I don’t want to write literature. I’m not rich enough to pretend I’m a poet. I’d rather bite off my own earlobe than go to a literary party.
Make that both earlobes. I hate arty talk with a venom.
You might think these traits are a handicap for a writer. I used to think so too.
But the moment I admitted to myself that I could no more write a novel, short story or poem than I could spontaneously generate maggots in a jam jar – well, it was the turning point in my career.
Instead of wasting my time trying to cultivate the kind of creative imagination I couldn’t achieve and didn’t want, I switched my attention to the nuts and bolts of writing — the words, and the ways you can put them together.
From then on my stuff began to read less like other people’s and started to sound like the way I think.
It wasn’t a case of ‘finding my voice’. I just stopped looking for clever things to say.
Why creativity puts people off writing
There’s snobbery in all the arts, and writing is no exception.
Imagine a Top Trumps deck in which the cards represent different genres of writing.
The most valuable card would be The Novel, surrounded by a entourage of power trumps that placed Poetry and Drama in a rank above History and Biography.
The least desirable cards in the pack would be things like Copywriting, Technical Writing and Trade Mag Journalism.
I think we pick these values up at school. ‘Good’ writing is stuff like Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Orwell and what-have-you.
Bad writing is… well, if you want to read that stuff, that’s your guilty secret.
(In 1994 I was in a tutorial led by Robert Crawford. When he asked which of us had ever read a Mills & Boon novel, my hand was the only one to rise).
But I digress. The point I’m making is that we’re conditioned to admire the creative imagination first, and the words as some sort of servant to it.
That pisses me off, because I think it puts lots of people off writing.
People like me who might not have the creative imagination to write a novel or a book or a play, but who love the sounds, texture, patterns and shapes of words.
And who lose that love because they direct their energies at cultivating an imagination they don’t have, tilling it vainly for ‘literary’ ideas. They become failed poets, failed novelists, failed short story writers — when they could have been some of the most sparkling, engaging communicators out there.
So next time you find yourself cudgelling your brains to create characters you don’t want to meet, scenarios you don’t care about or poetry that does clever things with metre and nothing to the heart — then stop. Whip out your pen and jot down some bold, bouncy, brilliant prose about the stuff that really interests you — whether it’s beer, girls, or the migratory habits of fish.
And while you might not get fêted as the Next Great Literary Genius, you’ll have an audience of appreciative people who like your stuff — and the satisfaction of becoming the writer you want to be, instead of the thinker you think you ought to be.