By Amy Jardine
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Writing has been a constant companion throughout my life, and I feel very lucky to have one enduring interest. Writers like to complain about writing, and I’m sure I’ve done my fair share of that (ah yes, the last sentence in a story that just won’t sit right) but in truth, writing is a joy. Writing time flies by, which is why I like to set aside a whole day for it. I’m not the sort who can write down an inspired sentence on the bus. It goes more like this: I come up with an idea in my head over days, weeks, or even months. It percolates for a long time. If the idea is insistent enough, tugging at my attention, suggesting mystery and fun, then I sit down to write it out. I take a day. I switch off my phone. I make a pot of coffee. I chat to my cat. I start typing. The trick is to keep writing (to mangle a great Janice Galloway title). The writing doesn’t start to flow until I’m about half an hour in. Then, like magic, it takes off. Just keep writing, past those awful, stumbling first sentences. Don’t listen to your inner doubts! Keep going, and you will start to feel the writing lift. Then three or four hours can go by in a flash.
Then a break for coffee, and of course the cat walks on the keyboard to add his own input. When I feel like I’m done, I leave the new bit of writing alone. I go for a run, or have a bath, or potter around the garden. When I come back to the laptop, it is suddenly clear how I should edit it. Our brains are always beetling away at problems, quietly, while we think we’re thinking about other things. When I’m editing new writing, I start to feel that the writing is getting good – or at least, I can see how it might become good.
I let the new bit of writing rest for a few more days, and come back to it in the evenings after work to play around with it a bit more. Editing usually takes the form of chopping bits off and double-checking the meaning of words (I have a bad habit of inviting all kinds of words into my writing, because they sound nice, without actually asking what they mean. The word obelisk was a frequent guest in my writing for years, and I never used it correctly).
On a Tuesday night I take the newest section of the book I am writing, edited, spell-checked and printed, to my writers’ group. I joined the group because I wanted to be a bit braver about showing my writing to people. It has been the single best thing I’ve done for my development as a writer, and I recommend it to anyone who feels a bit ‘stuck’ or a bit afraid. The group are very kind (and very understanding about my nervous readings) but, crucially, they offer thorough, meticulous feedback, weeding out strange lop-sided phrases, highlighting logistical problems in a plot, and questioning the need for adverbs. My writing has become much better since I joined this group. Last December I was delighted to take part in a reading of some of my work with Product, in the cosy setting of the Waverley Bar in Edinburgh. This experience helped me enormously. It helped me to understand better how to present my writing, how to speak a bit louder (surprisingly difficult to do without embarrassment) and it introduced me to the wonderful knowledge that there are other people out there who want to talk about, and listen to, new writing.
The other things that life has taught me is that writing requires sacrifices. Not in a tortured-artist way (please, no), but in a serious and, dare I say it, grown-up way. Perhaps the Beat writers managed to party until dawn and write at the same time, but I need whole days of undisturbed silence. Writing therefore has to be prioritised over my social life. I also recently dropped social media, because I found it was messing with my ability to focus for long periods of time.
On occasions when writing does get frustrating, then it’s time to close the laptop, and spend a couple of weeks reading. This is the other side to writing: reading something exceptional, and having that a-ha moment, at the astonishing tricks of language that somebody else came up with. A great novel is like a beacon of light, showing a new, far outpost of language that was previously unimagined. Knowing the lengths to which I could improve on my own writing is thrilling and unnerving, worrying and delightful, and it never fails to spur me back to action.
I’m not as good as I want to be – but isn’t that why it’s such a wonderful thing to try? Writing time is time spent in a complex, expanding problem, playing with beautiful words, testing out the sounds of vowels and consonants, and thrilling at the discovery of a new way of doing things. Life would be a threadbare thing, without this enduring puzzle to return to, again and again.