On WritingMany writers, such as Stephen King, advise that you should have a set time for writing--writing should be treated no differently than office work, with a time to punch in and a quota of pages for the day. And though there is certainly wisdom in that for many writers, for the creation of something from nothing takes a tremendous amount of discipline which often times can only be gained through a strict daily quota, the disadvantage for me at least is that the writing I do on such a schedule feels forced. It's the literary equivalent of pushing the square peg through the round hole.
So when I came across this piece by one of my favorite writers, M. John Harrison, a very naturalistic writer who is able to turn the details of the mundane and turn them into the surreal, the transcendent, or the disturbing, I felt relieved to see that one can be a successful writer while being guided by impulse rather than routine.
How I Write by M. John Harrison
Because I have no memory I’m forced to collect the things that interest me--landscapes, scenes out of other people’s lives, bits of overheard dialogue--in a notebook. I used to pride myself on using any notebook that came to hand, especially if it had a nice puppy or some flowers on the cover. But you end up like everyone else, using the Moleskines with the little squares despite the enduring shame.
Everything goes into the computer. It spends several years inside, like a character from Nova Swing, shifting location, attempting escape, undergoing recombination, transformation, cannibalism, verdigris, duplication, interrogation, prolapse. I rake through the files most days, looking for connections. Eventually even the gnarliest and most idiolectic bits and pieces give up what they know. Light, written in 2001, begins with a barely-modified note, including verbatim quotes, scribbled down in 1994 during an academic dinner in Leicester.
The notebook stage is the last time anything of mine sees paper until publication. I like to do lots of operations. Fountain pens and refurbished 1930 Underwood portables don’t cut it; digital management is the appropriate choice. Have you ever noticed how every male novelist you meet at a literary festival wears a linen jacket and is called Tim ? Tim prefers an antique Watermans, maybe his dad owned it. It keeps him pure and returns him to the sinewy prose of the giants who came before us all.
I don’t have any writing pattern. I hate being professional. I don’t write according to a schedule or an output plan; I don’t begin at the beginning and write to the end. Or rather: if I do any of those things I usually have to bin the results. Writing should be fun--absorbing, transporting, intense, whatever. It should ambush you. It should be up there with sex, drugs and irresponsible driving. It shouldn’t have anything to do with research or require a degree in finding out about lipstick colours in 1943. I can’t do it if I’m bored or depressed or feeling unconfident. Once it’s working, I can write anywhere--I’ve done stuff while hanging off an abseil rope on a sea cliff or a highrise building--but not under any conditions. If I’m sitting at my desk I hate to be cold, I hate anyone’s noise except my own. But I like working on a train.
I write to find out why I’m writing what I’m writing. I like to write from life, as in Climbers, but I like imaginative fiction too. Imagination is nonlinear, dynamical, not subject to reduction. I could never pitch an idea to Hollywood--if you can write it as a synoptic sentence why bother to write it as anything else ? Neither am I impressed by the myth of a prose transparent to some meaning which exists independent of it. However much of a record it pretends to be, what goes into my notebooks is already a fabrication. Good thing too.
Copyright Time Out 2006