What We Get From Writing
Hand on heart, this is a tough one. I was very flattered that Nina Lewis asked me to talk to you for this Inkspill Writing Retreat but I was aware that my first thoughts to talk to you about were all about things that I do constantly. Things I know and care about and practice. I think the point of a writing retreat is to stretch you and I feel I ought to be stretched too.
This is me stretching. I’m not sure how much value that has for you, it feels like I’m doing calisthenics and you’re waiting there in your smart leotard waiting for me to get off the mat. You’ll be waiting a while. I’m very unfit.
And I don’t know what I get from writing.
I know that if you or I had any sense at all, we would have normal jobs and proper careers and we might even find a way to make that not feel ditchwater-dull and boring. I know that when we do have to juggle those normal jobs with a writing life, we are split between having to deep-mine our selves and our very souls on our own – and then bound off into social occasions with colleagues. Colleagues who we work with but who probably don’t get writing.
I was at a thing recently where some smart and charming writers were talking about why they write and a fella in the audience told them that it was because they wanted to make a bestseller. They wanted to make money. It took the speakers a beat to find a way to politely say no, that’s not it at all.
Bestsellers are great and the idea that I can reach out not only to you but to oodles of people is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I prefer it when it’s just us, but if oodles of others come, well, you put the kettle on. I’ll get the extra biscuits.
It is possible to make a living from writing and I do, but the aim and what I think I actually get from this life is the opportunity to write better. Paying the mortgage and feeding myself is important, but the longer I can do that, the more I can do that, the greater my chance of becoming the writer I long to be.
So what I get from writing is writing. I feel I’m short-changing you there. I live for the moments – and it is only moments – when the world is forgotten and I am in my writing, I am working at my best and hopefully making that best become better.
There are only two things that improve my writing and the biggest one is time. Making more time to write and then spending that time writing, it’s crucial.
But the other is using writing to head out into unsafe waters. I interviewed a poet the other day and as delightful as she was, she also goaded and challenged me into writing a poem. It was dreadful. But the experience of writing in a new area, reaching for something new in me, that was electrifying.
So there’s the exercise. I am okay with writing you this personal blog chiefly because it’s you and you’ve got that kind of face, I feel I can tell you anything. But let me turn it into a writing exercise: I need to feel I’m giving you something practical that you can actually use. And I know this is practical, I know you can use this: write something new.
Really new. If you’re a poet, write a short story. If you’re a novelist, write a radio play. Go somewhere new in topic and in form.
There is nothing else that can stretch you like writing in new directions and that stretching, that’s it, that’s what I get from writing.