No, you really don’t. But if I absolutely can’t persuade you otherwise, I suppose I should at least share a little of my experience on the matter. Talking to a lot of writers, you would be forgiven for thinking that they were all producing epic masterpieces from the womb and have been engaged in the great literary struggle ever since, barely a moment passing when swathes of creative perspiration were not dripping from their brows. And I’m sure that’s how a good deal of them view the situation. Such declarations can be intimidating for us mere mortals, as if the fact we haven’t been scribing equivalents of The Odyssey since we were in short trousers means we don’t stand a chance of ever putting pen to paper.
The truth is, everyone has to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter when or where we start, just as long as we start. And not everyone is obliged to become a fully-fledged literary obsessive, dedicating every waking moment (and non-waking ones, in some cases) to their magnum opus. Take my friend Sam, for example (regular readers will know her as Ice Badger). Sam is a professional technical writer, but has a huge creative streak outside of work and is particularly gifted in the field of haiku. She has often hinted at wanting to write some fiction and last week asked my advice about getting started. I took this as a huge compliment as I am certainly no expert in penmanship and my fiction writing is pretty low-brow, to say the least. But this is what I would say to Sam, and anyone else thinking about wielding the quill for the very first time…
In the past I have been guilty of hoarding notebooks, too afraid to write in the nicest ones because I didn’t want to ruin them with scribbles and nonsense. But scribbles and nonsense are exactly where the best stories come from! So I got myself a cheap, functional, unassuming notebook and began a-scribbling with gusto (gusto is optional, but it really helps). I’ve got lots of them, now, some of them are really nice. Even the nice ones are full of nonsense – quite frankly, I’d make notes on the back of the Mona Lisa if an idea came to mind.
Your notes don’t have to be profound, interesting, or even make sense. They should be things that strike you for any reason, cause thinking, raise a smile or a question, make you cry or fume. It could be the funny mannerisms of that woman on the tube, a quirky turn of phrase favoured by your granddad or some graffiti that caught your eye in the underpass. Maybe you have half an idea for a character on the bus, or think of a great opening line whilst doing the ironing. Anything at all, write it down. You’ll be surprised how quickly those seemingly random missives become a little creative goldmine. Sometimes, the random things join themselves up and little stories peek out their heads when you least expect it.
Inspiration can be fortuitous and unsolicited, but more often than not it needs a little helping hand. It is widely agreed that going for a nice walk is very helpful. Get out and about and notice everything. What does the sky look like? What can you hear or smell? Notice the tiny flowers and the way the little bird cocks his head. Notice the people – how they move, how they speak, try to imagine what they’re thinking or where they’re going, where they’ve been. There are stories in everything, if only you look carefully enough.
It’s always good to write about what you know and the more you know, the more you have to write about. Travel is a fabulous way to open the mind to new experiences but isn’t possible for everyone. Just going to unusual places (or places unusual to you), speaking to people you normally wouldn’t and looking at things you haven’t seen before are super ways to foster inspiration.
You should probably read a great deal. I admit that I am not a big reader, although I did read a lot when I was small. If you fancy turning your hand to writing, chances are you’re already a keen reader and will already have a good idea of styles you like and things you don’t. A broad spectrum of reading material will help you find your writing voice, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate your favourite authors. Rather, think about what it is you like about their writing – beautiful rhythm and alliteration? Gorgeous, rolling descriptive prose? Clever dialogue? Whatever it is you love, grab it and develop your own unique take on it.
Just start writing! It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away with the preparation and contemplation and forget to actually put stuff on the page. You don’t have to show anyone – in fact, I’d probably advise against it whilst you are in that tentative, fledgling stage of writing. And if you do, show it to someone who knows what they are talking about, who can offer you some constructive advice. Or, if you are feeling thick-skinned (and the material is appropriate) show it to a kid. Kids know what they like and are very good at saying what they think.
I promise you, with every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter you write, you will get better. Believe me, it won’t be too long before the words start behaving in a much more civilised manner and you are producing stuff that, while not quite Dickens, is actually, well, pretty good.
Just give it a go, enjoy it and be true to yourself. Nothing about writing is complicated, difficult or requires special insight. No one can teach you how to write, but some people can help you think about how you want to write. Pick up a pen. You will never know unless you try.