Write what you know

Write what you know, they told me. So I wondered what I might know that was worthy of being in print and wrote nothing.

Until one day I realised that the biggest challenge was to escape the thought that writing is the domain of a special few. The old lie of the gifted bard channeling his muse is a pervasive one — and a great excuse for giving up before you’ve even started.

I’m not arguing that anyone can write, nor that everyone has a book in them. These are lies, too. Making a book, like making a baby, is an ecstatic moment of fusion followed by a long slog of hard work, anxiety and discomfort. You have to work at it every day, like a job. Even if you’re tired or the floor needs sweeping, you’ve got to put everything to one side and get down to work. Pick up your pen and start writing and — even if you’ve begun reluctantly — often something will click into place and the words will flow. It’s a feeling that always makes me think of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when he talks about his compulsion to drink:

BRICK: It just hasn’t happened yet, Maggie.


BRICK: The click I get in my head when I’ve had enough of this stuff to make me peaceful….(I.33.702–705)

What we’re seeking is the moment when it’s only writing that we’re doing. That’s when the good stuff begins — the ecstatic moment, if you like. There’s a point when I’m writing that my body seems to vanish and exists only as a conduit for the words in my head. And that’s a wonderful feeling: weightless, selfless and free. There’s a scene in Billy Elliot that captures it perfectly. The young, nervous miner’s son stands in the grandeur of the Royal Ballet School, his face pinched, his father agitated behind him. Just as he turns to go, the interviewer (RP voiced, stern faced) asks him a final question:

TUTOR: What does it feel like when you’re dancing?

BILLY: Don’t know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.

Like electricity, it’s instant and almost magical; a ‘flow’ state that is about being completely absorbed in what you’re doing. It’s so different from the way much of life is lived, in which we bounce between the competing needs of family and work, with emails and text messages pinging across our horizon like so many pinpricks in our attention. For me, this way of being takes on a quasi-mystical feeling; it’s a kind of ‘time-out-of-time’. But — and this is important — when I look back over the work I have produced in this initial stage, maybe half of it is — to be frank — a bit shit. Nonsense, overwritten, too complicated or just plain boring. It’s always a bit of a shock, that first re-read. But I’ve learned not to mind and to just let it come: the good, the bad, the shockingly derivative. Because, like any skill, my writing will only improve if I keep on doing it.

It came as something of a relief to finally learn that there is no muse to drop perfect sentences into the teeming mass of my writerly brain. Occasionally, I’ll grant you, I stumble upon the odd corker of a line. But mostly, what I first write is three, four or even five revisions away from being fit for public consumption. Because you have to keep writing, if you want your writing to be good.

So, I let it flow. I let my biro dance across the page, let my fingers clatter across the keys, while the words swim and cluster somewhere dark behind my eyes. Perhaps it is a magic of sorts. But that’s only the beginning: the rising of the blood, when everything runs away unharnessed. The next part is the moment in the cold light of day when you must begin to make some sense of what you’ve done. Unpick, unpack and cut, cut, cut. Slash those flabby words; tease out those tangled sentences. It’s a painful process; nobody likes deleting their hard-won work. But you must, you really must. Be ruthless. Because what you know will be worth reading if you are bold in your edits and fearless in your writing.

Four rules for writing:

1 — Write without fear or judgment

2 — Edit without attachment

3 — Share only when you’re confident in the work

4 — Though criticism may hurt, always be gracious. Stay open, but only make changes that you believe in.