The art of not writing – some practical guidance


I recently came across a literary quotation by Hugh Grant. Asked by an interviewer about whether he wanted to write, he came up with an impressively honest answer. ‘It’s actually more comfortable to think I could write a novel than to discover that you can’t,’ he said.

That spoke to me, as I go through what could politely be called a post-novel fallow period, and reminded me of a piece I once wrote about the art of being a non-writing writer.

Here it is…


In response to the many successful author-based columns – ‘My Favourite Character in Fiction, ‘My Working Day’, ‘How I Write’ and so on – I have been asked to look at one of the most neglected, and least glamorous, areas of literary life.

‘How I Don’t Write’ will address those professionals who refuse to compromise their imaginative vision by reducing it to mere words. These people have recognised that not writing something is incomparably more difficult and demanding than writing it – which, as we know to our cost, is what virtually any unseated MP or resting actor can do at the drop of a cheque.

Many writers have considered moving into the area of non-production but have been daunted by the competition. They think of Ernest Hemingway who, towards the end of his life, was so blocked that he was unable to write ‘Congratulations’ in John F Kennedy’s inauguration book. They remember EM Forster who once gathered all his characters at a station, despatched them on a train, never to see them, or to write a novel, again. Even today, there are said to be several writers who are only prevented from doing away with themselves by the difficulty of completing a suicide note.

No one expects that level of nothingness from you as a beginner. Short stories can slip out. Shopping-lists can become poems. An innocent note in a diary can drag you into the full horror of novel-writing. But with the right attitude, some understanding friends and an unyielding dedication to the unwritten word, doing absolutely nothing can be achieved.

Preparation, first of all. Personally, I find it helpful, throughout the evening before a non-working day, to drink heavily. Each non-writer will have his or her preferred technique: my system involves a couple of generous gins-and tonic, chased down by a bottle of viciously effective cheap red wine and, when I’m really on a roll, a couple of brandies before I turn in.

The reward comes with the next day. After I awake to find World War III in progress within my cranium, an invaluable two hours of complete ineffectiveness, accompanied by those powerful feelings of futility and self-loathing which are so important to the non-writer, will follow.

To exacerbate the effects of my hangover, I try to listen to Radio Four early in the day. Whether it’s some teenage novelist boasting about a first novel for which she has been paid several hundred thousand pounds, or Melvyn Bragg pretending he understands what a scientist is saying, the programme will invariably irritate me so much that a full hour can pass as I stare out of the window, grinding my teeth with rage and jealousy.

But the anti-creative impulse is as much a matter of feeling as intelligence. Many non-writers arrange their lives so that, at the key moment when they might be tempted to put some words down, the telephone will ring with a call from an angry, disappointed intimate – ideally a lover or a spouse. When correctly timed, the emotional impact of this type of call can freeze any forward movement as effectively as a pound of sugar in a petrol tank.

The new technology has much to offer the non-writer – hours that you could have lost developing character, working on plot or even writing can now be usefully wasted ‘researching’ online. As a general rule, any search will quickly lead you to a website describing activities and inclinations that so intimate, strange and unexpected that any serious literary person will be happy spending hours studying them .

For those who prefer wasting time in a more interactive way, the internet offers a unique access to thousands of other non-writers in the form of chatlines – indeed one of the most popular chatrooms is called the Writers’ Pub. A typical conversation might go:

  • What u doing?
  • Staring out of window. U?
  • Me 2. How much u written 2 day?
  • Don’t ask!!!!

In other words, it’s not unlike a writers’ pub would be in the real world.

I find it useful, when those destructive feelings of guilt start to kick in at about the mid-morning stage, to ring a successful colleague. Nothing will fortify your writer’s block more effectively than to hear that this very day he has written two thousand excellent words, has heard from his publisher that his last book is reprinting, has been invited to tour the Caribbean by the British Council and that his agent has rung to tell him that a film option has just been sold to a Hollywood producer.

The toughest part of the non-writer’s day is now done – after all, nobody writes during the afternoon anyway. To make sure that I don’t trick myself into creating something, I like to leave my study and watch daytime TV in search for material – recipes, information about minor celebrities or, best of all, some luckless social misfit being bullied by Jeremy Kyle in front of a baying audience. Soon you’ll be caught up in the drama of Countdown, and, after a brief restorative nap, EastEnders will be along. Your non-working day is done.

Yet even now, if you are serious about not writing, you must remain alert. Spouses can return from work and, just because you’ve done nothing all day, express irritation at the state of the house. Children might ask what you’ve been doing. You might attend a book launch party thronging with smugly productive authors asking what you’re working on. At these moments, remind yourself that even the giants of non-production were rarely appreciated while they were failing to write.

Then, reach for the gin bottle, and start preparing for the next day’s work.


This article was originally published in the Summer 1998 edition of The Author. More practical advice for writers is to be found in the Writer’s Shed.