Lesson Six: The Permission Every Writer Needs
... and it might not be what you think it is
An unusual picture to illustrate this week’s writing lesson from me, but it’ll make sense once I get to it. Those familiar with my newsletter will know my writing advice doesn’t tend to be the usual plot, character, structure stuff (although, I’m sure we’ll get to that in some way, shape or form), but it is instead advice that applies whether you are writing or not. So here goes this week’s ‘writing’ lesson…
If you have attended writing courses, you will know that teachers very often start their course by congratulating attendees for their presence and telling them that they have already – unwittingly – made the first step: they have carved out a space to write; they have given themselves permission to call themselves writers; “if you write, you are a writer…” and all that kind of stuff.
But that’s not the permission I’m talking about today. I mean, yes, that has it’s place, but you know that already. I’m talking about the serious business of arse in the seat, fingers to keyboard, getting the words down, that first draft appearing as if by magic.
During a session with one of my mentees last week, we were debating the hows of writing, whether to edit as you go, or whether to just get the blinking thing down. We all have our own ways of getting that first draft down (and really, you must do whatever works for you) but I remember attending a workshop at UEA with Kazuo Ishiguro, just a few days after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He told our little group that he always writes his first draft in longhand, with pen and paper. Why? Because he says it’s so bad, he can’t bear anyone to be able to read it and apparently his handwriting is illegible. Seriously, a bestselling, Nobel Prize winning author said that. Perhaps that might make you feel a bit better now about your own work in progress.
While he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck kept a journal of his progress. I have a copy of it here on my bookshelves and every time my own writing is proving tough, I take it down and have a flick through. Not because it is filled with writing wisdom, but to remind myself what a torturous process it is, and that if those greats found it to be the same, my own little struggles make sense in comparison. Steinbeck’s journal is filled with entries such as this:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.
How many of us can identify with what he wrote? It took me years to write my debut novel, The Imposter, because – ironically enough given the title – I was struggling with that same syndrome that Steinbeck refers to. So when I wrote my second novel this year, I was determined that the process would be more enjoyable, less torturous, and much quicker. It was important to me not to tell the story to myself before I’d written it down, and I would do that quickly, so as to keep the air in the balloon, the energy in the project, the fizz in the words.
So I gave myself permission to write a shit book. That’s exactly what I said. I told myself that I could make the first draft as shit as I liked, as long as I got it down. Once it was down, it would exist in the world, and then the magic could happen. And so I held my nerve, I didn’t tell myself or anyone else the story, and I didn’t edit as I went, I just got the story down, even if it would appear shit.
But do you know what happens if you give yourself permission to write shit? You don’t. You actually write good. Because what you do is you release from your shoulders all that expectation, the very thing that weighs us down. If you’ve got nothing to lose, you stop criticising yourself as you go, and you just get the blinking thing done. But you also allow yourself to be the writer you know you are inside, you’re not self-editing, self-aware, super critical, your voice is honest and that comes across on the page.
After I completed that first draft, I did a few edits with trusted pals, a line edit with my agent, et voila, it was done. And it wasn’t shit, in fact I believe it’s the best thing I’ve written.
Give it a go. Sit down today and give yourself permission to write shit, for ten minutes, half an hour, or hell, the whole day. Stop judging yourself and you will find that freeing in itself. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just give ourselves a break? So start today… let me know how it goes.
• Thank you so much for reading, I hope you found something helpful here in my words. I’m still building my substack and would be super grateful if you would share or subscribe to receive my words in your inbox each week. It’s free and takes just a few seconds.