When Jean-Paul Sartre was busy plagiarising his first novel – it was called For a Butterfly and he was seven – he would, ‘Now and then… stop writing. I would pretend to hesitate, I would pucker my brow, assume a moonstruck expression, so as to feel I was a writer.’
Compiling Being a Writer, Travis Elborough and I read advice, musings and essays from over 150 writers, covering more than 250 years and every continent except Antarctica: a (partial, subjective) picture of what, aside from puckered brow and moonstruck expression, ‘being a writer’ might mean.
Variety of approach was quickly apparent – especially when it came to daily routines. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope paid an elderly groom £5 a year to wake him with a cup of coffee, so that he could be at his desk by 5.30 a.m. each morning. He then put in three hours work, writing 250 words every quarter of an hour, and at 8.30 left for his day job with the post office. The horror and weird fiction writer HP Lovecraft, by contrast, believed that: ‘At night… there comes inspiration and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour.’ Jonathan Franzen isolates himself in a quiet office; Rivka Galchen prefers to work over tea and cookies in her local coffee shop. Several writers – all women, it may be noted – talk about snatching time to write between childcare and household chores (Alice Munro, Jodie Piccoult). Others, such as French detective writer Georges Simenon, had the sort of iron-fisted regime presumably necessary to crank out the 500-odd novels to his name: ‘After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day… If, for example, I am ill for forty-eight hours, I have to throw away the previous chapters. And I never return to that novel.’
This variety of approach is comforting. If nothing else it is reassuring to know that there is no ‘right way’ to organise yourself to write a novel – just your way. One of my favourite pieces of advice on the subject comes from Muriel Spark (or rather the character of Mrs Hawkins in A Far Cry from Kensington): ‘If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially on some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat… the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle under the desk lamp… And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impeded your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.’
I also wanted to know whether, among those writers we’d included, there were any particular ideas, any practices or pieces of advice, that were held in common.
On February 20th, 1866, for example, Charles Dickens sat down to compose a letter to the author Jane Brookfield. ‘It strikes me,’ he wrote, ‘that you constantly hurry your narrative…by telling it, in a sort of impetuous breathless way, in your own person, when the people should act it and tell it for themselves.’ Basically, Show Don’t Tell. Three words that will be familiar to anyone who’s sat in twenty-first century creative writing class or picked up any sort of contemporary guide to creative writing. Advice that, like Dickens’ novels, has clearly stood the test of time.
Perhaps coincidentally – this was in no way a comprehensive survey – few of the writers were big planners. ‘A book in my opinion should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself,’ James Joyce said, while Danish novelist and short-story writer Helle Helle believes that ‘A novel can’t be thought into existence, it has to be written. The hands are always wiser than the head.’ Though she does require ‘a good opening sentence, and preferably the closing one too, in order to get started.’ There was also general agreement that you’ll need to put up with a lot of your own bad writing. As the French novelist Collette expressed it: ‘To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper…and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that bloomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.’
And among the contemporary writers, one of the more popular pieces of advice was something the seven-year-old Sartre could never have contemplated needing to do: Turn off the Wi-Fi!
Helen Gordon is co-editor of Being A Writer with Travis Elborough, published by Frances Lincoln on 7th September 2017.