A warning, before we begin. Most of the writing you’ll ever read on writing will try to persuade you that there is something about putting strings of words together that is very special indeed.
Writing, you will be told, is the most human and enduring of the creative professions. Writers, moreover, are a breed of eccentric geniuses, dashing and attractive, despite minor personality flaws that should always be indulged because they have important writing to do and can’t be expected to pay attention to things like hygiene or manners.
That is because most writing about writing is produced by writers. They are biased. Professional hacks have a vested interest in persuading everyone that theirs is an elevated profession whose devotees deserve special treatment, and exemptions from the washing up, and deliveries of their intoxicant of choice every hour, on the hour, with no interruptions.
Do not confuse being a good writer with being a good person.
The people who writers are most anxious to persuade are, of course, themselves. You can’t really be a writer – with all the humiliations and privations involved, the insecurity and self-doubt, the constant work of reaching underneath your rib cage, dissecting what you find and then distributing it to strangers – without telling yourself a few stories to get through the day.
I believe the stories, of course, but that is because I’m a writer, and I think writing is more important than just about anything else. I also believe that this is a uniquely exciting time to write, whatever we may be told about the collapse of old models of journalism, vanishing attention spans, the colonisation of culture by trash and pornography, and upstart young ladies on the internet thinking they can just barge in and trample all over the literary canon (as if everybody had a right to ideas and opinions!).
Contrary to the views of some grumpy old men in the back pages of respectable broadsheets, we live in a golden age of writing. This is hardly surprising. There are more people on earth than there ever have been, publishing more easily than ever before. The population has exploded in time for an epochal shift in communication technology. Writing as a process has never been just about art, but right now, more and more of our daily exchanges are, technically speaking, publication. Writing does not make us human, but it is an exercise in becoming more than animal, and we are doing more and more of it every year.
When the library at Alexandria burned, it contained something between 40,000 and 500,000 scrolls. Almost the entire human story as recorded – the species’ attempt to make sense of itself, to trace its past and track its future – all gone.
Nothing like that could happen now. Every year, the people of Earth publish at least four times as many books as were contained in the Alexandrian library all those centuries ago. And that is a conservative estimate. It doesn’t include self-published books, academic journals or ebooks. Nor does it include the internet itself, which contains at least 4.3 billion pages, some of which are many hundreds of thousands of words long. If even one in a hundred of those works is slightly worth reading, something extraordinary is happening to culture, to writing, to how we engage as a species with the phenomenon of text.
That girl typing alone at the internet café might be finishing off her novel. Or she might be breaking up with her boyfriend. Or breaking into a bank. Unless you can see her screen, you can’t know for sure. It’s all just keystrokes.
If visitors from another planet were to describe the human species, they would probably start with our tendency towards text. From a distance, we look almost proverbial: an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters.
Writing about writing would be hard enough even if everything relevant had not already been observed well enough to pass into cliché.
It is true, for instance, that quite a lot of people who end up writing for a living know from a very young age that writing is what they will do. Nobody in my family had been an author or a journalist, but I was sure that I would grow up to spend most of my time arranging words. I wrote my first novel when I was five. It was ten pages long and about a group of feral fairies who lived in the woods. They wore tattered dresses made of twigs and petals, and went on hunting raids.
When I left school, I knew that if that I didn’t organise things so that I could spend most of my time writing and reading and still make rent, I would never have any sort of peace. I started out with one aim: to find a job doing any sort of writing at all that did not harm another human being. I did copywriting for a dodgy friend I met in the back of a goth club. I reported on council meetings, conferences, minor developments in commerce and technology. In semi-private spaces, I poured my heart into blogging, commenting, fan fiction, short fiction, pornography (any busy writer who says they are working on a ‘personal project, just for fun’ is writing pornography, whatever they tell you). But I never thought of myself as a Writer, not the capital-letter sort. Even now, with a few books out, a well-known blog and no other source of income, describing myself as a writer makes me feel uneasy – I might as well call myself a sleeper or a smoker, as I also do those things every day, less well than some but better than others.
What ‘writer’ meant to me, growing up, was a young man in rumpled clothes from a more romantic epoch, lounging over a cheap typewriter: a wild-eyed, wild-haired novel-producing genius. Or an elderly gentleman dictating to his wife in a study lined with books. Very occasionally it was a woman: rich and bespectacled and doomed to die young.
All of these people were white, and most of them were dead. That was what a writer was. It didn’t matter that a great many of my favourite books had been penned by people who did not fit that stereotype at all – Maya Angelou, Charlotte Brontë, Jeanette Winterson, Armistead Maupin.
