So, you want to write. Here’s your first lesson.
Congratulations! You have chosen perhaps one of the most difficult, financially unrewarding and competitive paths to date. You don’t like making things easy on yourself, that’s for sure.
After all, writing is something that everyone who can read and has access to pen and paper can do. There are literally, in the world right now, 6 billion possible writers. If even 1% of those are any good at it, that’s still over 60 million people. 60 million people who can dream of publishing a novel, or an anthology, or a screenplay. 60 million people who possibly are much better at writing than you.
Of course, you may counter this evidence with the fact that you don’t want to write only for recognition, and to that I say: bravo! You can be like the many, many authors who failed to make waves in their day, joining the ranks of Franz Kafka, Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath and HP Lovecraft. Your commitment to your craft is noble. Let’s just skirt around the fact that Emily Dickenson never left her bedroom, Kafka suffered from anxiety and depression, and Sylvia Plath committed suicide.
Get this; if you want to write then you’re twice as likely to wind up killing yourself. Writing and mental illness seem to go hand in hand. In a way, it makes sense. Low wages, lack of recognition, and feelings of inadequacy often plague the writer, along with perfectionist tendencies. You have to wonder what drives one to want to write in the first place, for it is often a path that means isolation and the slow pursuit of a goal without end.
I say this to deter you from writing. And if you are so easily deterred, then perhaps it is not the path for you. No matter how many times I’ve wanted to give up, get a ‘proper job’ and finally make my parents proud, I can’t stop. I don’t think I ever will. Sorry mum/dad.
For me, writing is a matter of survival. But to survive in this world, at least till the inevitable socialist robot utopia rolls around, your writing must have value. Virginia Woolf took pains to point out that writing is a luxury, best pursued by the elites and those who can afford to do it. So, first and foremost, please don’t quit your day job until you have an advance in the bank.
That wasn’t the first lesson, by the way — our first lesson hasn’t even begun. That was just the warm-up. If you’ve survived so far, and are even intrigued, then please read on. I don’t get any more polite, but I do offer some sound advice.
Here’s a rundown of what to expect in my upcoming series on writing.
Lesson 1 (this lesson): Attachment issues? You’re not alone
Lesson 2: Understand the value in what you leave unsaid
Lesson 3: Nobody likes a grammar nerd
Lesson 4: Brevity = Beauty
Lesson 5: Stop writing and be a writer
All lessons will contain tips, real-world examples, sarcasm, some damn fine analogies and maybe even a picture or two. Don’t say learning can’t be fun.
One final thing before we actually crack on with our first lesson, then: please do not take what I say as gospel. I am human, and therefore dangerously fallible. There are more ways to write than there are stars in the sky (probs) and I only list a few of them. I shall, however, try to make my tips inclusive of all kinds of writers, including but not limited to: erotic novelists, cover letter enthusiasts, and vanity publishers. I think that’s probably going to cover all our bases 😉
Lesson One: Attachment Issues? You’re Not Alone
Franz Kafka is said to have burned an estimated 90% of his work during his lifetime, similar to how heartbroken sweethearts burn old photos or letters. The only reason he is the renowned author he is today, is because a friend completely ignored his deathbed wishes and instead of burning what little of Kafka’s work remained decided to publish it. Typical.
Whether Kafka’s pyromaniac tendencies were the result of anger, insecurity or a type of creative catharsis, it wouldn’t be a leap to suggest that burning his work was a means of re-establishing control. Kafka wanted to own his work; he did not want it to own him. Yet own it him did, deciding when it should show up to guide his hand and often leaving him lost for words.
Just check out this extract from his diary:
Pretty darn revealing, huh?
What can we learn from Kafka?
Think about those kinds of people who let their dogs run wild and never want to train them. “I don’t want to be mean,” they say, “I don’t want to go hard on them”. They want to be their pet’s friend, while forgetting that, technically, the dog looks to them for training, guidance, and authority.
When Kafka burned his work, he was admitting that it was a wild animal that had gotten out of control. Why would one engage in such a decisive and dramatic act unless there were truly no other choice?
But how can you train such an untameable beast, you may ask? I would counter by asking: how do you get a pet dog to return when it ignores your calls?
You stop calling; you carry on walking. In ignoring it, you take back the power. The tables are turned and the dog follows you.
So why does it matter if I’m too attached to my work?
It is easy to lose control of something when you’re overly attached to it. By placing particular importance upon a sentence, paragraph or point, you can wind up skewing the rest of your work to fit around that single idea. God help the one who then criticises that idea.
But that’s only a minor issue created by becoming too attached. A much bigger issue stems from the notion that your writing finds you; not you find it. I blame this line of thinking on the romanticists, who decided they couldn’t possibly have come up with such sublime prose themselves, and had to have been possessed by a spirit or muse. The trouble is, this separates your writing from yourself. Remember; you are the writing. You are the writer.
Let’s not get confused: Kafka wasn’t showing a lack of attachment when he destroyed his work. Quite the contrary. Look to the teetotal individual, who, by denying themselves alcohol in its entirety, demonstrates that the intoxicant still controls them and their actions by default.
How can we overcome this level of attachment then? By destroying work, or not destroying it? By ignoring it, or celebrating it?
All we can ever hope to do is learn. Learn from other’s mistakes, and learn from our own. Learn from what other’s think, keep ourselves open to criticism, keep forcing ourselves to try new things, and never stop developing.
Learn humility as opposed to pride. Acknowledge that there will always be someone out there better than you. But at least you can perhaps knock that person who’s a little bit above you off their spot.
If you haven’t had your fill of Kafka-related critiques today, then check out my recent blog post titled ‘how to overcome writer’s block and not be like Franz Kafka.’ And be sure to keep an eye out for the next lesson in my SYWTW series that I will be uploading on Wednesday.