HOW TO BE A WRITER
It begins in childhood, when you don’t know any better. You are little, so imagine being bigger. Imagine being smaller, longer, wider, inflatable, amphibian, in outer space. Make your Barbies into assassins. Make your GI Joes into the Loch Ness monster. Make a mess, make a fuss, make towers of blocks only so you can knock them over. Just make.
When you are medium-sized, forget. Concern yourself with whether boys or girls are icky or actually sort of interesting. Try lipstick. Try purple shoes. Try tying things to your bicycle wheels that make loud noises when you pedal. Abandon them. Fall off a swing and break your arm, or trip over while skiing and fracture your leg, or learn to play guitar and snap off all your fingernails. However you do it, break something. Do not worry about stringing words together any more than you have to.
Adolescence is the time for poetry. You may also try memoir – after all, though your years may seem scant you’ve learned enough to teach the whole world. You could solve everyone’s problems, if only they would listen. Free verse is the only real way to convey the anguish of your soul; formalism is fine but it’s just too easy to rhyme ‘woe’. Try to get your heart broken as much as you can. Heartbreak is excellent material for poetry. See also your parents, politics, city lights, empty fields, the shifting colours of your beloved’s azure-turquoise-emerald eyes, and the general unfairness of life. Keep all your poetry, but never show it to anyone, even if you think it is good. Especially if you think it is good.
Now you’re almost grown, at least in terms of height. You’ve done some making, some forgetting, and a whole shitload of poetry. Now do it all again. Imagine being dust-choked, mud-slipping, honey-submerged, explosive spinning indescribable; break your thumbs trying to launch a boat onto the blackened drunken lake; forget why you are even doing this whole stupid thing. Take at least six months. Now you’re ready for the poetry again.
Return to heartbreak, unfairness, and eye colours. Try not to rhyme. After you’ve produced fistfuls of emetic poetry, put it all away. Lock it in a suitcase, hide it in the attic. Burn it if you must. Now is the time for narrative. There are stories all around you; stories about lies and aeroplanes and veils and sleet and viruses and hippopotami. Do not write the stories yet; just listen to them. Listen to the people you usually ignore, because they are overflowing with stories in a way that you are not. Pay attention also to the narrative of your life: the time you got drunk on fizzy wine at New Year and had to stumble around the streets with your best friend until you sobered up because you couldn’t let your mother see you with such unsteady eyes; the time a scoundrel whispered platitudes to you over morning coffee and scrambled eggs, only to disappear with your iPod; the time you travelled halfway around the world and found a slip of paper on the bottom of your shoe that convinced you to go right home again. Be particularly careful not to write these stories yet. Just pay attention.
When you are tall and frantic and stuffed belly-high with stories, you may pick up your pen. Make sure that you stare at the blank page for a while; at least as long as it takes to drink several cups of something. Write your first line. Delete it. Write a different first line. Delete that. Write the first thing you wrote and delete it and write it again. Now stop fussing and keep writing. Think of the words behind you as a serial killer trying to catch you, or a burning fuse leading to the dynamite on your heels, or the things you are trying to forget. Let your hands make words faster than your brain can understand them. Keep writing until your eyes can’t focus and you have a blister on your finger. Forget to breathe. Now close your burning eyes, get to your feet, and go outside. Breathe in the air that is too hot or too cold; smell the bonfire or the brewery or the wet earth. Don’t put down your pen; keep it tight in your fist. It should stay there until your hand is cramped to its shape forever, until you don’t even notice that you are holding it. Words are shifting and elusive, and if you don’t write them down now, immediately, as soon as you think of them, they will disappear quicker than breath. When you go back inside, your written-on page will be gone. This is good.
Now you may start again. Grip the pen in the ache of your fist and force it into the shape of words. Do not think. Think all you can. Think about not thinking. The stories will come, but you have worked hard to ensure that they are buried deep. Now it is your choice: you can look away while they gradually float up on the floodwater, or you can get in there with a spade and dig those motherfuckers out. This is the first decision that you are making as a writer. The next decision is what order the words go in. Do not worry about any other decisions: trust that the stories are waiting for you.
You have now been scratching at pages for a thousand years. Your beard has reached the creases of your lap and your breasts are as long and flat as rolled dough and your hand is a claw and your cheeks are sunken and pitted from an excess of caffeine. Your pen has melted into your hand. Your veins lie flat and pale on the backs of your hands from all those times you had to use your blood for ink. This is good. This is good. Now fold up those stained pages and cram them in an envelope and go outside and squint in the sun – it’s summer again, and you don’t even know when that happened – and stumble to the fat red postbox and slot the envelope into its careful mouth. No need to write anything on the envelope; your stories know their purpose. Go home and lie on the couch and listen to the steady failing beep of the smoke alarm. Make a note to change the battery but fall asleep instead.
When you wake, your walls have become hedges of constellations and your ceiling a spyglass of thorns. Caterpillars have bivouacked along the arms of the couch. Someone is pounding at the door, and when you get up to answer it you will trip on your trouser legs. You have shrunk, you think, and then you remember the weight of the envelope you fed to the postbox. You reach up for the door handle and pull. Outside is an agent in a velvet hat with a huge cheque consisting only of zeroes. Congratulations! he shrieks, before picking a stray caterpillar off your shoulder and popping it into his mouth.
The next thirty seconds are an oil spill of activity. The art department pop out your eyes and squish them onto the cover. The line-editors make thousand of tiny nicks all over your arms and legs with kitchen scissors and pull the droplets into their fountain pen cartridges. The promotion department insert you into the doughnut-ring of a CT scanner and print photos of your innards. When they are done, they spill through the floorboards and you go back to the couch. The caterpillars have plumped the cushions for you.
Now your face is on magazine covers. Not proper magazines, of course; not ones that members of the public read. But ones for writers, ones only writers read, ones full of articles on how others can do what you have done, though somewhat differently. You are on one cover with your shirt off, holding a small and fluffy creature – this shows that you are badass yet sensitive, like all the great poets. On another cover, you are halfway through abseiling down a mountain while wearing black and staring at a lake – this is so that someone will give you a teaching job. You are photographed lounging on couches eating pomegranates, and wrapping an oiled bicycle chain around your throat, and slicing open birds’ bellies with your fingernails. You are getting sick of the proportions of your own face.
Your book is the first thing customers see when they walk into a bookshop. There are so many promotional stickers and quotes and flecks of blood on the cover that your name is nothing more than a series of bumps, the letters puffy and gold-painted. Sometimes you stand for hours with a fingertip pressed to the cover, trying to absorb some of it back into you, leechlike. You are still not sure whether you dug out that story or whether it’s still seeping up on the floodwater.
This is how it is done. There is no other way. Now go back to the start and do it again.
You are little, so imagine being bigger.
'How To Be A Writer' was published in Popshot's 9th issue, The Imagination Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.