Only a certain kind of person could contribute in that way, I thought. When I was older, and studied literature at Oxford, I was told the same thing.
That notion, of what it means to be a writer, needs to be boxed up and put away with all the other worn-out tools of cultural indoctrination. The practice of writing does not mean what it did a century or even a decade ago. There is such a lot of phenomenal writing being published right now that I often wonder if those lamenting the digital death of literature are merely engaging in wishful thinking.
If you’re an ageing Man of Letters, the idea that a glorious epoch of great novelists and essayists has come to an end – save, presumably, for you and your small circle of contemporaries – is less threatening than the reality, which is that there is more writing talent out there than ever before, coming from sections of society with new stories to tell and the political hunger to tell them. And you’re going to have to compete.
Many of the classic essays on writing warn the reader, assumed to be a starry-eyed young man, that he should not write in order to get rich and famous or to be admired by beautiful women.
It never occurred to me that riches and fame and admiration were an option, and that was probably because I’m a girl. And if I’m very good at what I do, I can reasonably expect to be harassed, or sneered at, or both.
I suspect the possibility of great adulation doesn’t occur to a great many women and queers and people of colour when we set out to write our truths. We expect to upset people, to face sanctions, to find solace in our communities. Writing about your own experience is not indulgent, especially not in a chorus of millions.
This is poorly understood by many editors, who would prefer that women and people of colour stuck to personal topics rather than bringing a new perspective to ‘serious politics’. The old understanding of ‘good writing’ comes from the same place as the traditional aesthetic of power, in that a certain type of experience is considered more relevant, more universal, than any other.
Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway. They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.
I regularly receive emails (from people of all ages, but particularly from young men) asking me how they can ‘become a writer’, as if it’s something you can step up and become. Lots of them seem to be under the delusion that there is a special trick to writing, that it’s a question of marketing or having the right pens.
Many writers and artists in the digital age focus on promoting their ‘personal brand’ at the expense of developing their authentic voice. The difference is quite simple.
Your brand is what you show to the world and sell for cash to your employers so you can buy luxuries like rent and tea and pens.
Your voice cannot be sold. It cannot be copied or cheapened with trade. It is yours. It exists in the magic space between your brain and your keyboard, and has nothing to do with noise. It is what is left when the internet goes down and your friends stop calling and you’re alone with a notebook. Your voice is what makes you, rather than any one of a hundred thousand fungible public personalities, a writer.
When it comes to being a writer, there are a couple of questions that really matter. Do you write? Would you prefer to put words on a page than almost anything else? Do you stay up late to write, get up early to write, escape your friends and partners and small children to be alone with words? Can you actually finish a story – have you mastered the habit of whipping your wild thoughts into a workable form, signing them off and letting them go? Do you have enough patience to sit with a manuscript for hours until it’s done, but enough impatience to chase a story through the small hours of the morning until you’ve caught and nailed it down?
Most importantly: do you read?
There is no universal writing life. But there are a few qualities that most of the really fantastic writers I know have in common – and the first of those is reading. Writers read widely and compulsively. They are not necessarily methodical; they will read to learn but they also read just to read, because they would rather do that than almost everything else. Writers take a great novel over a mediocre orgasm any day.
Unless I have a book with me at all times, one page dog-eared so that wherever I am I can flip it open and be elsewhere, I never feel quite right. I’m less of a writer than I am a reader, one who sometimes crams in so many words that they overflow.
That is the first quality decent writers share. The second quality is a certain nerdy wordiness – an obsessive interest in semantics that loves getting down to the meat and bones of language itself. I do not mean to suggest that all great writers must memorise Greek names for parts of speech: you don’t need to know what a caesura is to employ a meaningful pause.
Nor am I talking about pedantry. Pedantry is the last refuge of the intellectually insecure. There is no greater bore than the prescriptivist whingeing about split infinitives in a language that has long since stopped bending the knee to its Latin ancestry. It is a pleasure, in such circumstances, to wilfully and gratuitously split as many infinitives as possible. Most true language geeks are excited by neologisms and shifts in grammar, some of which have come about precisely because written language is required to do more now than ever before, as we use it to work and love and mourn in real-time.
There is, however, a fussiness about words that most of the really decent writers I know have in common, a willingness to read style guides and understand the craft of sentence construction so that you can later break the rules, in Picasso’s words, like an artist. Having the tenacity to imitate your heroes helps to develop your own inimitable style.
Hunter S Thompson, who was certainly one of the finest prose stylists of the late twentieth century, once typed out the entire manuscript of The Great Gatsby just so that he could understand how it might feel to write like a master – and Thompson’s voice, with its crazed erratic rhythm, its profanities and its screaming neon-underworld flings, sounds nothing like the lush economy of Fitzgerald.
