Four scary words

Is there a more frightening English phrase – apart from ‘terms and conditions’ – than ‘Write what you know’? As if all any aspiring author has to do is sit in a coffee shop with her laptop and splurge out her daily life. An excuse for self-obsessed writing.

But it’s the best advice.

What do we all know? Love; fear; joy; betrayal; peace; anger. The nervy boredom of waiting for test results: the thrill of good news. Amid the mind-numbing routine of daily life – the unexpected pleasure of a stranger’s ‘Have a good day’.

Okay: so far, so Pollyanna-ish.

But what else do we have to go on? Facts can only take us so far. I’ve been researching the invention of the X-ray, and was intrigued to find out that it was discovered by accident by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895. But my research can’t tell me how he felt, when he saw the picture of his hand on a screen, the skin and flesh glowing, his bones dark lumps. Later he took an X-ray of his wife’s hand, showing her wedding ring. How did she feel, to be subjected to this new, strange process? Did she agree to do it out of love; fear – or curiosity?

But to write what you know the writer must be brave: because ‘Write what you know’ is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ in disguise. If we follow this advice we must put ourselves on the page – and bear the consequences. But if we want our readers to believe in the world we’re creating, and the characters who live there, we have no choice.

‘The biggest challenge a writer has is not to be careful,’ says novelist Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of My Name is Lucy Barton. She adds, ‘There are pieces of me in every single character…because that’s my starting point, I’m the only person I know.’

I’m writing about the life of a woman I’ve never met – could never meet. She lived under a brutal regime in the Congo Free State, over a hundred years ago. The challenge of doing justice to her life keeps me awake at night. It’s hard, and risky – but safe writing is not interesting to read – or to write.

Surely it’s more interesting to get under the skin of someone else: try to find out what makes them tick; what thrills and frightens them; who and what they love; or hate. Isn’t that the ultimate act of writing: connection with a fellow-human, whose life at first glance is nothing like our own?

Time to take the plunge. Imagine. Connect. Write what you know.


Hurrying towards the future

I’m working on the fourth draft of my second book, which I’ve been prodding now for three years, on and off. Perhaps the clue lies in the ‘on and off’ – which Colm Toibin, discussing his struggle to write ‘Nora Webster’, describes more elegantly as ‘circling’ the idea. I wonder if, when the writing gets too difficult, too close to home, I run away – and work on a short story instead. I love short stories – reading and writing them – and the feeling of having polished a stone to the best of your ability, ready to hurl it out into the world, is hard to beat. To pursue a possibly unwise metaphor, more often than not it drops silently into a well. But sometimes it comes back, gift-wrapped, shiny, smooth with handling; maybe even wet with tears.

And that’s worth everything.

A novel, of course, is a different proposition: I’m in it for the long haul. Is that what scares me? The impossibility of reaching the end? Or the impossibility of getting on to the page anything approaching the lucid, compelling prose that slides into my head on the edge of sleep?

Well, all of the above.

Like anyone who tries to coax words onto the page, I employ all sorts of devious methods. Guilt, shame, carrot, stick, penalties, rewards; but who am I trying to fool? Only myself, and who knows me better than the self I’m trying to fool?

Deadlines work. A plan. A schedule. I was in the middle of drawing up my latest wheeze – an A4 sheet, divided into weeks, and days: all the information I can find on any one of my three calendars – when I was thrown back to my teenage years. There on the page, in the certainty of the wobbly lines and squares (drawn by hand, so the top ones are too small to write in) I saw my 14 year-old self; writing neatly, in two shades of biro, subjects and deadlines and amount revised, and amount left to do: pages and numbers and books to be read.

I wanted to say to her: you’ll be all right. Cling on to these if it helps, but most of all trust yourself, and your instinct to keep going, and your obsession with writing – because what else can it be?

I drew up my plan, with its wobbly lines and empty squares, and wrote in dates, and things in red and black. Still believing: still trying. And in the hopeful spaces in between, in the lines and squares and all the promise of the blank page, I found what I needed: the future, waiting for me to hurry towards it, with only my obsession and my instinct to guide me.