I never had any doubts about my abilities. I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this. — Cormac McCarthy (quote courtsey of here)
I started as a writer at the age of twenty. My first assignment in my new career as an advertising copywriter was to write a leaflet for an ergodynamically designed hospital bed. The first thing I had to do was look up the word ergodynamic. Between brief and final setting, the leaflet took eighteen months, exactly the length of time of my stay at that particular agency. (It was not a wasted period; I met my wife to be there in a fringed leather mini-skirt and wearing a headband with a feather stuck in it. Don't ask.)
I had no confidence in my writing ability in those days. Nor in the following years. But such was the chorus of comments on my ability I came to believe I could write. A belief reinforced by the comments made on my essays while at university as a mature student.
So I can write. What does that mean?
First and foremost it means having the ability to read. Not just being able to read, but to absorb. I always read well beyond my age. At prep school I read all the Greek classics, maybe in dumbed down versions but I don't think so. I remember finding books aimed at my age group patronising and irrelevant, which is not to say I ignored Capt. W. E. Johns or Enid Blyton, but...
By my late teens, I had read most contemporary Catholic authors thanks to my Mum's library; writers like Waugh, Greene, Orwell [frustrated Catholic], Forster [wannabe frustrated Catholic], Hemingway [closet gay and thus frustrated Catholic], Lawerence [ditto], as well as the new wave authors, Lynne Reid Banks, Sillitoe, and other heretics who suffered from a lack of a Catholic upbringing. (Coincidentally, I was raised by Jesuits from the age of seven.)
So to write, you must read. But critically. And one's critical faculties should develop with age. It is not enough to say 'I thought this or that book was jolly good' when thirty. Less so when forty. And unforgivable when older. And to read critically is not an excuse to join the panel of Whose Line Is It Anyway and be scathingly witty - in your eyes if not in anyone else's - but to understand current trends in literature. To understand how and why the process of storey-telling has changed over the decades and so be in a position to make constructive comment. Otherwise when it comes to writing, you will only churn out a mess of words as nutritious as over-boiled cabbage. It might sell and, given the nervousness of the day, will sell. But you have to ask yourself, do you want to be remembered as the one who over-boiled the cabbage. Well, do you punk?
So to write, you must read and you must read critically. You must also write. Always the obvious statement, nonetheless true. Now I have known individuals who have met all the conditions as laid down and not been able to write. I don't mean they were incapable of stringing a sentence together, and in most cases their ability, in terms of spelling and grammar, was far superior to mine, but they could not for the life of them write.
I have pondered long and sleeplessly on this dilemma and have come to the conclusion they have never had to write on behalf of others. When forced to do so, you lose a sense of self; your concentration is on the words and the sense they convey on behalf of your sponsor. So, when it comes to writing for self, the discipline remains; in a sense you become your own sponsor and therefore are in a better position to write objectively.
Does this mean you have to write commercially to write successfully? Please, do I sound that dogmatically stupid? [Rebecca, Emily - shh!]
The issue is the degree to which you write self-consciously. The golden rule is, you cannot carry any sense of self when writing. Your job is to place words on the page in the most appropriate order. It is, or should be, as impersonal an exercise as stacking bricks. Yet, when you stack your bricks, remember to wear a rose stapled to your heart. Great writing also requires passion and the poetry to express it.
(Image courtesy of Nathan Sawaya)