that McClure was able to shape the interior conditions of life within the publication’s offices, to keep his staff running on their corporatized hamster wheel; feeding their confidence to deliver greater productivity that suited his profit margins, and fuelling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. She writes:

“Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.”

 

Two years later, however, in 1908, everything changed. Cather received a remarkable letter from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. The letter contained what so many of us need in this situations: a simultaneous hard shake of the shoulders and warm embrace. Cather discovered it was precisely the kind of wake-up call she needed to emerge from her trance of corporate productivity and focus her creative energies on the task of writing.

Jewett wrote:

“Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.”

Cather replied quickly to Jewett, showcasing as she did a natural mastery of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:

“My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;

Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one’s habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls “men and measures.” If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it’s catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.”

At the heart of the friends’ exchange is the acute awareness of that bargain we strike between practicality and idealism; of our perceived conceptions of reality and our real, true hopes and dreams. It is the tradeoff between productivity and creativity. Cather continues in her reply to Jewett:

“Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.

[…]

[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.”

Cather’s awareness of this tradeoff is crucial to her realisation of the need for change. She remained restless at the thought of the sacrifice she was making in buying the model of “productivity and profit” as success at the success of soulful, creative satisfaction:

“The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It’s stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day’s work, but it’s all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can’t get things in fleeting glimpses and I can’t get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn’t stimulate me, it only wears me out.

Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it? It can’t be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men’s. It seems to spread one’s very brain cells apart so that they don’t touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one’s immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.”

Continuing this train of thought, Cather attempts to rationalise her decisions in the same way so many of us justify tolerating circumstances that don’t serve us in the grand scheme of happiness and lived experiences:

“I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.”

Shortly after penning these thoughts to paper, Cather began working on her first novel. Yet it took her another three years to finally leave McClure’s – by which point she was one of the most powerful women in journalism.

Once she had left the oppressive corporate regime, however, Cather never looked back. Her debut novel was published the same year she left her role, and received wide critical acclaim. She subsequently published another thirteen books over the course of three decades, earning Cather the Pulitzer Prize and establishing her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

So, how good is your day job?

 

Why we write

At one point or another, it seems as though nearly every significant writer in history has tried to address the question of why writers write. Some suggest the impulse to put pen to paper is down to a desire to better understand one’s own self; for others, it is the desire to understand the world, other human beings, reality. For some, writing is redemption. It is a means of freedom. Others, meanwhile, simply write for the fun of it.

Of course, there is – and never could be – a single answer to this question. Yet it nonetheless mesmerises us – partly, perhaps, as a piece of psychological voyeurism, as well as because it seems so hopeful and enticing a prospect that, by garnering a slight glimpse of the innermost drivers of great writers, maybe – just maybe – we might be able to replicate their workings and their motivation in our own work.

In this article, we attempt to highlight certain writers and their views on writing motivation.

George Orwell: Four universal motives of writing and creative work

George-Orwell-001

George Orwell: Photograph: Public Domain

Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write begins by detailing his less than idyllic childhood – absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness – and proposes that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing (full version here):

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Ray Bradbury: Writing is joy and celebration

ray-bradbury-zen

Bradbury’s remarkable keynote address at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea brims with an invaluable reflective view on why you should write. It’s a simple mantra, really, because it’s about fun:

“Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else. […] I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. ”

Watch the full address here:

William Faulkner: Man is so amazing and beautiful that the writer must put it down on paper

williamfaulkner

In May 1958, Faulkner read from his favourite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions from the audience. The surviving recording is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in the utter depth and richness of insight into the author’s views on writing and the project of art:

“You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

[…] I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes.”

Isabel Allende: Writing is an obsession

Isabel Allende - Register files

Isabel Allende – Register files

Celebrated Chilean American author Isabel Allende has famously spoken about writing “gave some sort of order to the chaos of life” after experiencing personal tragedy (her daughter, Paula, died in 1992). Indeed, she insists that storytelling is rooted in personal experience, and is, in so many ways, an obsession:

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.”

Susan Orlean: Writing feels like magic

susanorlean

New Yorker staff writer and journalist, Orlean, has previously noted that the first rule of writing is that “you have to simply love it, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.” Yet she goes further when reflecting on her own writing motivation:

“Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.”

Italo Calvino: writing is becoming part of a collective enterprise

calvino001

From his collection of letters (1941 – 1985), Calvino often addresses the motivation beneath his attempts at poetry, fiction – and even letter writing:

“Personally, I believe in fiction because the stories I like are those with a beginning and an end. I try to write them as they best come to me, depending on what I have to say. We are in a period when in literature and especially in fiction one can do anything, absolutely anything, and all styles and methods coexist. What the public (and also the critics) require are books (“open” novels) that are rich in substance, density, tension. […] One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.

