The truth about creative writing: nobody knows anything

Over the past few weeks, I have been landed in trouble by, among others,  Somerset Maugham, Rachel Cusk, Leo Tolstoy and Geoff Dyer.

Here is the problem. As a service to the community (and a pleasure to myself), I have taken to starting the day by posting a couple of “writers’ rules”   similar to those on my Tip of the Day on the home page of this website  –  on Twitter. Brief thoughts on the process and business of writing from authors, past and present, they have been extracted from a great database of writerly wisdom and eccentricity which I have compiled over the years.

The rules reveal one thing above all else. Writers disagree about virtually everything.

This very week, for example,  Louis de Bernières told the Independent:

‘Whatever research I do will give me better ideas than anything I could make up on my own.’

Do other authors agree? I turned to the first letter in my fascinating and comprehensive compendium of quotes (Wake up, publishers!) and find these words from Martin Amis:

‘I keep meaning to research things, to go to prisons and child-abuse centres, but in the end I just make it up. You take a bit of experience and pass it through your psyche.’

This kind of disagreement echoes around the writers’ rules archive. Remarks made with the prescriptive confidence – this is the way to do it, kids  -  which few of those quoted probably felt, the tips and thoughts, taken together, seem less like a lesson than a row.

Research, working methods, thought, language, money, sex, health: there is not the slightest hint of a writerly consensus on any of these subjects.

My problem is that, because Twitter is by its nature chatty and interactive, people become annoyed by what I have posted and take issue with some of the rules. I find myself explaining, sometimes even defending, something which Iris Murdoch, or Lee Child, or Philip Larkin once said.

Perhaps the number one rule for all writers, professional and aspiring, should be that of  William Goldman when considering  Hollywood, in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

‘Nobody knows anything.’

Here, thrown together in a hopelessly anarchic fashion, are just a few of the writers’ rules which have appeared on Twitter over the past few weeks.

Just don’t expect consistency.


John  Fowles: ‘I went through all the publicity… as in a bad dream. The people unreal and myself “John Fowles” most unreal of all.’

Nick Hornby: ‘I do construct an ideal reader or listener. I think I’m addressing some quite smart woman in her thirties.’

AL Kennedy: ‘Let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave.’

Ford Madox Ford: ‘I have always had the greatest contempt for novels written with a purpose.’

Don DeLillo: ‘I don’t have a career, I have a typewriter. I’ve never planned anything.’

Anthony Burgess: ‘There is no agony like the agony of writing badly.’

T. Coraghessan Boyle: ‘You learn to write through practice, through writing, over and over, again and again.’

Ernest Hemingway: ‘The farther you go into writing, the more alone you are.’

Garrison Keillor: ‘That’s the thing: to keep on working, to be engrossed in the work, not the outcome.’

David Foster Wallace: ‘Fun is still the whole point, somehow, no? Fun on both sides of the writer/reader exchange?’

Philip Larkin: ‘If I were a “proper writer” I would be a novelist rather than a poet.’

William Wharton: ‘Not thinking of myself as a writer gives me the freedom to be one.’

Hilary Mantel: ‘Sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being.’

David Lodge: ‘You’re always aware of the league table … If you’re not competing, you’re not going to be very good.’

Jack London: ‘I’d rather win a water-fight in a swimming pool …than write the great American novel.’

Doris Lessing: ”Writers are looking in the critics for an alter ego, that other self more intelligent than oneself.’

Stephen King: ‘Fear is at the root of most bad writing.’

Randy Newman: ‘It doesn’t have to be that arduous but it always has been for me. Writing is goddam hard.’

Eugene O’Neill: ‘Writing is my vacation from living.’

Ian McEwan: ‘You cannot underestimate the spite of a certain section of the English middle class.’

David Malouf:  ‘The only thing that’s going to be interesting in the book is what you don’t yet know.’

Iris Murdoch: ‘Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.’

Philip Roth: It is the distance between the writer’s life and his novel that is the most intriguing aspect of his imagination

VS Pritchett: ‘Write every day. Keep office hours. Inspiration comes from the grindstone, not from heaven.’

Will Self: ‘No great book is created by thought power -  it has to be felt.’

Philip Pullman: ‘Make the story itself so interesting that the teller just disappears.’

Virginia Woolf: ‘We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.’

Jules Renard: ‘I read what I write as though I were my mortal enemy.’

Maggie Gee: ‘It is very easy to fall off the tightrope that writers walk; no one is there to catch you.’

Henry Green: ‘If you can make the reader laugh, he is apt to get careless and go on reading.’

Annie Dillard: ‘A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.’

Cyril Connolly: ‘If…a man who is not married is only half a man,  so a man who is very much married is only half a writer.’

Angela Carter: ‘The only time I ever iron the sheets or make meringues is when there is an.. urgent deadline in the offing.’

Leonard Cohen: My tiny trouble is that, before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I can’t discard it before it’s finished.

Zoe Heller: I don’t write books for people to be friends with the characters. If you want to find friends, go to a cocktail party.

Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘You write best about yourself. It may even be that it’s impossible to write well about anything else.’

Thomas Mann: ‘A writer is someone who finds writing difficult.’

Jack Kerouac: ‘The first thought is the best thought.’

WH Auden: ‘The innocent eye sees nothing.’

Stephen King: ‘I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.’

Annie Dillard: ‘Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard

Zadie Smith: ‘The most painful thing in the world is an author explaining their own novel.’


My address on Twitter is @TerenceBlacker. The hash-tag is #writersrules.