Some Thoughts on Being a Writer and Process

 

Over the past couple of days I’ve ended up doing a lot of waiting. Over two hours in a train station on Sunday and in a hospital all afternoon yesterday (don’t worry, I’m fine). And, being as I usually have no time to think about much at all I used that time, waiting, to think.

At some point I was thinking about what it means to be writer. What people might think that means Vs what it is. I said on Facebook, almost in passing:

Writing advice: be a writer because there are stories you need to tell, not because you want to be a writer. Stories come first, always. Especially before us.

Writing is pretty simple when you look at it for what it is. You make stuff up and write it down and wing it and work hard at making it into something worthwhile. And then, if you’re lucky, someone else enjoys it or buys it or publishes what you’ve written.

You will only ever be a writer if you let stories, or poems, or whatever it is you write come first. It is not about you. Not about you being ‘a writer’. And even if it was wouldn’t you rather be known as that person who wrote the brilliant BOOK than Bob the Writer.

I never did this job for admiration or to look cool or interesting or bohemian or clever or anything like that. Fortunate really because I don’t think I could carry any one of those things off. I like stories. I like telling stories. They are important  – they’re culture, they’re identity, they’re education and freedom and escape. They’re fantasy, they’re comfort. They’re microscopes, flies on walls, excuses – they’re things to talk about at work. They’re anything you want them to be. And I love that I’m lucky enough to be playing my own small part in all of that.

So the motivation for writing (in my very humble opinion) should be story. Maybe it’s one that’s inside us and is dying to burst out. Maybe it’s something we want to explore. Maybe it’s answering a question or maybe it’s asking one. Maybe it’s because we love to make characters up, to hear their voices, to see something new. It doesn’t matter. What matters, over and over and over is story – and that desire and that respect to appreciate it and to get it out in the best way we can and not being egotistical enough to let us stand in its way. It shouldn’t be because we want to use ‘writer’ as a tag. (And I do meet those.)

Back to being a writer then. Here’s the thing. Sometimes, it’s the best damned job in the world. We get paid to make stuff up and we get to have our names on book covers and sign them and read from them and feel important at events and seem interesting at parties (not that I’m ever invited to any). We are lucky.

For me, one of the genuinely best things in the history of anything is when I hear I’ve made a stranger cry through my stories (and hopefully not because they’re shit). That I’ve been able to affect anyone that much through something as simple as through a bunch of well-ordered words is a brilliant feeling. It means I’m doing my job well.

But that is only such a tiny little part of the job – sometimes it’s a bit pants and tiring and frustrating and poorly paid and really, really hard. Those good bits only come once we’ve been lucky enough to have written something good – and I worry, sometimes, that that’s the bit that gets overlooked.

I can get a bit suspicious of people who want to be a writer because they think it sounds interesting (or will make them sound interesting). Often it is interesting. Often I’m not though. Often I’m a bit boring. And that’s not a criticism. I think I spend more time doing dishes than writing some days.

What’s interesting, for me at least, is looking at how the process of writing doesn’t really change. For me, it’s pretty much as fun as it was when I first started out, and just as difficult too. I think I worry more about my stories now when I’m shaping them and I’m not sure if that’s because my standards are higher or because I’ve had more experience or, most likely, because I’m still terrified that, one day, I’ll be found out as someone who makes stuff up and writes it down and wings it as best he can – because that’s all that writing is, really. But that process is still the same – and it’s the same for me, ten or eleven years on from first being published to anyone just starting out.

No magic.

No glamour.

If you want to get into this game you only need a few things. You need good ideas, your own good ideas. You need to be able to make them into good stories. You need tenacity and a thick skin because not everyone will like what you do and you need to remember that that’s fine because you don’t like everything everyone else does and it’s nothing personal. Integrity and passion are good things to have too. You need to be professional. And you need to remember that there are people like me (and many far better people) waiting to champion you and to help because WE CAN NEVER, EVER, HAVE TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF TO CHOOSE FROM. Believe me, if it’s good there’s room for it. It’s not a competition. Don’t ever think that just because mine’s published yours won’t be. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (if they do they either don’t know or they’re trying to be clever).

