The Aladdin’s lamp of writing

“The stationers particularly fascinated [Adam]. He coveted the files, punches, staplers, erasers, coloured inks, and gadgets whose functions remained a teasing mystery, thinking that if only he could afford to equip himself with all this apparatus his [book] would write itself: he would be automated.”

David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down

Aladdin's lamp“Do you write on a computer, or with a pen and paper?” Invariably, someone at a writers’ festival or book signing will ask this. Sometimes the audience member will get caught up in the details. “If you use a pen, what kind is it? A humble biro or a designer fountain pen? Do you recommend a particular paper or notebook brand? Do you prefer the latest, sleekest digital tablet or a trusty old typewriter?”

Some published authors respond by sighing, some answer the question perfunctorily, others burble enthusiastically about their new gadget or favourite brand of pen. All recognise the real question behind it: “What is the magical device that will unlock my writing talent?”

The hunt for the perfect piece of kit or the right stationery can be a distraction. Everyone is looking for the Aladdin’s lamp of writing. Get your hands on it and the genie of inspiration will materialise before you. The fantasy is that with the right device in your hands, you’ll only have to take dictation while the genie narrates a complete manuscript. Alternatively, the genie will clap his hands and suddenly you’ll know how to fix all the problems you were having with pacing, narrative arc, voice and back-story.

When pressed for the secret of writing, published authors generally give the same advice. The advice boils down to two points:

  1. practise writing and rewriting — and repeat
  2. read widely, but with discernment.

Published authors disagree about the physical tools, timing and criteria (“be disciplined and have a routine”; “routine kills creativity”; “go to your desk every morning”; “be ready to write any time and place, be it the doctor’s waiting room or on the train”; “you must write 1,000 words a day”; “it’s about quality, not word count”; “don’t wait for inspiration; you must write daily”; “complete a first draft before you rewrite’’; “never start the day with a blank page; start by rewriting yesterday’s work”), but they are consistent about the essential point: writers must practise, then practise some more.

In other words, writing well isn’t really about gadgets, word count or where and when you do it. It’s about perseverance, patience and courage. You have to be willing to analyse what’s not working in your piece and try again. You have to examine other writers’ work and figure out how they brought all the puzzle-pieces together. It reminds me of my days as a language teacher: the students who eventually achieved competence were the ones who made mistakes and kept on trying. The students who wouldn’t speak until they were confident of perfection … spoke very little indeed.

There are an alarming number of books on how to write and variations on this theme (how to write a novel, how to write a memoir, how to master story and plot, how to write the perfect proposal, how to get published, etc.). I’ve found some of them helpful and encouraging — and am happy to share some titles and reviews with you — but I’ve come to acknowledge that finding and reading these books can become a form of procrastination, a terrified search for a solution that can only come from me: I have to practise. Reading about writing and talking about writing is not writing.

Similarly, researching my historical novel can be both a source of inspiration and distraction. Ooh! I’ve just had an idea. If I wrote in longhand with a nib pen and inkwell, would it help me inhabit the mind of a man living at the slower pace of Victorian times? Would it help me capture his voice? Perhaps if I buy the pen today …

No matter how much time I devote to my day job and other responsibilities, I always carve out some time to read, but I’m not as good at defending my writing time. Nor am I always courageous enough to approach the keyboard and risk disappointing myself. When I remember the pleasure of being absorbed in the act of writing, I know that I can take that risk again. At moments like that, I don’t need Aladdin’s lamp.

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