Wednesday, 13 May 2020

How to be a great writer

This website is dedicated to helping writers write, avoiding the how-to-actually-write in favour of the how-to-actually-be. Today, inspired, frustrated, maddened, whatever, by lockdown, I have branched out into how to be not just a writer, but a great one. Because, let’s face it, none of us want to mess about.

1. Ignore all fashions, facts and the Twitter zeitgeist.

2. Read everything possible – good, bad, current, classic, in every genre.

3. Become a word-nerd, read poetry aloud, peruse the dictionary, memorize brilliant sentences.

4. Have an unhappy childhood.

5. Either a. give up drinking alcohol or b. become an alcoholic. Moderation is the enemy of genius.

6. Write first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour. Don’t stop to brush your teeth.

7. Fall in love unrequitedly. Take notes.

8. Fall in love requitedly, then fall out of love, by very gradual degrees. Take copious notes.

9. Be extremely selfish and sacrifice your family and friends to Art when necessary, or if you feel like it.

10. Ignore all lists: they are for mediocrities.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Living la vida lockdown

Tense, moi? Apparently not. All my life I have been a hypochondriac, a worrier, awfulizer and general unease generator, and now here I am, locked down in a pandemic. I seemed to be the only person to get into a serious anxiety state about the bird flu outbreak in 2004, eventually only able to sleep at night when I bought some Tamiflu from a Canadian website for £400, which I could not actually afford. I kept it under the stairs, mindful of the fact that when it All Kicked Off, my neighbours might murder me to get their hands on it if I revealed its whereabouts. (It was for my kids, not theirs, I had totally embraced the whole Sarah Connor/Terminator mindset.) I threw it out two years later when we moved house. By then I was panicking about something else. And yet, weirdly, here we are in an actual dystopian movie styled by Waitrose food magazine, and I am completely calm.

Perhaps this is because I feel my constant fearfulness has now been vindicated. Things really were going to get this bad, and the well-adjusted optimists were wrong. Or perhaps because I have the perfect lock-down personality – unsociable, introverted and bookish. This time last year, I was on a train to Manchester, off to run a historical fiction conference, busy, busy, busy. Now I’ve started working part time at a point when the entire planet feels as if it has taken the same decision. There is stillness with the worry. There is birdsong outside the window, I’ve even heard owls hooting.

And yes, I do find I can focus on writing. I don’t write for hours, I do about two or three hours on my non-work days. My strategies, such as they are: limiting doom-scrolling; drinking one small glass of wine a day; walking in the evening (as seen in the photo - wonderful Endcliffe Park in Sheffield) and postponing a self-improving assault on Massive Novels in favour of short stories and poetry. (Still don’t really know how to read poetry, still staring at the words the way I used to look at pictures in galleries or art movies where nothing happens, waiting for someone to give me the explanation.) 

Also, I don't understand the urge to read The Road or La Peste at this point in time; I am definitely in the Barbara Pym comfort reading camp, although usually I don't *get* her novels. Vicars, quietly chic heroines, teashops in the 1950s - her books are the literary equivalent of Bake Off, but with a tincture of astringency. Just the job, unfettered feel-good makes me uneasy.

This is not advice - what works for me may be hell for other people - but I feel strangely functional. Lockdown might be scary, but for those of us who aren't on the frontline it is a chance to let things settle somehow, and that can't be bad.