Reflections On Writing (How I Write)

On approaching the craft of writing

Harry J. Stead
Nov 7 · 6 min read

Often in periods of doubt I ask myself, why do I write? For what is it worth? And every time I am able to think of many complex and sentimental reasons for why I do what I do; as usual they relate to my childhood, to specific persons, writers and teachers, experiences, and to my introverted character. But if I were to answer honestly, and not indulge in sentiment, I suppose I write because I like doing it, and having found out that I like doing it, I have continued ever since. It is simply an instinct, and for all I know, it could the same instinct that makes one seek attention and validation from others. I have no divine message. I am too young to pretend that I have any definite answers. My role, as I see it, is to play around with ideas and stories in pursuit of truth, as if they are toys, and once I have had my fun, I leave them lying on the floor of the living room for someone else to pick up. My motivations for writing are selfish: not for fame or fortune, nothing as ridiculous as that; but I write for the possibility of being able to communicate something which seems important to me; for the pleasure in the rhythm and firmness of prose, the sounds of words against one another, the craftmanship in writing; and also for the happiness of sometimes being appreciated, often for reasons that I do not quite understand.

As a general rule, I must always have a purpose for writing, a cause for which I truly believe in, otherwise I end up with a mixed bag of nice sounding paragraphs which lead to nowhere, and then I find myself in a desperate struggle to make sense of it all. It is unusual but I always have the experience of paralysis when trying to write about empty subjects that are fashionable, that may or may not receive more views and likes; it is as if the gods above know of my tricks and deceits, and are reminding me that I know better. Every time in the past that I lacked a purpose, or that I did not wholeheartedly believe in the cause, my writing was lifeless and pathetic, in part because I resorted to imitation, since I would have no particular passion towards the subject; but also because my words said nothing else but weakness and had no conviction, except the conviction of other people which I could never truly experience at second hand. This I have found is the greatest objection to conformity.

If it was not for the aesthetic experience of writing then I probably would not write at all. I am not a journalist, nor an academic. I seem to have a need for truth, but I have little enthusiasm for scientific facts. I am in search of something more through art: an intensity to life, a world that pulses my heart and breathes my breath, a final return to nature. I cannot, however hard I might try, abandon my love for poetry, rhythm, fluency, and flowery language; perhaps this is because I am young, and perhaps this habit will fall away once I am a little less idealistic, more principled, and once there are more years behind me than ahead. But even though I have a tendency for purple passages, I do try to make sure that there is purpose behind these words; that there is dynamite and fire, fuelled with meaning and depth and heart. This is not always possible, so inevitably I sometimes betray myself into writing sentences that are without conviction, that are just decorative and generally useless.

I approach writing with a sense of duty, seriousness and vanity — for all writers are vain to some extent; you have to be, else you would not bother in the first place — and with the final aim of articulating a particular idea or experience with clarity. And yet, at the same time, my principle concern in the course of writing is to return, as much as is possible, to that child-like state of freedom and naturalness. Of course, this is an impossible task, for there is no adult as free as a child. But I set this intention for the reason that I might enjoy a degree of playfulness, impulsiveness, even irresponsibility, during those few hours of the day which I set aside to write. This prevents me from suffering too much from the solemnity of my intellect, and dragging myself down in details that others never care to notice. The seriousness comes afterwards in the editing phase, when I attempt at least to finish with something worthwhile and not say anything avoidably ugly.

In the act of writing, or any other art form, you must, so to speak, allow the writing happen by itself and not push so hard. God knows how I have pushed. Pushed for hours until nauseous with little to show for it. I say this from painful experience, that forcing the words to come out only causes frustration; you end up dragged along and bruised by your own intellect, entangled in fishing nets of paranoia, timidity, pre-prepared phases. It is a difficult thing to give instructions for, but in any creative achievement you have to relax and root yourself in the present moment, in the awareness of the present; then a void is created, a passage between you and the unknown, so that the gods can emerge through you and express what needs to be expressed. Hesitation, reluctance and cowardice, constant distractions, worrying about technique, hurrying and postponing closes your heart from the present, and stifles that fateful compulsion and intelligence which is the source of all art.

Reading is the most agreeable distraction from writing, because one can easily pretend to oneself that it is as productive. Just looking across to the bookshelf, the titles alone invite imageries and wonder — ‘Brave New World’, ‘Henry V’, ‘Tropic of Cancer’, ‘Burmese Days’. I discovered very early on the extraordinary wonder of being able to step outside of my current concerns and into a different world of someone else’s creation. George Orwell, James Joyce, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, to name a few, could disrupt me for hours, even days. All of the sudden I am in some café in Paris, surrounded by moustaches, cigarettes and wine, talking about books and travels, and wondering how I might approach the fair-skinned girl by the bar, and how we would get married, have children, and spend our winters together in the Swiss Alps and our summers in the South of France, and have a cottage in England — Northumbria perhaps, or maybe Devonshire, Northern Wales, somewhere far away from the squalor of London and the red-bricked mills of Manchester. Oh, what a life! If only I could get my short stories published, if only I was born into wealth, a gentleman, and not a lower-middle class scribbler, if only Germany had not invaded Poland. But rarely do I get a peaceful moment of reading without that voice in my conscience saying, ‘What are you reading for? Put down the book and write!’

I owe much of what is good about me to the books I have read. I cannot quite say how certain books have impacted me, but I am certain that I become richer with every novel and poem that I read. I did not know it back then, but in all of my reading during my youth I underwent an apprenticeship of a sort. When I was young I read solely for enjoyment, to ease my loneliness: I have always enjoyed the companionship of a good book. But gradually I started to notice the differences in style and eloquence between authors, and in how they constructed their sentences, brick by brick, how they introduced their characters and landscapes, how they used punctuation for greater effect. I became infatuated with style, with the rhythm and fluidity of prose, and I took education from all the great and popular novelists, and I became rotten with information and details, and then I set out on my own. Those masters of the craft are always in my eyes, judging every word and sentence and imagining a vision of excellence, which I am expected to reach. I consider my work so far to fall short of this ideal; perhaps this will always be true, and perhaps that is a good thing. But I like to think that I am getting there, and that this journey started with the collection of English classics which my grandfather gave to me when I was young.

Thank you, Harry J. Stead

Harry J. Stead

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