One statement you can trust is that you have to want to do it more than anything else in the world. Beyond that, every ‘rule’ you think you have established for yourself is subject to change from one project to another. You have to listen to the demands of the work, and different pieces will want to be written in different ways. One novel might pin you to the wall and force you to spill the beans as fast as you can, while another might leach through you slowly over time, to be tapped from your pores at intervals, like sap.
Either way, the best stuff surely happens when the writer is held to ransom, and a good test of whether or not you’re writing the right thing is whether or not you could give it up even if you wanted to. It should be there when you close your eyes. If the finished article is going to be any good, and if you’re going to have the patience required to finish it properly, then it has to spring from an idea that grips you so firmly that you don’t have a choice in the matter. You don’t have your ideas – your ideas have you. It’s that oft-cited Nabokovian ‘throb’ – an irresistible pull towards somewhere you know, or feel, that there is gold.
It might help to think of yourself as a navigator. You’re finding your way around, just like the reader. The difference is that you’re the first one in, which means that you’re the one who has to write it all down. The talent is in how you listen. And this should be a comfort for at least two reasons. First, it means that you shouldn’t worry about losing ideas: if an idea wants you badly enough then it will keep coming back to bite. Second, it means you can improve. You’re not a god – you’re a hostage. If a negative reaction stings because you sense it might be justified, then you can berate yourself for nothing more than being a bad listener, and try to fail better next time around. (On the other hand, of course, if you are positively received, then remember that all you did was to be stubborn and to listen prudently, and don’t let it go to your head.)
One skill you can’t really do without, then, is that of being able to recognise a good idea. Assuming you are listening well, you will know soon enough if something isn’t going to fly. If you can’t shake it, and nothing can stop you wanting to get it down, and to worry away at it until it becomes something you can live with, then you have a dogged imagination, and it’s probably going to be okay. Then all you need are the guts to start again if it doesn’t come out right the first time. To escape the clichés of the imagination – the received ideas and the worn narrative ruts. To keep going until it’s good – or at least, until it isn’t bad.
The thrill of imaginative writing, whether your goal is to test the limits of language or to reach fine kernels of emotional truth, whether your lodestars are image and symbol or character and story, is that it is happening all the time. You walk around in the real world, interacting with it if necessary, while its counterpart is secretly nurtured. The constant, quiet machinery of this process affords a warm, clandestine thrill. And then there’s the exhilaration of smuggling from one world to the other: of seeing or hearing something that seems to have escaped from your imagination and must be repatriated with all speed.
You often read about writers having special notebooks or pens they like to use. For what it’s worth, my advice would be to fetishise the sentences, not the paper. Chew them over. Take off somewhere quiet to spy on them. Regard them in different lights, from different angles. Shine a torch on them in the middle of the night. Squint at them when you’re hung over. Scribble them on the backs of envelopes, then live with them for a while. Keep the original envelope in case that version was the best one (as it so often is).
And retain at all times your trust in the idea that is leading you, even if you can’t really define it. Take Kundera’s view that ‘if the novel is successful it must necessarily be wiser than its author’, and be reassured that you may not know the answer to the question, What am I writing about? until quite late in the process.
However early that question is answered, it should not be the starting point. You can always tell when it was, because the result, however well engineered, will have the dry whiff of contrivance. It will be writing that bellows what it is about, because it will result from the pursuit of what someone once thought was clever, and not from the stubborn refusal of an idea to go away. Think of the old explanation as to why a cathedral was less beautiful than the Alhambra – that while the former looks as if it is desperately struggling up towards the heavens, the latter seems to have been conferred on the world from above.
The dogged imagination, which is really just an attempt to describe elegantly a kind of stubborn, creative monomania, should keep you topped up with another crucial ingredient, which is confidence. You need to be able to ride out those moments when it feels like an obscure, minority pursuit, get over them, and see every thinking non-reader as an opportunity. Of course, if you have the kind of temperament I’m talking about, none of this will matter much to you, since you’ll have no choice but to do it anyway. Because as I said at the top, one statement you can trust is that you have to want to do it more than anything else in the world.
Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).