Confession: when my forehead is bleeding over a particularly stubborn scene, I find some of the motivational quotes which punctuate my Twitter feed deeply irritating. One that bugs me more than most is attributed to Ray Bradbury: ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’
Now I’ll bet £20 and a curry that, in context, this quote makes a good point. [A few years ago I watched a great hour-long speech by Ray Bradbury to US creative writing students – via a link in one of Candy Gourlay’s ever-informative blogs – in which he had a great many sensible things to say, including a recommendation to write one short story a week on the grounds that no one can write 52 rotten stories per year.]
But the mantra ‘You only fail if you stop writing’ is often taken to mean that we must keep plugging away regardless; we shouldn’t get up from our computers until we’ve reached a minimum daily word count; the muse must strike between nine-to-five or whatever time of day we’re chained to our desks, etc. etc.
All of which advice may well help many people keep going.
So why do I instinctively rebel?
In that time-honoured tradition of seeking evidence to support one’s intuitions, rather than challenging them with uncomfortable data, I’ve been on the hunt for reasons to justify my gut reaction.
The search bore fruit.
Ironically, the first clue came from an article entitled Inspiration for Slackers in the latest edition of Bath Spa University’s magazine. In it, Lucy Jolin quotes Nick Sorensen, Associate Dean at the Institute for Education, talking about the ‘reflective practitioner’ in education.
I recognised this theory of education from my days at Bath Spa on their fab MA in writing for young people. Reflective commentaries on different elements of our writing processes were an important part of that course, and this reminder made me realise that part of my hostility to “plugging away regardless” probably stemmed from this training.
As far as I understand it, reflective practice presupposes that being good at something requires practice. [Back to that famous 10K hours of practice to become an expert in your chosen field.] But it also says that even when we do something well, we won’t necessarily be able to repeat that success unless we know what’s so great about it, and how we achieved it. Ditto for things that don’t work.
Thus, unless we give ourselves the time and space to analyse our writing, we will remain at the mercy of inspiration, which (imo) is actually the route to becoming a slave to perspiration.
This small epiphany led to more general thoughts about the evolution of a book I’ve been working on (off and on) for more than four years, into which I’ve poured much that I love as well as things that I fear, moments that have shocked me, things that have bought great joy and others deep sadness.
In other words, it’s about life with all its ups and downs.
So I reckon another reason for my instinctive feeling that it’s a mistake to obsess endlessly over words in the lonely garrets of our minds is a belief that we need to live life whole-heartedly in order to write well.
Other people have, of course, made this point many times before, including Stephen King, who put it succinctly: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’
This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on March 15th, 2017.