“Have you written a piece for The Reader’s short story competition?”
While the entries have been arriving steadily since the competition opened in December, it’s a question I keep asking the creatively-minded in Berlin. The usual response is, “I’m thinking about it.”
“Thinking”? I hope so, but often I suspect a more truthful answer would be, “I’m avoiding it.” Because is there any other activity that requires as much avoiding – as much staring at the ceiling, cleaning out the fridge, and alphabetising your bookshelves – as writing?
It’s not a problem only experienced by the novice writer. I once met a successful novelist at a music festival. He was gaunt and hollow-eyed. Talking about our writing practices, he told me he needed to play computer games for between four and seven hours before he felt ready to put pen to paper.
James Lever, author of Me Cheeta, a book that surprised everyone by being long listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, said in an interview that he had spent his twenties walking five miles across London to borrow five quid to buy a packet of cigarettes while hoping “that the work was being done internally”.
Can you imagine a concert pianist or a ballet dancer coming out with that? Picture the scene, Nijinsky on the sofa scoffing brownies while playing on his Nintendo Wii. Diaghilev enters the room.
“Vaslav, what are you doing? Tomorrow is the opening night of The Rite of Spring! You’re dancing the male lead. Stravinsky himself will be there.”
“Serge, don’t worry. I’m doing the work internally!”
When I sat down for my first try at novel writing when I was 23 after a two year trip through Asia and Australia – a trip I like to think of as one of the longest displacement activities in history, but even that I think would be flattering myself a great deal – it suddenly occurred to me that I had never really considered what it was a writer did.
I don’t think I am alone in this. Generally, young writers start out with the life of a particular writer in mind, Hemingway’s perhaps, or Parker’s; it’s all big-game hunting in Africa, and having cocktails named after you, or delivering devastating put-downs from your seat at the round table. In fact, a more accurate picture is of a person spending an infinite number of hours hunched over a pad or screen, all alone, sighing with frustration while giving himself permanent posture problems.
Those 19th century French poets spent their whole time in brothels, under the influence of laudanum or having their pox-ridden appendages treated with mercury. None of them ever actually sat down and wrote – did they?
Hanif Kureishi said recently that one of his teenage sons had come to stand thoughtfully in the doorway of the room in which Kureishi wrote.
“‘You just sit here all day, don’t you?’
I said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’
He said, ‘That’s your life, that’s your job?’
I said, ‘Yep, I just sit here all day. And after a bit, I’ll write something down, then I’ll write something else down.’”
It is indeed what a writer does. For hours and hours. Because you must. And if truth be told, the worst thing about writing is the hours spent not doing it.
So, whatever excuses you have going – that you can’t write after work, or get up and write, or write if someone else is in the flat, or on a cloudy day, or on a sunny day, or a chilly day – do yourself a favour and see them as the disserving lies they are. Find a few hours, unplug the internet connection, and face the page.
But what to write?
Surely, an intellect as fine as yours should be embarking on The Great American Novel? Something to make Nabokov weep, to have Franzen, Atwood, Morrison and Foster Wallace in hysterical fits of jealousy. Each line must be a poem of itself, each paragraph have dripped from the lip of an angel.
Think like that and watch your imagination shut down. Enjoy the hours of catatonia to come. Approaching the task that way makes writing feel like trying to do a sexy dance, stone cold sober, in a brightly lit room before a group of people who are making loudly critical comments.
Why not instead tempt the imagination with something fun, something finishable, playful even? Give yourself permission to be good, bad, great and awful, and everything in between. Every writer, including the great ones (especially the great ones), is intimately acquainted with failure. Learn to fail big, learn to fail better.
All you have to do is begin.
Well there’s a great little short story competition I’ve been hearing about…
The Reader Berlin is a boutique editing consultancy offering editing, proofing, manuscript assessment, mentoring, creative writing classes and advice on navigating the publishing maze.
This year´s inaugural short story competition closes on May 31. To read the rules and find out about the fabulous prizes – including publication in the summer edition of Exberliner – go to thereaderberlin.com