Writing is more than words on a page

I’m a writer. I write for work, often dense, deeply analytical reports and academic texts, brimming with references to obscure philosophers, on whose shoulders I build my argument. Sometimes, articles for magazines or newspapers.

I’m a writer. I write for pleasure, poetry for many years and more recently fiction.

I’m a writer. But I can’t tell you how to write. I don’t know you, your routine, how your mind works and what makes you get up in the morning. Or stops you going to sleep at night.

Lately, I’ve been reading about writing again. The process, method and ritual writers use to get themselves to the point where there is text on a page (or in a document saved somewhere in the cloud). One of my favourites is Annie Dillard’s ‘The writing life’ and I recently re-read it, perhaps, twenty years after the first time. The point of this book is that it’s a meditation on the life of the writer more than on writing per se.

At the opposite end, I’ve read too many prescriptive articles by people who tell me how I ‘should’ write. Get up at 4am. Force myself to write for three hours. Don’t read your email, or check Facebook, until you’ve written a thousand words. And if any of that works for you, take it, use it, build it in to what makes you a writer. But, please, don’t tell me what I should do. You don’t know me, know how I write. Writing is intimate, it is personal.

Over twenty years of writing has taught me that the majority of my time being a ‘writer’ does not involve ‘writing’. Not in the sense that those who don’t write would mean it. It involves meetings, workshops, research, data collection, analysis, synopsis, sketches, long baths and longer walks. It involves inspiration, conspiration, conversation, procrastination and observation. Writing involves moments of joy, where the ideas are sparking and connections falling into place. It involves moments of darkness, where nothing is working and you despair at what you’ve done (or haven’t). And all of this can happen before a single word hits the page.

Suddenly, somewhere, in the clearing fog, words start to circle, like returning swallows heralding a creative spring. I have to work fast, make things ready, prepare to receive them and find a place for them to settle. I don’t say catch or capture, they aren’t mine to own or hold, just to nurture, marshall and curate. To arrange and pass on.

Writing is a garden of possibility, a place of mystery and growth and decay. Writing is life and death. It is potential, if only you can see it. Order or disorder, the choice is mine, tidy borders or wildflower meadows? You choose what works in the moment and suits the story, the path you are taking. The journey you, as a writer, must explore alone. Familiar in places, new at times, it comes with surprises and satisfying moments of beauty. There are roadblocks and dead-ends, many unwanted distractions too. Google, social media, email or the Slack channel icon flashing away. I have a choice about how I engage with them (or not), I know they are an avoidance mechanism. So is making tea. And baking bread. And shopping for dinner.

When it does happen, the act of writing happens in quiet, or with music. It happens at my desk, or sat in my favourite armchair. It happens on aeroplanes and in airport lounges, on inter-city trains. It happens in the city and by the sea, under the watchful eye of a mountain or next to a soft-flowing river. Writing happens when it happens. Captured in a notebook or on a laptop. So be prepared. It rarely happens to order or at my command. Sometimes it can be cajoled and wrestled to conform with my schedule, but often those words are short lived, not the best. Persevere. Good writing, for me at least, is immersive and exhausting, it’s exhilarating and inspiring. It has rhythm and a flow. Sometimes it is emotional, others procedural, matter of fact. Sometimes it ends up procedural when it should drip with raw emotion. Sometimes it goes wrong. It often goes astray.

More words are thrown away than will end up on the finished page. Don’t waste them, put them away and they might return at another time, in a different guise.

It takes a moment to write, to capture the magic forming in your mind, but an eternity to edit. I aim to get the early draft going in the right direction, to get the structure and the plot (even those dull reports have a plot, trust me). Editing helps me explore, shape and re-shape the ideas, to straighten the path and help the reader (after all, this is who I’m writing for) to follow my train of thought. It is iterative, a cyclical process. There are no straight lines. Eventually you reach the end in a better shape than when you started. Then there is the poet’s curse, hours of deep, emotional torment. Poring over a single word, a phrase, a sentence, a page. A comma, in a strange place. Is that right? Is it what I meant? Affect or effect? The point to stop editing is just before you realise you have reached it.

Writing is much more than putting words on a page. The only advice I will offer is to be brave and trust yourself to discover your own process. Whatever works for you is the right way. Above all, write.