I love hearing about how writers write. Hemingway wrote standing up – by some accounts with a carpenter’s pencil (macho: very, very macho). Terry Jones insists that he wrote Starship Titanic in the nude. Proust wrote in bed, in a cork-lined room. Hunter S Thompson loaded up on anything from bourbon to Benzedrine, put a Dunhill in a cigarette holder, lit up and let rip. Kerouac wrote on rolls of paper because he believed that individual pages imposed artificial boundaries on his prose. Martin Amis hand-writes his fiction, but used a computer for Experience. Clive James sometimes writes in cafes and takes a nap every afternoon. When writing a book Stephen Fry gets up progressively earlier each day to work on it and eschews shaving. Salman Rushdie starts writing at 10:30am and doesn’t eat lunch.
I love this kind of information because it’s essentially gossip. The last thing I’d ever do is think that any of these snippets represented the secret to successful scribbling. They just give my impressions about writers a local habitation and a name.
It’s puzzling, therefore, to be confronted with advice relating to writing. And when I’m confronted with rules for becoming a writer purporting to be a signpost reading ‘Fountain of the Hippocrene: 500m’, I start to twitch a bit and bite things.
Do you want to know how anyone gets really, really good at something? By doing it all the time. That’s how. And how does someone become truly brilliant at something? Well, first they have talent, but then they do it all the time.
Writing does indeed have rules, but there are two words that cover all of them: these words are: ‘grammar’ and ‘spelling’. You need to be taught about these, and regrettably it’s becoming harder to find a good teacher as the years roll on. Things get a little bit more complicated when you realise that the rules of grammar and spelling are negotiable, but mastering them before bending them is a Good Idea.
This morning (at 2:47, to be precise – and please don’t ask why I was up at that hour) a friend sent me an article from The Guardian entitled ‘Ten Rules For Writing Fiction’. It’s a collection of authors’ dictums about their art, and unless the authors happen not to be taking the task entirely seriously, the advice generally fits neatly into the pigeon hole marked ‘Tits On A Boar Hog’.
Will Self is one contributor who has a bit of fun with the job, and is therefore – strangely – more enlightening than the rest. Take a look at his tenth rule:
‘Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment.’
Since Self describes himself as a flâneur, we can assume that the bit about long walks is genuine advice. But the rest, it seems to me, is a brilliant commentary on the loneliness of writing, and therefore the marvellous way in which it deviates, as an occupation, from the norm.
In the interests of proving how utterly, arse-twattingly useless lists of writing advice are, here are my Ten Rules For Writing A Blog. I must stress that this is really how I write mine:
1. Keep a gin and tonic within easy reach. If the juniperful Hippocrene fails to inspire, at least the ice makes a nice tinkly noise as you take meditative sips. Also, wedges of lime look interesting when distorted by curved glass and liquid.
2. Carefully maintain a large number of distractions. Stay online as you write, ensure that you are waiting for at least one Youtube video to load completely at all times. Google an obscure term in a language you don’t speak at least once an hour and make sure you forget it within twenty minutes. Keep at least one open book beside you and speculate on the exact nature of each noise you hear.
3. Google the obscure term in a language that you don’t speak and have by now forgotten – again. Think of a way of using it in the blog.
4. Do not listen to music that has lyrics. If it must have lyrics, let them be in a language you don’t understand, otherwise you’ll pay attention to them and they will affect what you write. If you must listen to vocal music in a language you understand, make sure the lyrics are so vacuous that they couldn’t possibly affect what you write: say, something by Alanis Morrisette or Jack Johnson. Don’t listen to Beethoven symphonies either: most will cause your writing to become grandiose, although the Pastoral will make you write like an eight year-old girl updating her diary. Bach is good, but he’s so good that he makes you lose confidence even in breathing, let alone writing.
5. Re-read old posts as you work on a new one. On a practical level, this helps to avoid repetition, and also you can find mistakes and fix them. On a less practical level, it’s good to be reminded that you’re brilliant.
6. Stop writing from time to time to play Träumerei, or La fille aux cheveux de lin, or the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata on the piano. Exult in the fact that you’re a god of the ivory despite not having had a lesson in ten years. Then watch a Youtube video of a concert pianist playing the piece you just played and suffer a crippling drop in self-esteem.
7. Brood over what the title of the post should be, even if you’ve yet to start it. Think of ways that you can include literary allusions or puns in the title if possible.
8. Know that the act of writing is so important to you that you don’t care if nobody reads what you write. But check your blog stats at least once every half-hour and develop unworkable strategies aimed at improving them.
9. Try to include at least one quotation from a classic of the English literature canon in each post, but sneak it in without quotations marks because you would recognise it, and so should everyone else. The ultimate goal is to figure out a way of including the phrase ‘a local habitation and a name’. Don’t ask me why.
10. Keep your left hand on the keyboard at all times, but use your right to stroke your beard if as and when the urge takes you. This will make you look wise and contemplative when your awed housemates gather to watch you at work.
Now you know how to write a blog.