Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 20.
Writing courses, books on writing, authors giving advice focus a lot on the how of writing, but I wonder if you’ve given much thought to the why.
With a course this long, and also if you try to write a whole novel, at some point life will intervene. Anything from your coming down with a nasty cold to some major bad thing hitting you or the world we share is going to, at some point, disrupt or – more neutrally – intersect with this business of getting words down on the page.
And if you just think about it in that way – the mechanical challenge of transferring text from your head into physical or electronic form – then when stress happens, when defeat happens, when tragedy happens, the chances of your turning up to do your ten minutes, your hundred words, your whatever that day’s session would ordinarily be for you, are massively reduced.
So I think embarking on each visit to the page more like an adventure, or delving into the mysteries of a forbidden grimoire, or trying to crack a bank safe, or trying to commune with some higher being – adopting, essentially, an attitude that what we’re up to is a form of pure mischief – this is more likely, in the long run, to sustain us. To remind us that there’s a reason why we come back again and again, there’s something in it for us, we’re not doing it because society demands it of us. In fact you will find reasons everywhere why what we’re doing is folly, idleness, self-indulgence and pretention. To turn up and play, and experiment, and to write just to see what happens? You’re defying almost every expectation you’ve been socialised with. What sort of grown-up does this? What sort of sentient golem for turning labour into capital would willingly conjure imaginary voices for their own edification?
Yes art can move people and offer comfort and change minds but there’s something glorious and to my mind deeply wise about embracing the mystery and apparent pointlessness of art. And when I say ‘pointless’ I don’t mean futile or stupid. It’s just that when we’re writing we don’t always know what the seeds we’re planting will grow into. We don’t know what we’re shifting in our minds, what we’re unlocking, what we’re strengthening, the ways in which we’re changing ourselves through the practice.
And if I have any faith at all, it’s a semi-rational one, which is that by giving oneself to the act of creation, and sometimes not expecting any purpose beyond an intrinsic, enjoyable mucking about in the textual sandpit, we open up the possibility of amazing, serendipitous discoveries. It’s basically like you’ve swept the floor and left out beer and bread for the faeries. You increase the chance of magic happening but also, that magic isn’t the point. I want to be very clear on this. It’s a nice side effect but the real business is just turning up and doing experiments and letting yourself enjoy them.
Because then, if you find ways of enjoying writing as you do it, you’ve already won. It might not always be intrinsically delightfully every single second, but it’s also not about an expected future payoff. A bit like running. Not every second of going for a run is fun, but if you try to make it purely about, oh, this will improve my cardiovascular health six months down the line, you’re probably not going to keep it up. It might well do that, but that’s not a good place to aim your focus.
So we’ve been channelling voices and contacting the dead and I’ve been making a big thing of it like that’s super spooky and somehow in contravention of natural law, but no. They speak to us all the time. I’m talking to you now sat in front of shelves groaning with their collected voices.
And it’s not just through books that the dead talk to us. We get letters, documents. It can actually be very poignant. You know, texts and voicemail messages left behind after somebody dies. All these traces of a life, these footprints. Often not left deliberately as monuments, proof that I lived, I was here. Just these incidental, fading marks that say hey, a human passed this way.
So today you’re going to create one of those marks. One of those traces. I’m going to suggest you write either the transcript of an answer phone message, or an email, from somebody who is now dead. Not a real person from your life – I do think life writing is really important but a) I wouldn’t just spring on you something that intense and b) we’re working in the imaginative space of fiction, here. So this is going to be a voice message or an email, and so presumably it has a recipient. And this is one that they sent, not long before they died. Weeks. Days.
They might know the end is coming, they might not. This might be about that approaching end, it might be about something completely different. It might be very, very mundane. What I would like is for it to have plenty of specifics. Plenty of the flavour of life. You know, this person is going to allude to named people we don’t necessarily know, or specific places. They might mention what they’ve been up to or an upcoming event or anniversary. They might talk about things that happened years and years ago, old memories with sounds, sights, tastes and smells. They might directly cop to their feelings, or they might really avoid saying what they think.
As we’ve been practising, these aren’t things you need to plan. It’s more that I’d encourage you to put your training into practice, and try to listen. To feel. To just feel your way out through this, and what they have to say, trusting, and not worrying too much if it goes off course. There’s no perfection here, the voice is the voice and we’re simply exploring.
You might like to think, to kick off, how they open. Do they say ‘hello’ and someone’s name? Or ‘hi’. Or ‘dear’. Or just launch into telling some story or answering a question we haven’t heard the first half of? What do you think the way they start off tells us about them, and their relationship with the person they’re addressing?
I hope that makes sense. So, ten minutes, writing a voice that might be a voice message or an email. Think about how they start, and go from there.
Right. Ready? Go.
And that’s it. Well done. I don’t know whether the nature of the task meant that came out really heartfelt, or maybe it was incredibly silly, or somewhere in between. I hope you’re not feeling too melancholy, but if you are, try to be with it, be open to it. These pesky emotions are really the basis upon which you will write the best fiction you ever commit to paper. The more you can let yourself feel them, the more they’ll become available to you and your writing.
Cool. Take care. Drink plenty of fluids. I’ll see you tomorrow.