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Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer - and What To Do About It, Part 5

You want to be a writer - for real, not just part-time, not eking out desperate moments of writing after hours, but fully functioning on all your ‘cylinders’ as what you were always meant to be.

Big changes probably need to be made.

Do you remember when you were small being afraid to do something which, as a grown-up, is now commonplace to you? Perhaps you were scared to go into a dark room, or to go upstairs by yourself, or later, maybe you were terrified to sit behind the steering wheel of a car (I was 40 years old before I obtained my driving license)? But now you do all those things without fear, almost without thinking. Dark rooms and upstairs hold no terror for you - and that series of synchronous actions involved in driving a car, that once seemed so daunting, you do automatically with ease.

You could say that the fear you had of the dark or of different parts of the house or of the act of driving were created in your head. You were generating your own limitations, in other words. By what is often a slow process, most people overcome these limitations and move on. Not everyone recognises that the limitations were self-created.

But this isn’t a simple pep talk. Whether they are mainly in your head or not, right now you probably have a set of what appear to be pretty serious limitations and you’re looking for a practical way of overcoming them, or defusing them, so that you can be free to write.

Your first step might be to make a written declaration about something important: you’re a writer, this shouldn’t be hard.

Decide what you want to write.

I don’t mean just something like ‘I want to write a best-selling Western novel’. I mean decide what it is you want to communicate.

That might be something quite different.

Here’s an interesting thing: many writers write without the faintest idea of communicating anything. This can act as, and usually is, a big disaster.

Many, many years ago, I was present at an argument that was taking place between a husband and wife over the telephone. It was so loud that I could hear the other end of the conversation as clearly as the husband’s end in front of me. The conversation went on and on, perhaps for half an hour, with accusations and challenges and upsets and counter-accusations and so on flying back and forth with the speed of electricity, while I and another friend, waiting to go out with the husband, paced up and down and looked embarrassed. It was plain that, despite many words being said, this could have gone on much longer. Finally, in impatience, I grabbed the phone and said so that both of them could hear:

‘I have never heard a conversation go on for so long in which so little communication actually took place. I’m interrupting you both because it is obvious that if you were to actually communicate for more than a minute, everything you have discussed could be resolved. I suggest that you make a time to do just that.’

And I hung up. I was a bit cross, and arrogant with it at the time. But both parties received what I had to say in stunned silence. They knew that it was true.

I see something similar - though usually much milder - occurring with some writers: lots and lots of words, but little actually said.

If you could reduce your proposed novel, or series, or entire output down to a simple statement, a few non-fiction words which might give a reader a clue as to what your books are ‘about’, what would you say?

Many writers look at me dumbfounded when I ask them that. They have never actually thought about it like that. The act of writing, they thought, was merely sitting down and permitting the imagination free rein, like, as the expression 'free rein' says, dropping the reins of the galloping horse and allowing it to carry you wherever it wishes.

Now it’s probably not strictly possible to sum up your fictive output - or your intended fictive output - in a few rational words like that. How do you ‘sum up’ a Shakespearian play, or a novel by Dostoyevsky, or a Yeats poem? You can’t, not really.

But something quite surprising happens when you try.

It’s as though, to continue the metaphor, you pick up the reins of the horse that was galloping under you and assert, by giving them a little tug, that you are still there and are actually in control. What you are writing, and where it is leading you, isn’t entirely random, or shouldn’t be: good writing isn’t about giving your imagination total access to the outer world without any supervision at all. In the same way that you wouldn’t let a toddler roam at its own discretion through a busy city, you should be guiding and managing where your mind is wandering, at least to some extent.

You should have an intention, in other words. Part of that intention might certainly be to adventure where you could never rationally go and where only your imagination can lead, but part of it should be to use that adventure to say something.

Writers who are clearly saying something are in charge of, or at least working in cooperation with their imaginations and use what that part of their minds shows them to communicate something, whatever it may be: Forster takes us into the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India to show us something about the incomprehensibility of the universe; Tolkien takes us through Middle-earth to convey to us the sad beauty of Creation; Dickens takes us to London in many novels to reveal the foibles of human nature.

What is that ‘something’ in your case?

That might take you a while to figure out. But it’s an important first step in making your bid for freedom, so I’ll give you a little time. Hint: don’t try to be too specific, and don’t worry if you can’t come up with coherent sentences. I’ll explain why when I get back.

I’ll be back soon.


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