One of the biggest challenges any writers must face is, you know, actually writing. The sitting down in front of a computer and typing side of things. The finding the time. The ploughing on: in spite of blocks and distractions. The getting out of the words even though you might have a headache. The thinking and the doing and the typing. Did I mention the typing? No books are ever published without typing…
… And put like that it sounds too obvious to even mention. But actually the physical act of writing is one of the most fascinating and difficult parts of the process. At literary festivals, writers are invariably asked questions about how they carve out the space to sit down and write, and how you keep going when the going gets tough. Some of the best interviews on the craft of writing in the world are those published by the Paris Review and the first thing they always ask is a variation on the question of pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor?
When I teach my CREATIVE NON-FICTION COURSE here at the Writers’ Workshop, meanwhile, I always like to try to address the question of how you actually physically get the words down. The advice I offer is generally to try to be flexible, because not only is every person different, every writing day is different. One of the worst things you can do is beat yourself up and obsess over the fact that you haven’t hit an arbitrary word count. But equally, another of the worst things you can also do is to fail to get any words down on a regular basis. Most often I try to suggest that people get into a sensible routine that fits them, not to worry too much if progress is slow, but to always try to make progress.
I like to hope that this is good advice. I’ve followed it myself in the past – and managed to produce a dozen books and plenty of journalism by doing so. But more recently, I have discovered two things that can work even better: a fierce deadline and a burning sense of injustice.
If you have a burning desire to write a memoir, a piece of journalism, or a biography then use that energy to propel your writing.
In early spring this year, I was asked to write a book about the people that brought us Trump and Brexit and the general sense that the world is spinning off its axis. I was also asked if I could write it in about six weeks. And make it reasonably long.
My first thought was: oh hell yeah! The rage I was feeling at the collapse of our democracies and the rise of a dangerous and malevolent right-wing would perhaps start to feel a bit less impotent. If I could channel my anger into a book that would tell the truth about post-truth and provide real facts instead of alternative-facts, I might have a small hope of influencing things for the better.
My second thought was: oh hell. I’d have to do an awful lot of writing and research in a very short time. And I’d have to – as already discussed – actually sit down and do it.
But that’s when the two weapons of clock pressure and anger really kicked in. I didn’t spend any more time wondering about how I was going to write the book. I didn’t have time for that. All I could do was get going. If I wanted to nail the people who had done so much to make things so bad, I just had to get going.
I’m not going to lie and say it was easy. It was stressful and tiring and my head was whirring for six solid weeks. But lots of the things that usually get in the way of writing just weren’t around. There was no putting it off until tomorrow, because tomorrow was too late. There was no wondering if I was doing things the right way – because I was arguing with people who seemed so obviously wrong.
And it worked. At the risk of sounding like a Nike advert, the thing I realised that sometimes the best approach to writing is to just do it. I got the words down. And as I type this article, I’m waiting for the first copy of the resultant book to come through the post. It’s called Enemies Of The People and even though it probably has a few rough edges, and a few clumsy sentences that I might have improved if I had more time, I also hope that the way it was written has given it rawness and energy and a burning sense of indignation. It feels important. And I’m very glad I sat down and wrote it.
Enemies Of The People is published in the UK on 1 June 2017. Available from all good bookshops