|What to write? That is the question.|
I had a sudden insight today: one that has been creeping up on me for some time, but that only resolved itself into a firm conviction this morning. So I'm going to share it with you, although I'm uneasily aware that I may be offering you advice about NOT taking advice about writing.
Nevertheless, I've been at this game for longer than most of the people I know, so I'm going ahead anyway.
How to write.
To be clear, advice about writing itself, how to do it, can be good, bad and indifferent and you have to tread warily because all too often, you only manage to distinguish between them afterwards. I've had all three. But most of us would agree that a good editor is a pearl of great price, and you want to cling fast to her when you find her.
Sometimes the very best advice comes in the shortest form.
Here are three pieces of advice I was given by more mature writers, quite early on in my career.
All of them have stayed with me, because each one was, in its own way, invaluable.
1 Read a lot.
2 The only way to learn how to write is to write.
3 Stop watering your Dylan Thomas adjectives and watching them grow.
You'll find something very similar to the first two in one of the best books about writing I've ever read: Stephen King's On Writing, a short memoir with a bit of advice on the side. It doesn't matter whether you appreciate King or not, by the way. The advice is just as valid. The first should be self evident, but isn't. It constantly amazes me just how many people I meet who say that they 'want to be a writer' but go on to say that they 'don't read very much.'
Even more astonishing is the number of people I meet, sometimes on writing courses, who don't actually do any writing, even though they also assert that they would love to be a writer. It's the equivalent of me saying I would love to win the lottery, but it's never going to happen, not so much because it's a statistical long shot as because I never buy a ticket.
The Dylan Thomas adjectives remark was probably the best of the lot. It wasn't a wholesale 'remove all descriptive words' piece of nonsense - it was a good way of saying, 'Cultivate your garden. Weed things out a bit' and I've remembered it for ever.
What to write.
So what about that sudden insight?
It makes my heart sink to reflect on it, but I offer it here for your consideration. While a good deal of the advice about writing that I've been given over the years has been helpful, none of the advice about what to write has done me any good at all. Never. Ever. Not even once.
It didn't stop people offering it though. Do this, do that. This will sell, that will sell. Don't write this play. Write that play. Don't take up that offer, take up this offer. People don't want this, they want that. Write this book, or this or this. Can you do this? Can't you do that?
None of it - when followed - has ever worked. None of it has ever earned me money or success or fulfillment. In fact the very people who advised me to do this or that or the other thing have invariably changed their minds later on, leaving me stranded.
All of which tells me that my own instincts were right all along. The books and plays that have been most successful have been written because they were my personal obsession. It would have been better - or at the very least no worse - if I had always just got on with writing exactly what I passionately wanted to write. Which, oddly enough, was the piece of advice given to me many years ago by my first and best literary agent, sadly no longer around.
Only write something if you can't bear not to write it, she told me.
Which is exactly what I plan to do from now on.