I’m ambitious. I want someone to get caught up in reading my words, if only for a moment. Remember the best piece of writing you ever read, the piece from years back that excited you in such a powerful way that you’ve been seeking to replicate those feelings, that moment, ever since? That’s what I aspire to create.
I used to have specific ideas about what made a writer. These of course, were largely wishful thinking. What they amounted to was an excuse for avoiding the need to learn or apply the elements of crafting, editing and research. Writing, I felt should roll off the pen perfectly formed.
As I understood it then, storytelling was an instinctive skill. So all I required was an attic, an ability to cope with being cold (until I’d been discovered) and to not mind missing a few meals. On particularly fatalistic days,I will even admit, I anticipated a romantic early death – see Mansfield, Keats and the Brontes. What else would you expect from someone who’d spent so many of their childhood Saturdays reading Gothic novels or watching re-runs of black and white films?
Well, let’s not knock my models. It was not their fault I’d mistaken entertainment for education. If I’d bothered to look a little deeper I could have discovered then that each of these writers were careful readers. They too had literary heroes, and they studied their craft beyond the confines of schooling. Most important of all, they wrote and rewrote to make their writing work.
Some of my heroes went to university, others had mentors, or friends and siblings to share their creative ideas with. What was important was that all of them could, and did, discuss their ideas about writing with other writers. Because above all, what they had was commitment. It was not their tubercular-consumption that was important, it was their consumption of other literature. They read, widely.
Check out a writer’s reading lists and you’re likely to find a voracious appetite for all levels of literature, even if funds are tight. Sometimes you can find the references in their work – Henry Fielding discusses his ideas about fiction and drama at the beginnings of several sections of his wonderfully rollicking novel, Tom Jones. Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost, includes thoughts on how writing works, and which writings inspired her.
A lot of experienced writers write about their reading. Some are lucky enough to get paid for it. Everyone though, has to start somewhere, and these days, we’ve all sorts of wonderful sites on the ‘net’ where we can engage in writing communities. But here’s another option, for those of us still working lower down the literary ladder: why not take some time out from your creative writing to reflect on something you’ve read?
Do it just for yourself, or share it. There are plenty of places looking for someone to post a review online, and wouldn’t you feel chuffed to have a thoughtful response to your writing? All I would suggest is that you opt for the form you work in – novelists review a novel; flash fictionists look at the shortest forms…you get the idea.