Recently I posted writing advice from Ta-Nehisi Coates, a video which was shot for the Atlantic. This was very well received and people seemed to particular enjoy my additional commentary to the advice. This has inspired me to do this more often.
For the next installment, we’ll look at writing advice from the great novelist Ian McEwan.
McEwan has written over a dozen novels, including Atonement and Solar, and has seen the majority of his books adapted into movies. In 2008, The Times featured McEwan on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945“.
“I think it’s very hard to teach people to be novelists and poets, but I think it’s quite useful for people to set aside time.”
I find myself paradoxically agreeing and disagreeing with McEwan on this opening point.
Experience is the best teacher. Very little is learned by sitting in a classroom and being taught how to write. As writers, we need to write and write and write and write.
Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour theory applies to many fields, but I think it applies abundantly to becoming a strong writer. The best way to reach 10,000 hours of writing is to set aside time to write.
However, and I realize I may be putting context into McEwan’s comment that is not necessarily intended by him, isn’t there still teaching in this process. An editor provides feedback. Readers offer criticism. Reviewers spout opinions. All of these things are forms of teaching. This teaching is how we learn to become novelists and poets.
I suspect McEwan’s underlying point is that you shouldn’t feel compelled to shell out your hard earned cash for a creative writing program, certainly not if you think the end result will be that they’ve taught you how to be a great novelist. Only experience and repetition can create that.
Experience and repetition create great novelists.Click To Tweet
“What’s useful is to have expectations laid on you that you’re going to produce the work.'”
A common sentiment is that everyone has at least one great novel inside of them. I find this tends to be true. The difficulty is sitting down to actually write the novel, and then sitting down to actually edit the novel. Having outside expectations are usually beneficial in forcing us to sit down and write.
As Coates said in his writing advice, what you write is never as good as the idea in your head. Most writer’s learn this the hard way and become paralyzed by the inability to perfectly express that idea in their head. Having deadlines helps to free you of that paralysis.
“Writers need to read.”
I love this point and it gets to the heart of a deep frustration of mine. I have seen amongst some of the indie author community a mindset that bothers me to no end.
Why do authors that are writing a book say they aren’t reading anything right now because they don’t want it to influence their writing? Why is this a thing? I don’t get it at all. It could be the stupidest response to the question, “What are you reading right now?”
Hyperbole aside (since there may be a stupider response to the question, although I can’t think of one right now), the two best ways to become a better writer are to write and to read. Why would you entirely cut out one of those avenues to becoming a better writer? What, you think somehow reading George Saunders is going to negatively impact your genius humor? You think you can’t read George Orwell because your unconscious mind will inadvertently steal ideas from him? Don’t flatter yourself.
They WILL impact your writing—positively.
I get the idea of not having as much time to read as you would like, but the fact that you can’t read while you’re writing because you’ll unknowingly steal ideas is preposterous to me. What, do you also not talk to the barista at Starbucks because you might decide to create a character based off of her for a scene in your book? How is this a thing? How have I heard this response from dozens and dozens of authors?
Now I’m worked up.
“I do wonder sometimes if having so many writers sequestered on campuses across the United States means that writers are cut off from cities, or from countryside, or from original places.”
McEwan’s point here gets to the heart of what it means to be a writer. Writers are empathetic observers of the world around them. We watch, synthesize, and tell.
What McEwan seems to be railing against in a large portion of this clip is undergraduate writing programs. If too many writers are simply observing their peers on college campuses, this becomes increasingly uninteresting to the reader. McEwan wants to see writers tell unique stories pulled from their lives in unique parts of the country or unique parts of the world.
He tells an interesting story, anecdotally pointing to the fact that John Updike left Manhattan to live in small town New England as evidence of the need for writers to experience the world, not to be taught how to write about the world in a classroom.
If nothing else, it’s clear McEwan believes great writers are formed from writing and reading A LOT.
Writers are empathetic observers of the world around them. We watch, synthesize, and tell.Click To Tweet
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