The art of creative non-writing
12 January 2011
Do you know the feeling when you are so absorbed in what you are writing that you lose all sense of time? Food, sex, sleep cease to be anything more than irritants which briefly divert you from the onward rush of your prose…
[In my latest ‘Endpaper’ column for The Author, I provide some useful practical hints for the many people who fancy the life of a writer but can’t be arsed to write anything. ]
… You have to set an alarm to remind you to go the lavatory. When you go to bed, your mind is churning with creativity. At the first twitterings of the dawn chorus, your eyes snap open, your brain scrambles into action like a fighter pilot in 1940. You hurry blindly to your desk to resume your real life – that of the imagination. You are haunted by your characters. It is almost as if it is not you who is writing them but they who are writing you. Does all that sound thrillingly familiar to you?
Nor me. In fact, the mere process of completing that paragraph has left me drained. Fortunately, my current project addresses the part of an author’s life which is most frequently ignored: that of not writing. Entitled The White Page: How to Discover your Inner Non-Writer, my book would (if I could ever get around to writing it) be a ground-breaking work.
Thousands of hours have been spent in creative writing classes studying characterisation, structure, narrative tone and interiority. Yet, as any experienced author will know, it is the unwritten book which is truly exciting, a perfect literary construct, teeming with untapped potential, aching with unexpressed subtlety. “All art,” John Banville once said, “conspires to the condition of pure style.” The White Page will (or would) go further: all art conspires to the condition of pure, wordless imagination. Nothing is more ineffably beautiful than a private daydream.
Writers from Laurence Sterne to Geoff Dyer have tussled with the subject of non-writing but, one after the other, they have failed in this key respect: they completed their books.
The White Page will be different. An open-ended work, it will be a literary celebration of the truism that it is better to travel than to arrive. My example to the many millions of non-writers around the world will have sort of Buddhist simplicity. It will never be completed, remaining forever that most vital and alive part of an author’s life, a work in progress.
The scribbling fools who believe that words on the page are the thing, slaves to futile productivity, like to believe that non-writing is somehow an easier option . Only the true master of the art of the white page will appreciate the naivety of this view. Sometimes you can jot down a few words. Your sails are caught by an unexpected breath of wind and soon you are disappearing towards the horizon, another writer doing the vulgar, obvious thing.
“Why not be a writer?” asks the irritating advertisement which appears in the daily newspapers. My book (if it were written) would ask the bigger, braver question: why be a writer? Non-writing provides all the pleasures of a literary life – launch parties, discussion of your work, a ready excuse for bad behaviour of one kind or another – without the inevitable disappointments which that most depressing thing, a completed manuscript, will inevitably bring.
Here are a few items from my carefully planned, comprehensively unwritten guide for the amateur non-writer.
1. Talk about the book you plan to write at every opportunity. Those who wish to finish a book will keep its contents as much of a secret as possible. They selfishly hoard their words until the day they can be released in written form , another book to clutter up the shelves of the world. Non-writers are more generous, talking about what they will (or would) write to anyone who will listen, sometimes even writing articles about it. Remember that a story described is always better than it would be when written down, and is considerably less time-consuming for all concerned.
2. Make as many lists as you can.
3. Include in your lists: a) sub-plots; b) characters; c) names of characters; d) the kind of things your characters might like to do; e) or say; f) their favourite colours; g) the themes that your book will (or would) address; h) the sub-themes; i) possible chapter heads; j) telling episodes which should be squeezed in; k) amusing phrases you have heard and which might come in handy; l) people you would mention in the acknowledgements if the book were ever finished; m) people who can bloody whistle for a mention; n) chapter titles; o) any other lists which could delay having to write anything. Pin your lists to a cork board in front of your desk and revise them now and then.
4. My agent just rang. “Here’s an idea,” she said.
“For what?” I asked.
“For filling up a few more pages of the book you’re not writing.”
I put down my coffee and gazed out of the window. The leaves on the beech tree outside were slowly turning brown, I noticed. “Go on,” I sighed.
“You jot down bits of pointless conversation.”
“You mean – ?”
“No, let me finish,” she snapped. “ Pointless conversation will make the book look more accessible. Everyone prefers a bit of chat to long paragraphs of exposition.”
She hung up.
“What the hell was that all about?” I asked myself.
5. Tell fellow-authors that you are late for deadline and can only meet for a drink during the hours of darkness. Part of the pleasure of being a non-writer lies in watching your busier writer friends going further round the bend with every completed book, the disappointment of literary life cutting ever deeper into their souls.
6. Bertolt Brecht had several desks on which he left different items of uncompleted work – a play, an essay, a review, a story. Follow his example; it is a paradox of the non-writing life that the more projects you are planning, the less you will achieve. With several white pages “on the go”, the non-writer can move effortlessly, and with the restless creativity of the serious artist, from one white page to another.
Other Endpaper pieces, providing an essential insight and advice into the writing life, can be found in my Writer’s Shed.