[…] The fact is that I have always been more a writer of short stories than a novelist, and it is second nature to me to close — both in formal and conceptual terms — even a story that remains open; to condense into a short narrative space all the elements that give a sense of completion to the story. However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans — or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write — but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society. Trying to work out the directions in which these things are moving is very difficult; for that reason I feel more and more incapable of understanding what really is happening in a world which does nothing but prove each model wrong. “

Joy Williams: Writing is fumbling around in the light

joywilliams

In her beautiful essay, Uncanny Singing That Comes From Certain Husks, Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer’s mind.

“It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?

[…]

A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough. […] A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”

Writing tips from writers (Volume II)

Writer’s Block. It sounds like a fearsome condition, a creative blockage. The end of invention. But what is it, really?

Often, it’s created from conflicting, unhelpful desires – we want the writing to be perfect; but we also want the novel to be finished as quickly as possible. We want the words we write to be good; but can’t bear to put them down on the page in case they are bad. We like using semi-colons, because we’ve been to college; but we also love Kurt Vonnegut and we know how he feels about them, so we just use boring old commas instead.

Okay, so that last one isn’t the most difficult challenge to overcome in writing our magnum opuses; but it’s often these smaller, minute details that cause writers the most grief. You can be overcome by a fear that the precise way you’ve written a sentence isn’t quite right – and you grow frustrated as you try to change your story on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Surely, if every sentence and word and turn of phrase is constructed perfectly, the novel will take care of itself?

Such concerns are, of course, ultimately self-defeating. Because the only way to actually write something is to write it!

But then, perhaps the hardest part of writing is actually starting to write. Hemingway, after all, famously opined that the most frightening thing he had ever encountered was “A blank sheet of paper.”

So just how do you go about facing an empty page, coaxing your ideas into the world of form, and steering the end result toward shore? To help you cast off, we’ve compiled a list of #WritingTips – from writers; for writers.

 

Cherish feelings of inadequacy – Will Self

will-self-1420801432

“You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”

Stay drunk – Ray Bradbury
raybradbury

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

You need rules you can rely on – George Orwell

George Orwell at a typewriter

“One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Only tell stories you can tell – Neil Gaiman

 GaimanMilk_1_photo_Brady_Hall080713

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”

Allow yourself to lose track of your writing – John Steinbeck

 John Steinbeck

“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”

Cut out exclamation marks – F. Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

You need to have guts – Sylvia Plath

 Sylvia Plath

“Everything in life is writable is you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Find your writing signature – Raymond Carver

 raymond-carver

“Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

Protect your writing time and space – Zadie Smith

 Dress to impress … Zadie Smith's Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets has been nominated for the BBC's £15,

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” 

The importance of boredom in writing

everybody-should-sit-by-a-little-stream

When was the last time you were bored – or even just waiting alone by yourself for a spare moment – and didn’t instantly spring to bridge that feeling of boredom or fill that moment of waiting by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (or even LinkedIn if the boredom were really acute)? And how about the last time you were out for a meal with your partner, and didn’t reach for your smartphone the minute they left to use the bathroom?

What we are doing, when we do these things, is recoiling from the dull. But why? Why do we do this? Perhaps this desire to flee boredom and escape from it is created in our minds because boredom is intrinsically painful – we describe it, after all, in linguistical terms that imply this pain: ‘deadly dull’; ‘excruciatingly boring’; ‘bored to death’. And studies even suggest that people prefer painful experiences to being alone in a room with their own thoughts for fifteen minutes.

Our lives, however, are completely entwined with experiences of boredom. We can all recognize that feeling of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins; that mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that fiercely strong desire for action, for movement.

An ode to boredom: a force for good

Yet, although boredom is an intrinsic part of life for everyone; it needn’t be destructive – and it certainly needn’t be painful. In fact, there’s a growing consensus that boredom should be embraced – and that avoiding boredom is potentially far more destructive and dangerous.

Indeed, consider the words of British Philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Meanwhile, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

And in acquiescing to our fear of boredom, of sitting quietly and thinking hard about things for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become greater than we are: we deny ourselves the opportunity to better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Boredom is important, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us to grow – to better understand ourselves and the world. We can find new ways of thinking about life in those moments when boredom forces us to think about things other than the latest post about cats on Facebook.

On writing

Boredom, of course, is not just a ‘real life’ issue, which affects us intermittently depending on the flows of our lives. It is, instead, a very real part of the writing process. Writing is, after all, essentially the attempt to elucidate thoughts and ideas: the very things boredom helps us dwell upon and create.

