Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotyzing yourself and going over the material coldly.

-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (p.114)


I had been to a thing. I had been given a badge. There were canapés. Young people were milling, fresh-faced and eager to learn about writing.  They asked, is it worth it? Which I took to be evidence both of knowledge that it is not easy, and an already well-developed sense of failure. I said, of course it is! You should do more of it!

I also said, don’t wait for permission to start, show your friends or your group what you are up to, and always carry a notebook. They nodded at me, politely. That’s it, I said, that is everything I know. Do I need an agent? they said. And I said, it depends. Not for poetry, no. Except if you become Carol Ann Duffy. But for everything else, yes.

And we had a glass of wine and gossiped some more and I bumped into a writer friend and it was great.

But I wish I had also said this: don’t listen to the voice in your head when you write. By which I mean, do listen to that still, small voice of encouragement, if you can locate it, the one that is always on your side and wants the best for you, like a favourite aunt or slightly disreputable uncle at a wedding who tells you between gulps of champagne that you are an amazing person. Listen to that voice. Hold on to it for everything you are worth.

The other voices are not so helpful. If you are me, this means former teachers, headmasters, maths teachers, and everyone, ever, in Physics. Plus some people in French. Or the Debate-Soc. They are the voice of doom, Private Fraser and Captain Mainwaring combined. You can’t do that here,the voice says. When you question why it says, because I said so.

Indirectly there is a great talk about this on the fabulous internet by the conductor and teacher Benjamin Zander. (A digression: for my money this is as important a video about the language of learning as anything you will see. I urge you to put your feet up and enjoy it with a hot beverage. You will want to share it with everyone you meet, especially if they are a teacher. Which is all of us.) About 42 seconds in he tells the story of the two performers when his students play the violin. There is the performer playing the violin and its neurotic sub-alter ego basically questioning everything the other is doing: I hate this difficult passage; I’m better than him, but I will never be as good as her; If only I was a plumber. That kind of thing. Which if you are a writer and honest you will know you experience every time you sit down to write anything more than a shopping list (or perhaps even those). Here’s how Zander puts it (I’ll see you in 14 minutes after you’ve watched the whole thing):

One of my favourite poetic expressions of hearing and outstripping this voice is Mark Halliday’s ‘The Missing Poem’:

Remember when you got the news of the accident-
or the illness- in the life of someone
more laced into your life than you might have thought;
the cool flash of what serious is. Well,
the missing poem brings that. Meanwhile not seeming like
an imitation of Mark Strand or Mark Doty or Mark Jarman!
Yet not like just another Halliday thing either.

All the Marks, or Anthonys, or (insert your name here) go before you, silently sneering at your feeble efforts from the sidelines. Not to mention those teachers from Physics and French. ‘The missing poem brings that.’ Contains it, overbrims with it, yet somehow finds a way of emptying itself of it too. As Ted Hughes used to say, the finished poem only ever possesses a fraction of the electricity that got it going in the first place. Or words to that effect. Fraser was right. We are doomed. But in the meantime we put on our tap shoes and dance anyway.

The young people begin to drift and the evening decides that it is drawing to a close, as evenings do. But not before I have whispered to one, persistence is more important than talent. She looks at me with horror for a moment. She gets up to write at six o’clock every morning, she has told me. A sequence of poems. And a novel. To reassure her I say, you are already doing it. You are going to be fine. Then it strikes me. I see the same look in these writers’ eyes that I see in the young teachers I work with, that other holy profession, a burning-longing-desire to make the world a better place. Whoever they are doing it for, it is not for themselves. You are already doing it, I say. You are going to be fine.