Monday Motivation: Writing is the sea we swim in

 In All About Writing

We’re back on Patience in this new warm English weather that seems to have become a fixture here. All around us lie a fleet of narrowboats: Patricia and Star, Bess and Syren, Birdsong and Slow Gin. A construction vehicle trundles up and down the road just beyond the end of our jetty, carrying who knows what from somewhere to elsewhere.

We’re on our fifty-foot narrowboat for the next six months. It used to be that we came for the English summers, returning to Johannesburg once the cold there had lost its bitter edge. But this year we’re here until the end of January, so we’ll find out in due course how well we hold up to sleet and snow within the confines of our little world.

Patience is, like all narrowboats, high on romance and low on space. But we’ve found room for two bookshelves with a range of novels, maps, canal guides and books on writing.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about today. The first of the five books we have on the boat is one called Object Lessons: the Paris Review presents the art of the short story. It features twenty great short stories introduced by twenty distinguished writers. I’ve only read a couple so far, but the insights offered by the commentators are excellent. I must read it all before my workshop in Stow in September where our subject is story

The second is a rather more practical volume devoted to the tricky business less of writing than of publishing what you’ve written. From Pitch to Publication, it’s called, with an explanatory sub-title: Everything You Need To Know To Get Your Novel Published. It’s by Carole Blake, now sadly dead, but in her day one of the more formidable of Britain’s battalion of literary agents.

The third is James Wood’s The Fun Stuff and other essays. James Wood is a staff writer on the New Yorker, and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard. A more astute critic and literary analyst (with barrel-loads of advice for any practising writer) I have yet to encounter. These essays appeared in various prestigious literary magazines, including The New Yorker, and tackle, sometimes devastatingly, a range of books and writers. There are no holy cows in James Wood’s pantheon. Writing, for instance, of a character in a Paul Auster novel, Wood says: “He is supposed to be a dreamy young poet, but is half in love with easeful cliché.” Ouch. And a little later: “At times, the prose seems to be involved in some weird, breathless competition to fit the greatest number of shopworn objects into its basket…”

The fourth is a new one, which I have not yet opened, by Oliver Tearle: Britain by the Book – a curious tour of our literary landscape. It’s a compendium of literary tales and anecdotes which resembles, in some little way, the meandering journeys we take in Patience.

And finally, there’s Julia Cameron (author, remember, of The Artist’s Way) and her book, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. It’s also a collection of essays. Let me quote the opening paragraph of the essay called This Writing Life:

“Outside the study window, the horses are cued* up waiting for me to feed them their breakfast. They are hungry and cranky – the way I feel when I don’t write. For me, writing is an appetite, a joy. Even when I don’t think I want it, even when I think I have nothing to say, it seduces me like the first really balmy day of spring: I want out of whatever I am doing it and into it.”

Writing is more than putting words on the page or screen. It’s also about immersing yourself in the craft, about learning tips and reading insights that other writers have to offer or in admiring the skill of a fellow writer who manages to accomplish something with words that has defeated you.

Writing (and reading) is the sea we swim in, and, just as explorers read the accounts that other adventurers have written about their journeys, so we writers should revel in the maps and guides that other writers have produced about the journeys they have undertaken.

So looking now at our two modest shelves of books, I realise that the row of canal guide books are not, after all, very different from the five books we have on writing.

Happy writing,

Richard

* “Cued”? or Queued? Now more than ever, I recognize the accuracy of Winston Churchill’s observation (and G.B. Shaw’s before him) that “Americans and British are one people separated by a common language.”

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: it’s good for you – and it’s fun

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