So there you have my rambling, tumbling thoughts on things. And stuff.

So some advice again, from someone who works hard winging it and pretending to know what he’s doing and who you should probably never listen to even if your life depended on it…

Basically: write for your stories, not for yourself. And mean it. Really mean it. The rest will come.

dand

 

12 Comments on “Some Thoughts on Being a Writer and Process

  1.  by  Susan Tepper

    Summed up pretty well here, I would say. There is no glamour, that’s for sure. Artistic pursuit is hard work. Not the actual writing, but getting it out into the world. The writer needs a reader to complete the circle.

  2.  by  Karen

    As someone whose confidence in writing was crushed at school over 30 years ago, and is slowly recovering the strength to contemplate the possibility of doing creative writing, a vital thing you need to know is the basics of plotting and structure.

    I believed for decades that if I was meant to write, I’d somehow already know the practicalities of it. No-one in my family or social circle knew how people in the arts accomplished things – it was just accepted that Real Artists Are Lone Geniuses who magically understand how to do these things. No teacher ever taught us more than the basics of grammar and how to write an essay that would satisfy examiners.

    It never occurred to me that writing a story might involve a whole set of skills that could be learned, practised, and improved on. Writers talked about “honing your craft”, about the necessity of “just sitting down and writing”, about the need for the story to come first, but it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve realised that understanding how plot and structure work might not be just something that comes automatically but can be learned.

    For decades, I read pieces by writers giving advice to people who wanted to write, all of which omitted the fact that you need to know the basics of how to structure stories. I’d read the same thing time and time again: let the stories tell themselves; have a regular writing practise; hone your craft; just sit down and write. And I’d think, “But HOW?” And then I’d think, “I’m just not meant to do this. I’m deluding myself that someone like me could ever do this. It’s only the exceptional people who can do it – the special people who just sit down and write and it flows from them in a continuous flow that makes sense. I can’t do that.” Instead of being inspired, the part of me that my secondary school teacher worked so hard to destroy died a little more each time.

    The realisation that maybe this is something I can do if I study it has come as I’ve seen more writers talk about the mechanics of writing on their blogs, and as social media’s opened my eyes to what “the craft” actually means. It’s taken time to deprogramme myself and actually accept the possibility that the thing that’s been missing isn’t some titanic act of will or real talent, but an understanding of the basics of plot and structure. Perhaps I’m not an utter failure because I haven’t been doing the thing my soul’s been screaming at me to do since childhood. Perhaps I’m not stupid, or just lacking sufficient talent to do everything perfectly without any support or education; perhaps, now I know that there’s a set of skills I can learn, it’s possible I’ll be able to sit down and write, get that practise in, hone my craft, grow a thick skin, let those stories tell themselves.

    Because if you don’t even know that that piece of the jigsaw is missing, when the belief that you’d know this stuff without being taught if only you had the talent has grown its roots so deep that it strangles the life inside you, none of it is possible at all.

    •  by  nikperring

      Hi Karen

      Thanks for visiting and for such an honest, considered response.

      Really sorry to hear how badly your confidence was dented at school. I’ve said many, many times that writers run on confidence – if we’re feeling good about things we’re more likely to write better and easier. And I remember my English teacher telling me I’d make nothing of myself so I empathise.

      Part of the problem is that writing in schools was (usually) taught by teachers, not writers. It’s nobody’s fault but they’re two different things.

      The other problem is – and I will blog about this in more detail at some point – is that FAR too often people over-complicate writing either to show off how clever they are, or to keep people ‘out of the club’.

