Writing is a Hateful Activity
I’m writing this on a train. I’m at the start of a three-hour train journey, and I’ve brought nothing to amuse me but pen and paper. There’s my phone, of course, but it’s switched off and hidden at the bottom of my bag. Increasingly I find this the only way I can get any writing done: effective incarceration. Trains work best. Lucky Broadstairs is so flipping far from everything.
Time-consuming cosmetic procedures, especially the slightly painful ones—fat-freezing, derma-rolling—have also seen me produce some good stuff. And those aggressively trendy coffee shops where everyone looks to be writing a novel and you don’t want to let the side down; they can work too.
At home there are simply too many distractions. It’s a cliché, but a cliché because it’s true: when writing beckons, the urge to clean ovens or file receipts or iron socks becomes irresistible. My husband can gauge how close I am to a deadline by how elaborate his dinners become.
The thing is, when I do sit down to write I’m usually instantly engrossed. Hours speed away as I tug sentences into my preferred shape, fight to express ideas gracefully, rhythmically. No elation equals that produced by a finely crafted piece of work. I know that, but I can never remember it before I’ve begun. Why? I’m not an idiot. And just as nothing equals the elation of a finely crafted piece, so nothing tops the dread in the pit of my guts before I first sit to craft. What on earth am I scared of? Do I fancy myself in danger of ink poisoning, death by paper cut? Of course not. I’m frightened I’m about to produce rubbish. And rightly so: the first draft is always rubbish. The trick is not to be frightened by the rubbish. Allow yourself to write the biggest pile of suffocatingly-stinking ordure of which you’re capable. Once you’ve got that in place you can start to shape it. Just don’t compare your first efforts to Middlemarch, or you’ll be stabbing pens through your eyeballs before you can say edit. I bet Eliot’s first efforts were lousy too. The trick is not to worry about it.
The second trick, for me, is to set a time limit. I will write for one hour, I tell myself, firmly, and set a stopwatch to make the promise real. When that hour’s up I’m usually so engrossed I don’t even notice its narky, tinny beep. I don’t know why that works. Still fear of producing rubbish, I guess, or worse, not even rubbish. This time, perhaps, nothing will come, and I’ll finally be revealed as the hopeless, talentless, posturing cock-up at core I know myself to be. This time I’ll spend an hour staring at blankness and produce nothing more than a doodled heart or a shopping list.
Actually, I do quite often start with a shopping list. The sheer physical act of moving my pen to make something inconsequential sometimes tricks my brain into relaxing.
And I eat sherbet when I write. Usually I’m not allowed sweets because I worry constantly about spots and cellulite, but writing is the one allowable exception. Sherbet, parma violets and lollipops. That’s partly a motivational trick, but I wonder too if those childhood tastes and textures also work to coax my brain into a less angsty state. Never thought of that before. Might well be true.
And when I judge the writing done, I’m allowed Instagram binges and show tunes at top volume: that’s also very much part of the deal. Away from my laptop I’m shallow as a teaspoon.
Writing’s the hardest thing I do, which is some indication of how stupidly easy my life is. Hardly coal-mining, is it? But it’s the fear of being judged and found wanting that paralyses. That fear has resulted in barren decades where I’ve not produced a word, decades whose loss I now deeply regret.
Only concern yourself with what lies within your power. There’s a fine stoic trope. More than anything I want to be respected as a writer—how I blush to admit it—but it isn’t within my capabilities to make that happen. All I can do is write as well as I can write. Tragically that involves practice. So I ignore, again and again, the deep pocket of resistance in me whispering distractions and resentment. The louder that voice shouts, the closer I suspect I am to producing something valuable.
Being part of a writing community—in whatever sense you choose to interpret that—helps hugely here. I completed an MA in creative writing which taught me nothing—honestly, nothing at all, except to say “concrete signifiers” while nodding solemnly—but it did find me a gang of chums who write and expect me to write too, who message regularly and ask awkward questions about what I’m working on currently. That’s priceless. Well, it was three grand, actually. I’m sure I could have found some writing chums cheaper: all the writers I know are perpetually skint and fully prepared to do anything for cash.
I’ve finished writing this now and I’ve still got two hours of train journey left. When will I learn? It’s a form of mental illness, this repeated refusal to believe, against all evidence, that I can do this.
I’ll use the time to work on that.
© 2019 Melissa Todd
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.