“I don’t think anybody can teach anybody anything. I think that you learn it, but the young writer that is as I say demon-driven and wants to learn and has got to write, he don’t know why, he will learn from almost any source that he finds. He will learn from older people who are not writers, he will learn from writers, but he learns it — you can’t teach it.” – William Faulkner
I recently received correspondence from a reader who desperately wants to be published and asked me how to make that happen. He asked many technical questions. Questions about process, inspiration, approach to writing time, what courses he should do, how to get the right contacts, should he get an agent, and how he should present himself. He actually sounded more clued up about this writing thing than I am. No surprise there – everyone’s more clued up about this writing thing than I am. I started writing the appropriate, anticipated response – the sort of response I’d expected as a young writer obsessed with publication, and the sort of response I have written before. And I felt like a fraud. So I replied:
“Once upon a time I was an unpublished author with my very first publishing contract in front of me. I remember the moment clearly. I’d been pulled off a slush pile. I was sitting at my kitchen table. It had one of those glass tops you can never polish fingerprints off of completely. I was watching my knee bounce up and down beneath it. I remember thinking: This is it. I’ve done it. I’m here.
I had a few doubts but I’d pushed them aside. It’s so difficult to get published, after all. There had been a few phone calls back and forth. The publisher was concerned I didn’t sound appealing enough. They put a better spin on it than that, but that was the gist. (Found out later they were pushing for Arts Council funding to fly this thing). They pushed me for stories about my life, anecdotal evidence that I was more interesting/deserving than I actually am. Have you done any writing courses? – No. Do you have a degree? – Dropped out. Do you volunteer at festivals? – What? Like, Mardi Gras?. Have you applied for/been awarded any grants? – Dated one once. There was increasing disappointment in my lack of a traditional artistic background. I felt as if I was supposed to be a struggling post-graduate who goes to open mike poetry nights, has several cutting edge short stories published in reputable literary journals that no one reads and volunteers at orphanages reading picture books and slopping gruel. My confidence was being subtly undermined by the not so subtle message that I was lacking as a product. I was the date who would not be introduced to mates because no one wanted to be seen with me in public.
With my pen still hovering over the unsigned contract I received another call. An editing call. It was simple enough. You can’t use the word ‘pubes’ on the first page of a YA novel. I immediately began thinking about alternatives because they know, right? They’re going to publish me so I need to do what they say. Pubic hair? – Too clinical. Snatch thatch? – Character is male. Short and curlies? – Too old fashioned. Bollock bush? – Good grief, Di!
To cut a very long story short (try to avoid such obvious clichés in your own writing) I never signed that contract and everyone said I was crazy. They said I should do anything I was told to do in order to get a publishing deal. But somewhere deep inside me I truly and completely believed in my pubes.
Two years later that very same manuscript was pulled off the slush pile by another publisher. That manuscript became Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012). And as you know, there are pubes all over the place.
My only advice to you is don’t trim your pubes. Don’t write with the reader in mind, don’t write with the publisher in mind, don’t hobble yourself by thinking about your product before you fall in love with your story. Don’t write from a position of seeking reward. Write because it is the reward. My process, my technique, my contacts, my inspiration will not help you. I believe in your process, your technique, your contacts and your inspiration. I recently wrote a dialogue based on something I overheard behind me in a supermarket. Those people are my contacts.
This is probably not the response you expected to receive. But there is no difference between you and me. We are writers. So write. Write, read, listen and write. One day someone is going to contact you and ask you the same questions you asked of me. Be honest and kind, and tell them you can’t really teach them anything. You can just thank you them for reading you and celebrate them for every word they write in the future.”
You don’t need to do what anybody says.