A Novel is Not a Sock

I read an interview once with Terry Pratchett—he was the subject of the interview not my reading partner.   The journalist asked what advice Sir Terry would give aspiring writers.  “Write something,” was the author’s two word response.   “And show it to people,” added Sir Terry.

I remember being quite annoyed by this advice.  Easy for him to say—him with a hundred published works to his name.  “Write something and show it to people?”  What a useless bloody comment, Sir.  Just Write Something.  That’s up there with Just Say No or Just Do It—the two most useless catch phrases in the history of ink.

Of course, it isn’t bad advice at all.  It’s brilliant advice actually.  But perhaps I am only saying that because I followed it and it changed my life.

Cheers, Sir Terry!

I have been a writer since childhood.  I can do other things, but not as well as I can write.  For ten years I have been a teacher and I am not bad but there are many other teachers who are much better.  I’m an OK parent, not an outstanding one and I have stopped trying to be.  I sing, but that is the minimum musical requirement in my absurdly talented circle of family and friends.  I bake well but have neither the skill nor patience to be as good as my Aunt Margaret or my friend Jo.   I can’t program a computer, do math, navigate, draw recognisable pictures or DIY anything the way many of my blood and chosen beloveds can.

I can craft good sentences.  I know when to start a new paragraph and use punctuation with fair dexterity.  I write better than I do anything else.  I work hard at my writing.  I practise daily, am never satisfied with first choices of language and enjoy playing around with structure.  This brings me to another bad piece of advice for writers, one which never ceases to irritate me.  Actually, it’s not so much advice as a myth—a really irritating myth.

“Everyone has a novel in them.”

Perhaps this myth exists to encourage latent creativity—to dispel the idea that writing is an activity of the privileged.  I am all in favour of de-mystifying artistic labour but I can’t help finding this idea insulting.  Everyone has a novel in them.  As if writing were simply a missing sock which, if you found it, could unlock your magic potential.  By this argument, maybe everyone has a symphony in them—even those who cannot read music, understand orchestrations or know about key signatures. Maybe I have a sculpture in me, though my spatial awareness sucks, I have no experience with shaping materials and never held a chisel in my life.

I resent the idea that “everyone has a novel in them.”  It makes what I do seem cheap.  Art takes time, practise and discipline.  YoYo Ma did not just pick up a cello one day and become a great player.  Michaelangelo did not make David the first time he faced a block of marble.  Dancers train for years in hopes of being good enough just to audition for the Royal Ballet.

Art is work.

Why should writing be any different than these art forms?  Writers read widely to understand how different forms work; we experiment with language and practise our craft over and over again to get it right.  A novel is not a sock—it’s the sheep you breed to make the wool you card, spin then knit into something which might be someday be fit to warm somebody.