The First Words: Three

Self-Portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1790)

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Nobody can tell you how to write.



The craft of writing is learned through the practice of writing. It is necessary to write constantly in every spare moment. You may be writing inside your thoughts, but you are writing as surely as if you had paper and pen before you. Is this not obvious? Yes, but restating the obvious is something literature occasionally has to do, if only to remind ourselves of what we are doing.

Nobody can tell you what to write because we all know so much although we think we know so little. Also, we all know so little although we think we know so much. To repeat for emphasis: write what you feel. That is the only certain way of writing what is true to yourself. It is not the certain way of writing well because that has to be learned by practice.

That practice needs to be considered, analysed and reconstructed as a serious, professional activity. It is tempting to say writing requires as much skill as surgery. Nobody goes into an operation unprepared in even the basic skills of medicine. That is true. Yet the analogy soon breaks down when you remember how much of writing is intuitive and spontaneous. Any literate person can write. It is not difficult to write well if you trust to your intuitive judgement. The technical skill of writing lies in the ability to judge. Nobody can tell you how to write. It is a facility you discover for yourself.

That is the hard part – making the discovery. Learning how to judge what is true to you is the skill that emerges, if it is to emerge at all, with practice. A honing of perceptions, a fashioning of a language expressive of those perceptions – these are the difficult things. Writing words is easy. Finding the framework is hard because there is no blueprint. You have the canvas and the brush. Now paint a picture with your unmistakable signature in every brushstroke.

The point is that the craft of writing is in a finely-balanced relation to the art of writing. The art is learned through reading. A good writer is a good reader. A perennial complaint of literary editors is that so many potential contributors clearly have no real knowledge of what is currently happening in writing. This especially true of poetry.

It is essential to good practice that the writer can respond to the current scene. Nobody can write in a void of experience. Writing takes its place with a general cultural context.

Writing is not simply a personal statement. It is woven into the conversation. When you write you connect with other writers. It is better to communicate with the living than with the dead. Of course behind the present is the past, and literature can live for centuries. What happens now is not all that matters. This moment now will take its place in the continuum. Writing reaches back as well as forward. The important thing is to know where you at this moment.  

Where are you? You are here. The arrow on the map tells you that. You are closer to the centre of the labyrinth than you think. What are you going to find at the centre? A monster perhaps, a hybrid of human reason and animal instinct. The beast is waiting for beauty to waken within him something higher than desire and yet lower than celestial harmony. Something human.

Write what you feel. You’ll discover how you truly feel when you open yourself up to the experience of not being afraid to say what you mean and mean what you say. Writing happens in the real world. Literature is not an entity set apart from the living world of everyday experience. It concerns that experience, refines it, enhances it and then it to the world. Nobody can tell you how to live, but it is useful and creative to consider the ways that life may be lived.

When the first words were written it became possible to speak to future generations. The present moment was transformed from a transient voice to a perpetual echo. How you respond to that echo with resonances of your own depends on your vision, dedication and skill. What goes unharvested may be gathered later and discarded, or it may be left to return to the earth, enriching the fecundity of the soil for the following year. After the harvests the frosts. Then the blossom, then the ripening. Then the harvest. It should contain unexpected fruit from unfamiliar trees.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of a novel, Heaven’s Invention [revised paperback edition Black Wolf, 2017] and a collection of poetry, The Rites of Paradise [Cyberwit 2020]. See also mention of his work in Kate McLoughlin’s British Literature in Transition vol. 4 Cambridge University Press 2019. He lives in Cambridge.

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