Writing Practice


Writing is like playing the piano – the more you do it, the better you get. However, concert pianists don’t spend all their time working on the great concertos and sonatas. They spend a lot of time warming up and training their muscles with scales and finger exercises, to get the stamina and fluency needed to tackle a big work. It’s the same with writing. You can’t write War and Peacejust like that. You have to do some practice. What I mean by practice is doing an exercise or timed writing on a topic, or simply writing about what matters to you from day to day in a journal. All these things will increase your stamina and fluency, make you comfortable with the concept of writing, decrease your general performance anxiety and give you lots of inspiration for bigger projects. But I think the name is a big downer. Perhaps we should attempt a psychological trick and rebrand it as writing ‘play’.

How do you play at writing? Find a comfortable spot and a quiet time. This could be your bedroom, with the door locked, a favourite spot in the back garden, a café or a pub. All you need is 30-60 minutes, preferably everyday, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage this. However, it is quite addictive, and the comfort of the act itself may help you to stick to it. If I don’t write in my notebook everyday I feel quite deprived and miserable. It has helped me over some horrible life spots.

Choose where you are going to write. I like a notebook and a pen – the physicality of it helps me, but a PC can do just as well – and it does have the advantage of being really fast, so that when you get going, you really do get going. If you are a notebook fiend like me, you have all the pleasure of choosing notebooks, but be aware those gorgeous notebooks sold in stationers these days are perhaps too beautiful. There is something inherently inhibiting about desecrating handmade paper in a luxurious leather binding (or made out of an antique sari or banana leaves, or whatever). To write in them would be like spray-painting on the front of St Paul’s Cathedral. So you need a notebook that you have warm feeling about and that is functional without being an artwork in itself. Natalie Goldberg, to whom I owe much of this wisdom about notebooks and whose books I heartily recommend, chooses books with silly covers – Mickey Mouse, cowgirls etc., so that she cannot take herself too seriously. This is sound advice.

Another trick I have found is to use loose sheets of paper, sometimes A4 folded in half and turned sideways to make a mini-book or something rather like a Victorian letter. This is so small a space to fill and so portable that it is instantly reassuring, and because you are not writing in a book, you really lower the bar of your expectations, which is always a good thing, as it does not allow the monster of self-criticism to rear its ugly head and stop you in your tracks. I find music really helps. Film music can evoke a particular mood.

Have a topic to hand so that you can get going straight away. Compile your own list of favourite topics or if you have the Writer’s Café software, use the prompt tool. You could try playing with the obstacle generator to come up with a difficult situation to write about. Or you might chose three words at random from the dictionary or a line of poetry and see where that takes you. The trick is not to come cold to the table. Have the card (i.e. your subject) in your head before you even sit down and pick up your pen. Ideally walk across the room and think “I am going to write about that summer when I felt jealous of my sister because she was going out with Andy Duncan”, or “I am going to write about the idea of a Don Juan”. Write down your subject if you like or, better still, make it the first line of what you write. “I am going to investigate what I feel about Don Juan. The Don Juan story fascinates me because I wonder whether I would fall for that sort of guy if I met one…”

The idea is to find a juicy subject that will get you thinking and imagining and making connections that you would not usually make. The act of writing, swiftly and without thinking too much about it, can get you into this state faster than you think. Write for ten minutes and then have a little pause. Then start again, on the same subject if you like or another if that one didn’t get you going. Don’t read what you have just written. Just carry on, keeping your hand moving (as Goldberg so memorably says) or your hands if you are using your PC. Don’t worry about quantity or quality. Don’t judge, just write. Remember, no-one else is going to read this. You are not submitting it for publication. It does not represent your one shot at the big time. It is just writing for the sheer love of it. It is for pleasure and not pain. You do not even have to read what you have written yourself. In fact it’s best not to. Put the stuff aside and only look at it a few days later. You might be surprised at yourself – and impressed.