Philip Langeskov is a short story writer and editor. His work has appeared in various places, on the BBC, in magazines and journals and in Best British Short Stories 2010 and 2014. Barcelona, a long story, was published by Daunt Books in 2013. He is a fiction editor for Lighthouse Literary Journal, and teaches Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he also directs the Spring Literary Festival and is co-director of The Publishing Project. We asked him for his tips for aspiring writers on how to tackle the nebulous subject that is creative writing.
Writing is not as difficult as some people would have us believe. There. I said it. Shoot me. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but it’s worth remembering that writing is an entirely natural human activity, a communicative impulse we all share. Of course, there are things like talent that come into it, but the impulse to communicate, to tell stories about ourselves? That’s in all of us. The inclination to enhance those stories, to make them better? Well, that’s a different matter…
Obvious, no? Susan Sontag has this to say: ‘Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading.’ She’s right. So, read. Read widely – across centuries, across genres, across genders, across the borders of language, culture and style. Carry books everywhere. Read them whenever you can. I don’t recommend reading in order to learn a writer’s style, but in order to be consoled and inspired by the vast field of expressive possibility. Read to see how simple a story or poem can be and yet still deliver a powerful kick.
Writers are great noticers. They see stuff that others miss. Cultivate the habit of looking. Look to see how things appear, how people act and interact; look again to see how things really are, what might lie beneath the surface. Dorothea Lange, the American photographer, had this to say about finding subjects for her work: ‘There are people who are garrulous and wear their heart on their sleeve and tell you everything, that’s one kind of person; but the fellow who’s hiding behind a tree and hoping you don’t see him, is the fellow you’d better find out about.’ Bingo. Look out for such people, such things. Write about them – inchoately, dreamily and without too much thinking.
In order to write, you’ve got to write, right? It’s true. At this point, a lot of people like me will take on a puritanical stance, stroke their beards and extol the virtues of writing a 1000 words a day, or for two hours before breakfast, or writing through your lunch break while standing naked in a log cabin in a frozen forest. Forget all that. I’m sure it’s good advice – and, for some people, exactly the right approach – but from where I’m standing writing is, or should be, something joyous and exciting, something that preserves the thrill of discovery. I find it hard to preserve that thrill when the act of writing turns into a dutiful observance of rules or injunctions. Something gets lost, my enthusiasm being one of them. For now – and until someone’s paying you – write when you want to, because you want to. If you need it enough – if you’re passionate enough, if writing is your vocation – then you’ll soon find yourself naked in that log cabin, but go there because you want to, not because someone has told you that’s what it takes to be ‘a writer’.
Writing brings about feelings of anxiety and doubt. Am I any good? Is this any good? Why am I even bothering? I’m awful. This is terrible. These feelings will never go away. To counteract them, it’s necessary to cultivate some self-belief. By self-belief, I don’t mean a certainty that you will be published, or win the Booker, or the Forward, or the Nobel prize. I mean instead a belief in the particular value of your extraordinary you-ness. Iris Murdoch once said that one of the hardest things for people to do is to acknowledge the richness of the interior lives of other people. I’m not so sure about that. I think that we actually find it hard to acknowledge the richness of our own interior lives. It’s important to discover a love – if not a love, then a very healthy respect – for the reality of your own place in the world. I don’t say this as some spuriously therapeutic exercise – love yourself! – but as a fundamental part of discovering the kind of writer you are, the kind of writer you must be. In an essay entitled ‘Fail Better’, Zadie Smith came up with a line that might be the wisest thing that anyone has ever said about writing: ‘For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.’ I’m not big on duty, but the rest is absolutely on the money. When I read I want to be given access to somebody else’s way of being in the world. What I don’t want is somebody else’s imitation of somebody else’s way of being in the world. It’s almost always false, hokey. Imitations, after all, are hard to sustain; you constantly have to check in with the original to ensure you’re doing it right. This is exhausting, for one thing, and, quite frankly, a waste of time, mine and yours. Look at your life, the things you are drawn to, the things that arouse your passions – your fury, your sadness, your love, your desire – and go there.
I’m sorry. I tried hard to avoid this, but I’m afraid work is unavoidable. For many, the work of writing comes towards the end, in the process of revision and correction, of drafting and redrafting. To listen to some writers talk about this process, you would think it was the most thankless drudgery, a necessary grind, like the hard winter training athletes do at high altitude, away from the public gaze. For my part, I’m with James Salter, who has this to say: ‘I hate the first inexact, inadequate expression of things. The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another.’
You’ve got to keep going. This isn’t going to happen overnight. You might write ten dreadful things in a row. No matter. Write ten more. Each attempt – each word, each thought – is another brick in the road.
Are you getting into creative writing? What tips and tricks have you found invaluable so far? Let us know in the comments section.