Three writing tips

Here are three questions I was asked today, with my responses in case they’re of interest:

1.       What inspired you to write?
Do you mind if I respectfully turn your question on its head? Imagine that the natural tendency of a person is to examine their short life, to be curious about the lives going on all around them, and to be compelled to explore the beauty and the horror and the wonder of it all – either in writing or music, science or art – as much as we are compelled to eat, sleep or breathe. Then you could ask: What would inspire someone NOT to write, as soon as they knew their ABC? What else were they planning to use the letters for?
2.       Share 5 hacks to write better
The best writing advice I can give is not to think in terms of “hacks”. Writing is not about short cuts to reach a result. It’s about putting your mind onto a page, then reading it back to yourself, seeing how you feel about it, and redrafting. In the process both your mind and what’s on the page will be changed – sometimes by adaptive evolution, sometimes by grinding attrition, sometimes by exhilarating revolution. Recognising that a line writes you as much as you write the line is neither a spooky metaphysical statement nor a trite aphorism. It’s a radical acceptance that writing is a feedback loop, and that any finished pages spat out of the loop are a happy by-product, or spent fuel. It’s a solemn acceptance that writing is a vocation and not a profession, an end and not a means. Because the thing with a loop, of course, is that you can never get out. So, finally, it’s a lonely acceptance that readers can’t rescue you from the fire but can only witness the scorch marks it leaves on the page. The flames will consume you all alone. You need ask yourself whether you’re really after a short cut to that. On the other hand, I suppose you do have to die of something.
3.       Which is the one book that changed your life?
I’d be cheerfully suspicious of anyone over the age of thirty who claimed that one book had changed their life. Show me an older person in that state and I will show you someone who needs to read a dozen more “life-changing” books as soon as possible. Like everyone, I’ve read more-or-less widely in the canon of books that are more-or-less widely read, and I’ve been bewitched and transported as all of us have. Each time it happens, I’m reminded that life is inexhaustibly mysterious: that there is always another perspective, another way of seeing things, from some new author just around the corner. That’s why it’s important we should keep expanding the literary franchise, never allowing our minds to be dominated by one age, language, nationality, gender, sexuality or race – and certainly never by one book.

One thought on “Three writing tips”

  1. Just finished Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. I was born I 1944 on Malta and came to the US in ’52. The story you tell in that book has opened up my understanding of what went on in my family’s life before I was born. I’ve been back many times but never heard what it was like not even from my parents. I now understand more about my parents and older brother. As I read your book I shed many tears. Thank you for writing this book.

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