At the start of any task, whether painting a wall, weeding the garden or writing a book, it helps to have a tool kit. If you are reading, you already own one. The tools are books, all the books you have ever read. Reading is the number one activity supporting a writing career, and I’ve never yet met a writer who didn’t read voraciously.
Key Components of a Writer's Tool Kit
I read during the long years when I was a busy doctor and mother of five, hoping that one day time would allow me to fulfill my dream of becoming a writer. I read every night, however tired I was, or however late to bed. I read to my children, often fighting sleep. I listened, as well, to stories from patients, and I watched stories on television, in the theatre or cinema. Stories in any form are grist to the writing mill.
I was lucky enough to add writing courses to my own tool kit: a Diploma and then a Masters in Creative Writing. These aren’t essential. Many, if not most, of the brilliant writers around haven’t attended such courses, but after a career in medicine and motherhood, time of my own was a foreign concept. These courses gave me permission to write and a community to write with. We were tutored by published authors, I read new books, and gained the companionship of colleagues, some of whom joined with me in a writing group. We meet every month for feedback and friendship. I couldn’t do without them now.
The thing is, the most important and difficult thing about writing is not in the starting of a project but in the doing of it, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Inspired, or not. A tutor on the Masters course used to quote the example of a peanut butter jar stacker in a large supermarket. He would have short shrift if he were to be found sitting on the cardboard box of jars, chin in hand, sighing that he just didn’t feel in the zone for stacking that day, he was waiting for inspiration. It’s just the same for writers, though easier for us to hide ourselves away. If we wait for inspiration, it’s not going to work. Writers who complete books show up and write.
The length of time each day is less important than the regular commitment. It could be half an hour or two hours a day, sometimes eight, or even more, depending on when your deadline is. It doesn’t even have to be somewhere special, though it helps to be in a place where you can’t be interrupted. For me, trains are very useful. A shady spot in the summer garden is nice, but mostly I work on an old table in a room with shelves of books at my back. I can feel the friendly support of all the authors I love behind me. The room looks out onto a quiet street, which suits me fine. The most exciting it gets is when seagulls squabble on the roof of the house opposite.
To keep the flow going, it also helps to get rid of that critical editor sitting on your shoulder, before you even begin. Giving yourself permission to write badly is a well-worn piece of advice that can nudge you past a difficult patch. In the flow of words will be buried gems, even if you have to do a bit of editing along the way. I’ll talk about editing in a future blog.