Write like a lion!

A commission to contribute an essay on creativity to a leading literature website has allowed me to explore an issue which has been on my mind recently: on the journey from wannabe writer to professional author, do you lose some of the freshness and freedom of expression that characterized your early, unpublished work? Can the act of writing be inhibited by the demands of being a writer?

This is the topic I’ve chosen to write about in “Writing Myself into a Corner”, a 1500-word piece which has been published online in Collected, a weekly series of articles, essays and reflections by writers on the art and craft of the creative process, which is published by the Royal Literary Fund.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In my twenties, I acquired the habit of rising early each morning to write for an hour before heading into work. Back then, I was unpublished, an aspiring novelist, more focused on writing than on becoming a writer. I already had a full-time job as a newspaper journalist, so my fiction writing had to be fitted into my spare time. I’m a morning person, hence the pre-breakfast regime.

To begin with, I produced fragments: responses to prompts in creative writing books, character sketches, stand-alone scenes, abortive stories and novels. Often, I simply free-associated, scribbling the first thought that entered my head and seeing where it led, resulting in pages of stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry. Unreadable, for the most part. Some mornings, I would just gaze out of my window and describe whatever was going on — which wasn’t usually very much, at 6 a.m., in an East Oxford side-street. The milkman often featured in my embryonic work, recast as an MI5 agent (peeping tom, undercover cop, serial adulterer), his delivery round a front for his nefarious activities… or his existentialist musings, during my homage-to-Sartre phase.

Nothing I wrote in that period made it into print. Rightly so. For the most part, it was amateurish, ill-formed, and immature; or, more generously, ‘developmental’. Publication wasn’t the point, though. These were experiments in creative process: flexing my imagination, putting words down any old how, settling into the rhythms of my mind and the motion of pen across page. The writing gurus I was in thrall to at the time assured me such methods were not an indulgence but indispensable to the true expression of my creative self.

Brenda Ueland, in her classic If You Want to Write, urged me to ‘Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.’ I should not be anxious, timid, restrained or afraid in my writing, she advised, because these were the enemies of creativity. The tutor of the adult-education evening class I attended advised: ‘Don’t be scared to try things and rip them up if they don’t work.’

From the perspective of thirty years’ hindsight – twenty-two of them as a published novelist – those days of free-writing spontaneity might belong to some other writer’s past…

To read the piece in full, or to check out some of the other articles in the archive, please click on this link to the RLF website. I’m grateful to Collected‘s editor, Christina Koning, for commissioning, editing and publishing the essay.

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