In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers. In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write. It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.
Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process. But I find it so difficult to write about! Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe. You just do it!”
OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing. But, basically, you just do it. And you can’t imagine life without it. Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it. I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.
I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch. But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary. I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers. By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.
Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since. I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component. My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar. I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!). But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else. Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.
Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content. Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role. For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.
I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to. Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels. I don’t want to write novels. I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel. It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it. What story could this object tell? How might it have felt to be in that place at that time? Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me. The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.
Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time. I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age. It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions. I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.
I can’t conceive of not writing. It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write. I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical. I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!). And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered. Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!
It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet. In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable. Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!