The Ten Things Required Of A Writer In Order To Write

The Ten Things Required Of A Writer In Order To Write

Essential information for would-be authors 

Charles Jennings

1) Level desk: Clearly, a level desk. You don’t want stuff rolling across that same desk and onto the floor or, worse, into your keyboard/A4 pad right at the moment of creation. Nor do you want your beverage (see 2, below) to get sloppy. On the other hand, a desk that’s too level – a desk set up using the spirit level app on your phone, let’s say – shouts of an anti-creative obsession with orderliness. It’s that close to keeping piles of books and paperwork in a neat perpendicular grid. So some irregularity might be good. Maybe one of the desk corners could slope away, disarmingly; or you could cultivate a dip on the side where you don’t actually work.

2) Caffeine and other stimulants/depressants: You will need: coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, wine/whisky/gin in the evening, Benzedrine at two in the morning if you’re really desperate, cigarettes at any time of day — although I know one writer who builds his entire working world around a cigar in the early afternoon, followed by a self-lacerating, nicotine-sharpened review of the material he’s produced in the morning. Same writer also claims to write better when drunk, a slightly terrifying Beat-ish notion which I thought we grew out of in our twenties. He’s quite successful though, so maybe he’s got a point. Either way, you will require something to jog your senses as the long day wears on. Diffuser sticks don’t count.

3) Great idea: Of course it’s a great idea! You wouldn’t be bothering if it wasn’t a great idea! Its greatness overwhelmed you last night, possibly at two in the morning (see 2, above) and it hasn’t lessened its grip since then. If anything, it’s become even more oppressive in its boundless potentialities, in its insistence on being written, in its latent majesty, in its unexpected qualities both of charm and wisdom, in its sheer centrality. Just thinking about how terrific it is gives you the beginnings of a migraine.

4) Internet access: It’s so overwhelmingly great, in fact, that you need an occasional distraction from its overwhelmingness, otherwise who knows what might happen? You might give up before you’ve even started, bludgeoned by the immensity of the project. Which is why you have social media to dicker around with, to say nothing of your half-finished website (‘Award-winning author [insert your name here] has always been concerned as much with the potential of language as with its meaning’), plus a quick trawl of eBay to see whether it’s worth listing that half-sized Victorian brass bedstead in the spare room, plus fact-checking for the great idea (now self-referentially the Great Idea), plus online Solitaire. Twenty megabits per second would be good; anything slower and it’s a pain; anything faster and you start downloading whole movies and worse, watching them.

5) Choice of document formats/fonts/desktop pictures: An idea this big deserves to look as good as it possibly can. Times New Roman for the font? Deja Vu Serif? Something serif, anyway, it’s not a German technical manual. Standard A4 single page or two pages to one view? Backdrop of an inspiring snow-clad peak on the desktop, or some fine-grained wood, seen in intense close-up? Or a picture of the dog? How did we ever manage before we had this world of choice? How did any writer manage? I mean, Geoffrey Chaucer?

6) Sudden inner dread: You know it’s coming, you can see it coming, you even try to make allowances for it in some way. You’ve been making progress, the desk and the stimulants have held up well, it all seems to be going ahead as planned, but at some point in the process of creation, the inner dread will arrive. Could come earlier, could come later, but it will come. And it will dare to suggest that the Great Idea is, just maybe, not as Great as you first thought; not Great at all, in fact. You try to reason with the dread. You try to work with it, arguing that it must come, otherwise you’re asleep at the wheel, churning our the merest inconsequentialities. Let me have it, inner dread, you say, possibly aloud. Prove that my faculties are still working. Dammit! I’m not a zombie!

7) Capacity to understand that the Great Idea is, actually, nonsensical, worse than that, an embarrassment: So the inner dread lets you have it and the results are truly crushing. Not only is the Great Idea not Great at all, it is pitiful. You try to stop the inner dread from explaining how pitiful, exactly, but it won’t be stopped. Everything about the Great Idea that made you want to get up and start work in the morning, that kept you awake at night puzzling through its many brilliancies, that – admit it – gave you a reason for living, is nothing more than a pathetic delusion. It simply doesn’t work. Worse, you now realise that most of its inspiration comes from a book you read earlier this year — and didn’t think that much of anyway. How could you not have seen this from the start? How could you have been so blind? So the desk is level, you’re using twelve point Garamond and you have coffee! Who cares? Who cares, now?

8) Something to lie down on: Not the half-size Victorian brass bedstead in the spare room (see 4, above), because you know how mercilessly uncomfortable it is; that’s why you want to get rid of it. But if you lie down on something actually comfortable, what then? You fall asleep, experience tormenting dreams, wake up feeling haggard, disorientated and full of self-loathing. But you’ve got to lie down for a while, because the world you’ve been building for yourself has turned out to be a sham. Very well. Shams are best considered lying down. Lying down feels better than standing and certainly better than sitting at your desk. New perspectives arrive more readily when you’re flat on your back, staring hopelessly at the ceiling. For example? That pop-up coffee shop you thought about starting, once, with a friend: it’s looking better and better from this angle.

9) Moment which breaks the mood of suicidal introspection which has persisted now for several hours/days: How long is long? All you know is you’ve been on your back, figuratively as well as literally, for some time. The coffee shop idea came and went, as did a hopeless intention to go and work overseas, possibly in the aid sector. Plus something about retraining as a lawyer. And because you’re a writer of some kind – a failed, self-deluding writer, for sure, but how else are you going to characterise yourself? – you keep trying to invent a route out of your current situation. You don’t know any other way. And what happens? Something occurs: might be a subtle tweak which has the effect of turning the original idea inside out and making it viable again; might be a total tear-down, an entirely fresh start. Whatever it is and however long it takes to arrive, it’s something. It represents hope of a sort and, since writers are used to getting by on frighteningly small quantities of optimism, it’s just enough to get you off your back and at the desk again.

10) Level desk: You look at the desk more narrowly, now. Was that your big mistake? Before? Over-thinking the desk? But how could you over-think the desk? The desk is your forge, your workshop, your laboratory. But, no. In all honesty, the time for desk-levelling was then. This is now. So. Just check the desk first, using that spirit level app on your phone, just in case, but don’t spend all day on it. It can’t be too level, you’re confident about that now, confident in a way tempered by sadness and disappointment. But it’s not a big deal. You look around. Coffee in place. Notepad. Deep breath. Or maybe it was the font, all along?

Charles Jennings has had thirteen books published, appeared extensively in national newspapers and magazines, written for and appeared on both television and radio and co-produced an award-winning blog. You might think that by now he’d be quite relaxed about the process of writing. Apparently not.

28-05-2018

You might also like:

All writers are familiar with the horrors of the blank page, but just what is the process that leads to filling it with words? Neil Rollinson has some thoughts on this, and on what happens after words are committed to paper.