Published, unpublished and taking your proof to bed
Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "I'm falling before the first hurdle"

Waste not, write not

In Jerusha Cowless's most recent missive from the South Seas, she came close to telling a writer what to do. (Clearly Jerusha is not me: I try never to tell anyone what to do, only to unpick the possiblities as clearly as I can. Honest.) Jerusha hinted that a poetry course might be the best way to go beyond the edges of that writer's own commercial-mum-lit-writing nature.

And, having read Jerusha's answer, I'm working on a theory that the thing to do when you need/want a break or have got stuck with your writing, is the absolute opposite of what it was that you have been - and probably feel you "should be" - doing. Commercial novelists should do a poetry course. Poets should write Talking Heads type stories with a full plot voiced by all sorts of different characters. Womag story writers, who have to find fresh humour and drama within some of the tighest parameters in the writing trade, should start free-writing and see what happens. Literary short fiction writers wedded to the magnifying-glass perfection of their form should do NaNoWriMo and start unreeling their literary cloth with what used to be called gay abandon, before that phrase came to mean something equally delightful, but rather different. Poets who love traditional forms should refuse to rhyme or scan, lovers of free verse should tackle a sonnet, literary blockbuster novelists should try writing a Mills & Boon pocket novel where they only have 20,000 words in which everything must be clear, passionate, and tie up neatly at the end. And so on.

There are lots of excellent reasons for trying this:

  • Most writers could do with discovering if there are any other strings they might add to their bow, not least for economic survival but also because it might expand your repertoire and/or your craftsman's toolkit.
  • Western education and society train us ruthlessly to decide to do something, go for it, and (Deus vult, Inshallah) achieve it, so it's liberating to stop trying to write words which will achieve the goal we've set ourselves.
  • We all ought to remember that if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly - i.e. not achieve it, i.e. "fail". You'll learn just as much as when you do something successfully, and possibly more.
  • Doing writing stuff which is creative but isn't directed at The Project (a bit of journalling, a blog, most of all something like a poetry course or the kind of writer's group which does what writing teacher extraordinaire Diane Samuels calls "yoga for writers") means that your writing-brain is in gear, but much more open and free-form than it can be when it's locked into the need to work out how to say the next bit of the novel, with pre-decided characters, voices, plot and so on.
  • Actors do yoga, and our job is not very different. It's not that they're expecting to be cast in a part where the character has to be a brilliant yoga-doer, it's that the more free and flexible their body is, the better it will be able to respond to whatever the next part does turn out to need, and embody that character whoever they are.

What I'm getting at is that sometimes what's important isn't the goal/product, but the doing/process. It can be incredibly hard to persuade yourself to do writing which is a "waste of time". If the only way you can feel okay about doing something as "self-indulgent" as writing is to direct it at writing a piece which is hoping to get on a bookshop shelf or the poetry stage, then it can be very hard to change to the kind of work which doesn't have an obvious goal or even payoff. If what you really want to be is a poet - and you may well be right that a poet is what you are - and you'll never write a decent story, then is there any point in trying? If the only reason you have for the time/money/neglect-of-family which is involved in taking a poetry course, say, is that it may or may not make you a better or happier writer of novels, can you do that if you're not sure you'll ever get another novel published? Even if partner-and-children say they're cool about the apparent pointlessness of the poetry course, it can still be hard to silence your Inner Protestant, who says it's selfish and, most lethal of all, "self-indulgent".

But I do think this is somewhere where society's goal-orientedness and anti-"self-indulgent" psyche can really screw things up for a creative person. I've just worked out that, in order to send my agent a 140,000 word novel, I've written/re-written nearly half a million words. It's wasteful, yes, but it's wasteful in the way that it's "wasteful" to make sure nursing rotas build in enough time to talk to the patients: the good outcomes are not predictable in either scale or nature, but they are, absolutely and proveably, real. And, goodness me, it's not as if nature isn't wasteful. Whether you're counting sperm, or stars, there are a great deal more than the minimum necessary for life, love and beauty. And it's the same with writing.