Why Writing Isn’t About Writing

I like posting photographs of writers on this website. You may have noticed. Writers in their studies, their living rooms, or even their baths. The one common factor is that each writer is depicted in the act of writing.  No surprises there. That, after all, is what writers do, right?

In movies, writers tear out sheets of paper from their typewriters, scrunch them up and toss them at an overflowing waste paper basket. Finally, inspiration strikes and a great tome accumulates on their desk, culminating, in no time at all, in the page that reads, ‘The End.’

Or, if it’s a more contemporary film, the writer sits at a computer keyboard; the cursor blinks momentarily before a series of words spews across the screen at breakneck speed as the writer’s fingers catch fire.

If only.

Today, as I was working on the second draft of my novel, trying to transform a stilted, half-baked scene into something whole and meaningful, I thought how seldom writers appear as I appeared then.  Seldom, if ever, do you get a view of the chewed up pencil; the strands of hair pulled out and hurled to the floor; the osteopath-forbidden slouch; the buns, biscuits, crisps and doughnuts; the cold cups of coffee; the bitten nails; the typed page with ninety per cent of the words crossed out; the vacant stare.

It dawned on me that writing is an infuriatingly passive activity. Most of the time ‘writing’ is just another word for thinking. If you are a writer of fiction, you have to think up a story.  You have to think up characters. You have to think up why they might be interesting. And you have to think up refreshing ways of using language with which to enliven their story. Writing is creative, intelligent thought.

Thank goodness I didn’t realise this until… well, today. Or else I would probably never have got started.

I always thought I was incredibly well qualified to be a writer because I could type at an impressive speed of ninety words per minute.  (I taught myself at the age of seventeen whilst trying to give up smoking by locking myself in my bedroom for a week with a How To Touch Type manual). No movie actor can fill a waste paper basket full of typed balderdash faster than me.

I’m not entirely hopeless at grammar and punctuation either.

But creative, intelligent thinking? Forget it. I get all my ideas from books!

There are times when, as a writer, it is possible to avoid thinking too deeply and to immerse yourself in action. The first draft of my novel involved a considerable amount of derring-do at the keyboard. Words were dashed onto the screen in a dastardly battle to meet my weekly targets. But the result was largely balderdash. The re-writing, the crafting of this material, requires much slouching and staring into space. In fact, I’ve given up sitting at the computer at all now. It’s just too disheartening.

On the plus side, thinking is a highly portable occupation. I have often read about wives, and husbands, of writers complaining that their spouses are constantly in writing mode. When they ask for the mustard to be passed at Sunday lunch, or when they want to discuss so-and-so’s latest affair, they find their spouse severely lacking; away with the fairies. ‘You’re writing!’ they shout. Well OF COURSE he’s/she’s writing. That’s when writers write. When they’re thinking. When they’re conscious. When they’re semi-conscious. When they’re breathing.  Just because they’re not committing anything to the page doesn’t mean they’re not writing. An awful lot of writing is accomplished when you’re not writing.

In fact, as I mentioned in Where and When You Should You Write, some of the very best writing is produced when your mind is ostensibly engaged in something else. Beware the writer behind the wheel of a car. There should perhaps be a rear windscreen sticker warning, Writer on Board. Or a set of W plates.

So, if you want to stop a writer writing you will probably have to kill them. And if you are a writer who wants to write well, you will probably have to stop writing sometimes and just sit and stare instead.

And mine

And mine

john updike's the couples

John Updike’s draft manuscript of The Couples

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7 Responses to Why Writing Isn’t About Writing

  1. Like the idea of W plates, if I ever have a car again… But – *eureka moment* – perhaps I could use them to gain uninterrupted thinking time in the bathroom… 😉

  2. Marina Sofia says:

    Yes, I am still working on convincing people that a cow-like state of rumination does honestly mean I am writing… (By the way, I too am a mean touch-typist – I used to be an ace at writing transcripts of interviews or teleconferences – but my own original thought?…)

    • claudia says:

      I worked as a temporary secretary for years. Perhaps that just makes our fingers itch all the more at the keyboard, straining for action.

  3. Mrs T says:

    This has cheered me. I am struggling so much to get words on paper at the moment but my mind is buzzing with ideas – a kind of writing then!

  4. Abbey says:

    I’m scared to start driving for the first time in eight years for this exact reason. If only I could ‘write’ on the subway forever.

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