Creative Clinic 1. Can You Get Me Started?

Hi Orna,
I'm in my mid 30s with a calling to write. I love writing and I'm good at it  – I know this because every essay I ever wrote at school got read aloud and one I wrote before school one morning won a national essay writing competition even though I thought it was cr+p. Anyone I ever wrote a letter to told me I should be a writer. I was reading my children's Horrid Henry books last night and thought “God, I could do that!?”

Do you know where I can go?  Or would you even throw a challenge at me?

I don't read enough either – do I really need to?  Can somebody not be completely original without influence or is it essential? I would be really grateful if you gave me a little project to work on to kick start me – I promise not to make you read it!

Your random emailer who never did anything like this before,

Dear GIRL,
Ah…the call. I remember it well. Okay then, here's your challenge. Every morning for the next three weeks, get up half an hour earlier than usual and before you do anything else, before you brush your teeth or speak to anyone, write three pages of F-R-E-E-Writing as fast as you can (you'll find full instructions HERE).

Write about anything that pops into your head but also take some of the time to write about writing – what kind of writing you want to do, and why.

This is base training for a writer. What you write matters far less than that you write. You're getting used to taking words out of your head, where they waft about in all directions, and putting them through your fingers onto a page, where they have to get focussed and report for duty.

It's like a pianist playing scales, an athlete doing stamina training, an artist scribbling sketches.

Once you've done this kind of writing for a day or two, you'll find ideas for more formal writing emerging, spontaneously. Once that happens, make an appointment in your diary with yourself, setting a particular time and place to get cracking on one of them — a 90-minute time slot is ideal. Keep your writing date and at the end of your 90 minutes, make another for as soon as you can manage it.

[Caveat: If you find you can't make this commitment, if you repeatedly fail to turn up to the page, give up writing. Find another outlet for your energy.]

Writing Without Reading.
No, no, no. Writers who don't read are not allowed! Not until they can demonstrate that they've little left to learn.

On the contrary. An aspiring writer should read books that appeal not just once, but twice. The first as a reader, just for pleasure, noting what you like and don't like. The second time as a writer, more slowly and thoroughly, looking out for how this writer managed to achieve the effect that the book had on you.

Read with critical attention, the second time, with every faculty alert.

  • Who is the person who wrote this book?
  • How does structure and form help to communicate intention?
  • How would you describe the language?
  • How does it support the theme?
  • How long are the chapters? The sentences? The paragraphs?
  • Notice the rhythm of the book. Is acceleration or deceleration used for emphasis?
  • Any mannerisms or favourite words?
  • How does the author convey the passing of time? Get the characters from one scene to another?
  • What is the point of view?
  • Is there a chapter list? An index? A bibliography?
  • What did the author not tell us?

After the first few books – which you must read twice if you are to learn how to read as a writer – you will find you can read for criticism and enjoyment simultaneously, choosing to reread only those passages where the book shines or fails.

GIRL, the call you are considering is no small thing. If you answer it, you will work harder than you have ever worked at anything else (except maybe motherhood) and see yourself fall short.

You will read back words that took weeks to get right — and hate them. The better you get at writing, the more you will understand what Iris Murdoch meant when she said: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”

In doing what it takes to come to this understanding of what writing asks of you, as well as what it offers, that you'll make of yourself a writer.

This is the first of a new series where I will be answering your creative queries.

Send an email about your problem or dilemma HERE. Unfortunately, due to an excess of email, I can no longer guarantee a personal reply.

If you want one-to-one attention for your problem, you can apply HERE.