What Helps a Writer Get the Words Down on Paper?

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When I was a kid and already interested in writing I used to stare at the hands of novelists in those portraits on the back of Penguin books as if the hands themselves knew some special magic. (It can be pretty punishing holding a pen when you’re a kid, particularly the dip-in pens I was expected to use, getting all inky-fingered and raising welts on the index and third finger when bidden to write voluminous notes.) I can remember being much taken, too, with the mini biographies accompanying those same photographic portraits on the back of Penguin books. The biographies would describe the breadth of the writer’s life experience, John Steinbeck’s being an especial favourite of mine since he seemed to have spent his life doing anything and everything but write. This struck me as an eminently accessible way of working, suggesting to me that you can get the writing done without actually doing it. This was ever my ideal, of course: to sit at my ease in a comfortable armchair, day dreaming, pushing up the zeds on occasion and – hey presto! – producing a publishable novel like Steinbeck’s East of Eden or a quality non-fiction title like Travels with Charley every twelve months or so.

And it is with similar intent that I have studied interviews with authors for ever and a day – in the press and on TV in the main; in library collections, too, such as the dourly pretentious Paris Review series. None of an author’s reminiscences are to be missed. Because you never know when he/she will let the secret slip: When does he do his writing? Where does he do it? How often does he write? How many times does he revise his first draft? Who or what, if anything, helps him with his work? Because, contrary to my pipedream about getting the words down on paper, which I mention above, in my personal experience writing is not done at one’s ease whilst lounging in a comfortable armchair. Okay, so Marcel Proust wrote in bed; but he’s the only one I can think of who pleads guilty to having done this.

’Tis said, by way of example, that the ultra-prolific Elmore Leonard would in his early days as a writer deny himself his morning cup of coffee until the words began to flow. Meanwhile Ernest Hemingway invariably left off a day’s writing at a point where he knew what would happen next – and wrote his work standing up at a four-drawer filing cabinet. Poet John Keats would “put on a clean shirt”, he claimed. (Simple, huh? And I reckon a tad sacramental, too.) I could go on.. Because what I always want to know is anything and everything that works for writers of repute, simply because it might work for me, too – making the writing easier and, more importantly perhaps, making the words flow.

Somewhat less frequently, I have attended live performances by authors, too, For example, Simon Armitage at Gargrave Village Hall, North Yorkshire, during his recent north-south Pennine Way romp; listened to Martin Amis and Will Self at St Ann’s Church in downtown Manchester. (Martin Amis being resident literary carpetbagger at Manchester University as I write; the rest of the Oxbridge/London lot awaiting still the BBC’s imminent move north.) Once upon a time, circa 1980, I heard Stan Barstow speak at a high school in Manchester, courtesy of Mr Freer, former LEA Inspector for English, who thoughtfully invited a whole raft of writers to address we lesser breeds of the classroom chalkface, including (perhaps best of all) the late Alan Sillitoe, too. Meanwhile, often and oft at various venues in the Greater Manchester conurbation and beyond have I enjoyed presentations by Billy Hopkins.

Who he? you say.

Billy Hopkins (check out Amazon and www.billysbooks.info – a really entertaining website) is the octogenarian best-seller who wrote the hugely humorous, 7-strong Manchester-based family saga that commences with his personal fictionalised memoir, Our Kid (originally self-published) – and who was constrained to self-publish his eighth book title, Big Mama – an African-based thriller – by (bock . . . bock) a commercial publisher too chicken to jump genre.

More next time.

August 2011


Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.

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