      Writing is simple and I honestly believe everyone understands basic story structure (not that they always know it). If I was to ask you about your day, or if you were telling me about something that’d happened you’d start at the beginning, go to the meat of the story, and then tell me the end. That’s story structure and often it can be THAT simple.

      When I teach younger people I tell them that story is the three Cs: Character, Conflict, Conclusion. You have a character, something happens to them (Conflict) which they react to (which is the story) and then it concludes. Again, really simple stuff and I think the best stories can be that simple. Of course there are other things which can be learned by study or reading or practice but none of them, I’d say, were too complicated. I left school/college before my A levels, so no degree or anything, and I’ve been able to work as a writer since I was in my early twenties an my fifth book’s out later this year. So we don’t, necessarily, NEED to study (although I know that helps a lot of people).

      What I’d suggest you did is, when you have an idea for a story – JUST WRITE IT. Don’t think too much about plot or structure or anything – try to let it fall out of you as naturally as possible – over-thinking can really get in the way and hold you up and I can tell, by how well you’ve written this reply, that you can definitely write really great.

      If you want to chat about this any further drop me a line (http://nikperring.com/contact/) – I’ll always help in any way I can.

      Hope that’s helped! And well done on not giving up.

      Nik

      (And no, you’re not stupid.)

      •  by  Karen

        It has helped! Thank you.

        Just to clarify, for me, seeing how plot and structure work in a basic way really demystifies the whole thing. I’m reading Bell’s ‘Plot and Structure’, and it’s showing me in clear, accessible language, that this is simpler than I thought AND it’s explicitly telling me that it’s completely learnable and doable. It’s very heartening.

        And thanks so much for the offer of a chat. Just knowing that it’s an option is another big boost. Thank goodness for social media!

        (Also thank you for the not stupid bit)

  3.  by  Catnaps and things

    If only the fear (if it is that) wasn’t so strong. My stories are there, jiggling around in my head, ideas and bits & pieces, but it’s so hard to write them down. I don’t know why and what exactly my fear is. But thanks Nik. It IS about the story and not about me – will keep that in mind.

    •  by  nikperring

      I do know what you mean, Catnaps. It can be a really daunting thing. But I think Id’ say the same to you as I said to Karen: try just writing without thinking (and therefore worrying) about it. Don’t forget, you’re in control and no one else needs to see.

      The other thing that can often be a problem (in a weird way) is having too many ideas (I was only talking about this to someone the other day) – we almost feel obliged to get through the backlog of ideas which can stop us. Again, I’d say find something you fancy writing about – any idea’ll do – and write it, finish it, and then see how you feel. You might end up with something awesome or (as often happens with me) you end with something that’s not – and that’s fine. At least you’ll have done it and have something to work on or move on to the next thing from.

      I’m really wary about mentioning services I offer in posts like this because the whole idea is to share and help and cheerlead – but I do run an online correspendence course which might help (details at the top of the page). Or, as I’ve said to Karen, if there’s anything you’d like to ask or chat about then feel free to drop me a line. I’ll always help if I can.

        •  by  nikperring

          No problem at all! I think the whole permission to write thing’s a whole other blog post but, in brief, I guess the same principles apply – you have to make sure you put what you want to write first, and make sure you give yourself at least a little time to write in. And it doesn’t have to be long. But yeah, you can put the want to/need to lists on hold for at least a little while, I reckon…

  4.  by  Dan Purdue

    Good thoughts, Nik. There’s a world of difference between Writing and Being a Writer. Or maybe it’s more like an iceberg – the Writing is the massive chunk hidden underwater, and the Being a Writer bit is the little gleaming peak that sticks up above the surface for everybody to to see. Either way, this post is a good reminder that however you look at it, it’s all about the stories, the graft, the application of rear end to chair.

    •  by  nikperring

      It’s always ALL about the stories, Dan, I think. And the ones we make up need to come before the ones we tell ourselves/fit into.

      And yeah, there’s loads of icebergy bits to most things aren’t there?

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