That fussiness develops naturally in people who read a good deal.
Orwell’s advice to the effect that good writing should be as clear and uncumbersome as a windowpane is sound, but the view also matters. The window can open onto the streets of a strange city, a fantasy landscape or the close interior of your own heart, but as long as you can make the reader feel like they can step through and be there, that is good writing.
Good writing illuminates truth; it has nothing to do with sounding clever. That is the difference between the type of writing you’re taught to produce in universities, colleges and government departments, and the type of writing that quickens the heart and mind. Most academic and bureaucratic writing is designed to make the writer appear more impressive, more knowledgeable. Good writing of any kind makes the reader feel more knowledgeable – the writer him or herself disappears, no matter how personal the narrative.
If you’ve ever checked your hair in a glass shopfront when you thought nobody could see, you know that a window can be a mirror or a portal, but not both at once. You can look at your own reflection in the glass, or you can look through it to see what is inside. It is almost impossible to see both things at the same time.
Good prose does not distract its readers by making them look at the writer’s face in the glass – although occasionally, when you’ve almost forgotten it’s there, you will see its shadow, translucent and ghostly, tapping away behind the pages and trying to get through.
A great deal of writing is designed to do exactly the opposite: to give the impression of transparency in a world of shuttered doors. A certain sort of political writing attempts to obscure truth with convoluted sentences, rattle-bags of euphemisms, a carapace of keywords – stakeholder, delivering results, democratic deficit – to camouflage horror and incompetence.
Good writing, by contrast, tells a story – and tells it straight.
The third quality shared by good writers is a certain loneliness. Being a writer is no longer the solitary practice it once was – not when friends and acquaintances can pop up in a chat window next to your manuscript – but there is still something distracted and strange about the mindset. We writers are never fully in the room.
I have been lonely all my life; I was born that way. Everybody told me it would stop when I grew up and made friends, but everybody was wrong. I can be lonely in the middle of a crowded dance floor with a bass line shuddering my bare skin. I can be lonely in a room with my dearest lover, or standing on a street corner watching history being made. That loneliness is where the storytelling bug comes from. I read because I am lonely; I write because I am lonely. It’s the impulse to reach people, to tell just one person how it really is, or how it might have been in a better world than this.
When you tell a story, you impose your way of thinking on the world, you arrange its disparate elements into something coherent and meaningful. That is the alchemy of storytelling – and like all alchemy it begins with a lie. All writers are liars. Every day we cling to the most important lie of all: that human life is comprehensible, that it can be ordered into patterns.
Storytelling is what makes the difference between writing and typing. Writing is always storytelling, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The kind of writer you are depends very much on the kind of stories you choose to tell and how well you tell them.
Stories are important. Human lives are built of little else but stories, whether it’s the stories we tell ourselves in private about who we are and where we come from, or the vast, public, changing tales about gods and democracy, love and money, women and men.
Stories matter, and it matters who gets to tell them and who has to sit quietly and listen. Right now, with the explosion in publishing and self-publishing, swathes of people of all races, of all backgrounds, of all genders and none, are coming out to share new stories of love and loss and dreaming and experience. It is happening at a scale and speed never seen before, and it is challenging, and we have yet to see the endgame of the cultural shift it represents.
The story about the infinite number of monkeys and their infinite number of typewriters is meant to illustrate the phenomenon of random genius. The idea is that given enough hammering and enough monkeys, eventually we will get the complete works of Shakespeare.
As a child, however, I misunderstood. I thought the monkeys were meant to be writing Shakespeare together, one or two words at a time. To me that seemed more logical. The probability of a single primate producing the entire First Folio is vanishingly small compared to the likelihood that one ape, or several, or thousands, might accidentally hammer out the first line of Hamlet, which is really the opening sentence of every work of literature – ‘Who’s there?’
On balance, I prefer my version of the monkey myth, where we make genius happen together, where the human story cannot be captured by a single pair of hands, but is extended by all of us in every direction. That is why this is a golden age of writing.
No book, no essay, is ever definitive, but each piece of writing extends the human story in a new direction. There are more people than ever before publishing more words than ever before, and that is more reason to write, not less. There are literally millions of bad writers out there, but you don’t have to be one of them.
As a text-making species, we are no longer in the library at Alexandria, finite and fragile. We are in a vaster, stranger place altogether, and the number of stories yet to tell sends recalcitrants into a delicious panic. The shelves are stacked with the sacred and the profane, the tragic and obscene, slush and trash and death notes and love letters, and somewhere in the dark of the farthest stacks are the volumes yet to be written. One of them is yours. Make it count.