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How to be a writer when you’re not writing

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo for Matthew Burgess’s book ‘enormous SMALLNESS’

Recently, my laptop died. Let’s just say it had a little accident involving water and has, in two words, had it. (I am currently borrowing from various people and snatching my husband’s when I can.)

First reaction? Panic. I had planned to take my laptop away on holiday with me, to spend a little time working on my novel edits each day whilst keeping vaguely up to date with news from the literary world. Yet this was not to be. And whilst I am, naturally, missing my laptop – the comforting touch of it which becomes as familiar as an old friend – until I get another one sorted out, I think it’s helpful to view this as an opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong – writers, ultimately, need to write. Not just talk about, think about or read about writing, but honing that daily habit of putting bums on seats and words on the page. Yet at the same time, what I realised whilst away on holiday that this is crucial time when the ‘field’ (the writer’s mind) lies fallow. This can be a time for composting or breathing space, for  gentle magic to be blown into the mind.

I become so preoccupied with my writing, not to mention keeping on top of twitter, facebook and pinterest etc etc that there are times when it all becomes a whirlwind and I’m not sure I can see the wood for the trees. Yes, social media can be an extremely useful tool for writers, but if I spend this time away from it, will my writing suffer? Will I sell less books? Actually, no. I really don’t think so.

Whilst away with my family over new year, I found myself exploring other writing projects away from my novel that had long lain dormant. I didn’t start writing them by hand, but I did find myself making notes about them and starting to form structures. I also read and read, probably more than I would have done if I’d had my laptop with me, and I also heard the voices of my characters,  filling out details and scenarios.

Writing, though it sounds like an oxymoron, does not just have to be about writing. It can also be about being still and listening to that voice of calm that comes from a different place than the one that fuses frenzied fingertips to the keys of one’s laptop. So yes, to be a writer you have to write. Obviously. But I’d argue that to be a writer you also need to be the following:

  • A voracious reader. Do other writers make you forget you’re reading? Literally transform you to another time and place? If so, how? And if not, why not?
  • A good listener. In the words of Simone Weil, ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ So listen attentively, astutely and respectfully to another’s words and, equally importantly, to the nuances of the pauses, their words unspoken. What are they not saying? This is invaluable characterisation fodder.
  • An observer. Try to retain something of that curiosity we all had as children but lose as we grow older. Be an explorer, both of physical places and internal maps sketched across your mind. Never stop asking questions, never stop wondering why things are the way they are (2 websites I’d particularly recommend to whet your appetite are Brain Pickings and It’s Okay To Be Smart). Be a curator of fascinating findings. Take nothing for granted.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers’ by JonArno Lawson

Wishing everybody a very Happy New Year. 2016 is going to be an exciting one. I can feel it in my bones.

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