The Best Advice I’ve Ever Received

You're a writer already. Relax and remember that.

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At birth, we become writers. The moment our lungs fill with air, we gain an idea of desire, which is plot in its simplest form. Someone wants something. That’s a story. And of course, along with our story we crave an audience to hear and respond to us. In a year or so we have some rudimentary idea of sentence structure, and then we’re unstoppable. Invention is easy. Writing is easy. We tell ourselves stories all day long. She’s snappy because she’s jealous of me; he’s carrying flowers because he’s been caught out. Stories help us make sense of our world. It would be pretty impossible to navigate life without them.

But as we grow into fleshy self-conscious sacks of neuroses, we get fooled into imagining writing is some mystical experience: that you must be absurdly talented, ideally a genius; wait for a muse; have something profound to say. Nonsense. You can do it already. You just need to remember how. To help with that process of recollection, here are the three best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever been given.

1.Just write something. Don’t be paralysed by the virgin page. It’s not in charge. You are. Often I start by writing a shopping list. My friend Richard draws a cock and balls as a prelude to any serious creative endeavour. The mere mechanical movement of moving a pen or tapping fingertips over keyboard tricks your brain into relaxing. Oh, this again, it thinks. I can do this. Easy. Give yourself permission to write the biggest load of guff imaginable. Once you’ve got the guff, you can start to shape it into something tolerable. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. A mountain of mediocre meanderings can be shaped into something serviceable much more easily than a blank document.

2. Having written your guff, examine it as if it were written by a stranger, or your worst enemy, if you’re feeling brave. I find it helps me to print my work off at this point – seeing it in a different format makes it feel new, somehow. Try to distance yourself from the beast you’ve created, and any emotional attachment to the words or feelings contained therein, or indeed about your own worth as a writer. Dissociate. Weigh the words afresh. If you met them in a journal or library, would they intrigue you, engage you? I often read them aloud at this point too. Often I find I can hear errors more easily – or differently, at least – than I see them.

3.Don’t send something off the moment you’ve finished it. I know how tempting it is to do exactly that. We’re all busy and anxious to clear some headspace by filing that copy, flinging the final email into the ether, turning to something more fun. Don’t. Sleep on it. Give it one final read before you commit it to immortality. Fresh eyes will almost always see a way a piece can be improved: spot a clunky sentence structure, make new and interesting connections. Give yourself the time and space to make that happen. I’ve so regretted the few occasions I haven’t.

Above all, relax. Writing isn’t hard. It’s natural and necessary as your heartbeat.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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