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A squall for attention
Various thoughts on writing
A few months ago I wrote about how more of my friends are picking up hobbies – something to do with post-pandemic restlessness and a disillusionment with all-consuming careers – and recently I’ve been noticing how many people are writing for pleasure, too.
The other night at a gig, a friend (whose job is so technical I actually don’t know what it is, though I once greatly offended him by thinking it was ‘lavatory infrastructure’) showed me an essay he’d written on his Notes app about his love of folk music. Two people I know with high-flying city jobs are writing memoirs about formative experiences. Another regularly writes poetry.
They always tell me a little sheepishly, perhaps worried that a writer ‘by trade’ might look down on them, or perhaps because writing ‘for fun’ has often been seen as fanciful or odd. A little bit Luna Lovegood. I always hid my diary-writing when I was younger, and, when those of us studying French started writing WordPress tales of our year abroad in 2013, our friends back at university likely (and rightly) thought we had far too much free time. Even now, some friends who have never heard of Substack or the newsletter economy refer to my ‘blog’ as if I’m still living in the MySpace era.
The other day I discovered the brand new Substack from actor Sian Clifford (known to many as Claire ‘I look like a pencil’ from Fleabag). In her most recent post, she talked about the “creative energy” writing regularly for the first time has given her:
“I have also learned that the more creative choices you make the more creative energy you have. Writing is something that I put off for the longest time but in starting my Substack, I have found that it has made other creative decisions far easier to tend to including the writing itself. Much like exercising, if you do a little bit, it makes you want to do a lot more.”
I agree. The more I write, the more I’m thinking up ideas and considering my opinion on things I engage with on a daily basis. It encourages me to be less passive, perhaps, towards the world in general.
But what I find difficult is creative writing, something I used to love when I was younger, writing stories and poems. Journalism is so often about precision – less adjectives, less words, clarity at all costs – that writing ‘imaginatively’ became almost impossible for me, particularly when I became an editor and my job became all about snipping and reshaping other people’s prose.
I realised this when a lawyer friend of mine suggested we do a Fiction writing course two years ago. Every week we were asked to write a short story based on a theme or a narrative technique, and I found it depressingly hard. It was almost impossible not to edit myself as I wrote, loathing and fine-tuning sentences while my imagination shrivelled. In those moments I am reminded of George Orwell’s Why I Write:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”
Getting fixated by the editing process and ‘good prose’ might be why I struggle to ‘free write’ – a process a therapist once advised, which involves putting down a stream of consciousness over several pages, without reading it back. I end up getting frustrated with the limpness of my emotions on paper compared to how enormous they felt in my head. As author and cultural theorist Lauren Berlant – who I discovered through this LRB piece – wrote in their book The Hundreds: “You make a pass at capturing something or tagging along. It’s too fast for you, it doesn’t co-operate.”
In fact, since I’ve become a journalist, writing in my diary, something I used to do regularly at school and at university, has become something I only do a few times a year, when I’m either seething with rage or desperately sad. Perhaps it’s because the inherent narcissism of writers demands we be read – a diary has no audience, unless you are so vain you think it may be excavated posthumously. Thankfully I have no such ambitions.
Besides, according to cheery old George again, 30 is the age we finally “abandon individual ambition” and become “smothered in drudgery”. But let’s not listen to him.
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This week in links
I’ve been reading this brilliant deepdive into the booming faux luxury handbag trade, which is becoming all the more sophisticated (though I did guess all six fake handbags correctly in the accompanying NYT quiz). For writers who struggle with inventive and engaging openings, Amy X Wang’s should provide some inspiration, comparing knock off handbags with Theseus’s wooden ship. And if you like this you might also like Amy Odell’s behind-the-scenes newsletter series Retail Confessions, in particular this post about what it’s like to sell real Birkin bags, and how fiendishly difficult it is to buy one.
And for more writing nerdiness, I really liked this passage from Lauren Berlant, again in the Hundreds, about learning to write fast and furiously in fistfuls of stolen time. I also particularly loved the idea of a ‘word fern’, a tiny shoot of excellence that any writer consumed by self-loathing while reading back their work can cling on to and, hopefully, make something of:
“Once, I needed the perfect time and place to write. I stood in my way like a poison-pen letter to myself. But slowly, under the velocities of worldy reals that came and went, I learned to write in my own skin, like it or not.
Making money, making dinner, taking care of people and stupid shit, getting sick or getting well, getting into and out of what presented, I ended up with a writer’s life. I learned to write in thirty-minute episodes on my frail mother’s dining room table with a three-year-old playing with old plastic toys underfoot. I took notes on my phone at a doctor’s office. I started the day writing in bed even though I had only ten minutes. Over time, I became allergic to the long-winded and roundabout, cutting words down to size. But then I’d become attached to a word fern shooting up in the space between words or I’d be surprised by something energetic already somehow taking off.
Some people have long, lean writing muscles; mine are shortened and taut like a repetitive stress injury turned into a personal tendency. I can write anywhere now but not for long, and it’s only in the morning that I have that kind of energy and interest.”
I’ve been writing about Jai Paul for the Telegraph, having been to review the mysterious musician’s first ever UK performance in the 12 or more years that he’s been publishing music. It was brilliant, but as I say in the piece, there is also something bittersweet about seeing Paul, who had become somewhat mythical, standing on stage before us like any regular artist.
I’ve been listening to Guardian longreads editor David Wolf on Always Take Notes, who talks about the nuts and bolts of commissioning and editing, and recommends plenty of excellent pieces from the longreads archive, including The Genius of Great British Bake Off by Charlotte Higgins, which I’d never read. He also directs listeners towards a very funny piece he commissioned while at Prospect Magazine: Clive James – who had just published a book about Dante’s Inferno – reviewing Dan Brown’s Inferno. It is gloriously rude, beginning with the line: “As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful.”
I can’t stop thinking about Isabel Kaplan’s Guardian essay, “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer”, which I only discovered the other day after reading a Vogue piece about patriarchal relationships. Warning, you will end up hating this odious man, in particular when he is quoted describing women writing about their feelings as “militarized vulnerability” and mansplaining Nora Ephron: “People misunderstand her phrase everything is copy. It’s really about making yourself the butt of a joke first so that other people can’t do it to you.”
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