1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts
I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.
There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.
After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.
And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.
2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom
Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.
It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’
Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?
3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…
As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).
In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.
But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.
4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller
Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.
All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the story.
5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.
This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)
To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.
This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.
© 2014 Tish Farrell
Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.