It’s perhaps little coincidence so many inspiring thoughts are had in moments of quiet solitude – sitting beneath apple trees or relaxing in a bath. These are the moments in which we are able to think carefully about ideas and draw unexpected conclusions we are otherwise unable to in a world of constant stimulation – of music and television everywhere you go; of constant out-of-office emails and work patterns; of incessant digital background babbling.

Certainly, there seems a feeling among certain writers that boredom is essential for writing and creative thinking. For example, comedy writer Graham Linehan said, in a recent interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

It is the fear of boredom, and the ease of distraction from boredom – enabled by the internet and smartphones – that is dangerous to writing. Little wonder Kingsley Amis said “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” We have to be willing, as writers, to embrace boredom and resist that desire to flee its embrace.

The boredom paradox

One of the issues with suggesting that we need to embrace boredom in order to become creative and to think in new and unexpected ways, is that, once we start being creative and thinking in this way, we stop being bored. Very few people hit upon an idea that absolutely inspires them and are able to retain a detached distance from it in which conversations about their work proceed something along the lines of:

“So I’ve discovered the meaning of existence.”

“Oh, really? That’s incredible!”

“Yah. Yah, it’s okay I guess. I dunno. I guess it’s fine to be getting on with for the time being.”

In fact, in a way it perhaps seems strange that we recoil from boredom at all: because why would we fear the opportunity to be creative, to think stimulating thoughts and break down boundaries? Perhaps there’s something else here. Something deeper. That it is not boredom itself that we fear: but rather, the things we might discover in ourselves, within that boredom.

The late writer, David Foster Wallace, touched upon this in questioning why we held in ourselves “This terror of silence [when faced with] nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

It is that something else, perhaps, which truly frightens us. Because perhaps what we fear most is understanding who we actually are – or allowing ourselves to realise and acknowledge those things we spend so much time trying to ignore: that we are mortal, and never ever more than a breath away from death. That we are alone in a vast, spinning, and infinite world; that we exist in a universe in which we are totally and utterly and completely insignificant.

These thoughts truly are terrifying. I don’t know about you but I am literally screaming at the top of my lungs as I write this and think these thoughts, eyes wide and pupils dilated. But in all that terror, there’s also something deeply, intensely interesting.

In fact, in a way, it’s incredible, really, that we allow ourselves to become bored, anyway. After all, there is an infinite amount to be thought of; an infinite number of ideas to be had. We live in a universe full of wonders, so impossibly vast that we can’t comprehend it, even with our minds, which are themselves infinite and vast and go on forever.

What is to be done?

So what do we do, then, other than taking all our mobilephones, our laptops and computers and throwing them in the nearest ocean? Perhaps we could become hermits, and live alone by ourselves in perpetual solitude. Although I hear this is a dying trade and an industry in great decline.

Once again, Bertrand Russell offers the following thoughts: “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”

How about that, then. Perhaps we should just start talking a little more quietly. I know this can be difficult, especially in the digital age of ‘social media’ – which so often just seems to be an echo-chamber in which communities of like-minds write ALL IN CAPS as their empty theses, condensed into 140 characters, are lost in a cacophony of data and trending #hashtags.

Indeed, this is a problem of social media highlighted by Mark Fisher in his work, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? As he suggests the internet “facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each others’ assumptions and prejudices.”

If true, what this suggests is that rather than broadening our horizons, as is necessary to think deeply and hard about subjects and ideas – a crucial act in writing – we are instead simply shouting loudly over the top of other people saying the exact same thing. In such scenarios, a break away from technology; from these communities, can only be a good thing for our minds and our writing. So perhaps the first step in embracing boredom is to step away from that which tries so hard to distract us from being bored – the internet. Perhaps the first step is to turn off the power and start to think.

Coda

The greatest irony with all this, of course, is that I have written this post on my smartphone while waiting in a queue to watch The Minions movie, because I couldn’t bear to stand by myself doing nothing. Indeed, in writing this, then, am I myself escaping the reality of boredom? That necessary reality we must embrace in order to live a happy life? And here I was hoping those little yellow bastards would help distract me for 90 minutes from the ultimate reality that we are all slowly being drawn toward that sweet caress of death.

But wait, this isn’t just me, is it? You’re probably reading this on your iPhone, while sitting on the toilet, aren’t you? What are we to do?

Pfft. Everything’s just too meta these days. And too meta meta, as well. Meta2, if you will. Oh the humanity. I’m off to find a little stream where I can sit quietly and listen. You should too, if you want to, maybe.