Alice K. Boatwright

The Writing Life

A blog on writing, reading, publishing and life

If You Want to Write a Novel: Here’s a Pen

Alice K. Boatwright - The Writing LifeI just read a blog “Four questions every novelist should ask himself”.  This is my reply. First of all, I would have edited out the word “himself”, unless only men need to answer these questions.

Second, I don’t believe in discouraging people from writing by pointing out that their ideas might not be that immortally great or they might lack research skills, or commitment or the right motivation.  They might be dreaming the fame dream and wake up disappointed.

Warnings like this have always made me mad, ever since I was in school.  There was a theme to the advice from my tweedy pipe-smoking professors: Don’t write unless you have to. Bloody hell, at 21, I found those words petrifying and intimidating.  How did I know what I had to do?  I just wanted to write. But even then I was canny enough to figure out that intimidating us was the intention. These pompous statements were designed to keep down the competition.

Since then, the world has changed. We know that no Maxwell Perkins is out there waiting to turn our wheelbarrow full of pages into Look Homeward, Angel. And few will make a month’s rent off their books, much less an income. Oh well.

But does that mean genius – or even commitment – are requirements for starting a novel?  I mean, how many people have started sweaters they never finished?  Would you stop them at the door of the yarn store and say, better think twice before going in there?

Personally, I believe there is an intrinsic value to writing as an activity.  It’s private, personal, and encourages independent thinking and reflection on what has made you laugh/cry/rage/grow in your life’s experience. That’s good for your spirit.  It also forces you to use language as a tool, which is good for your brain and the language. It’s fun.  And it’s YOURS.  No one else’s.

Too often today we are pushed into accepting a mass media version of life – celebrate the New Year at Times Square, watch the fireworks around the world!! – instead of lighting our own sparklers.  (This is now even illegal in many places.  Think about that as a metaphor… )

So I say, Write!!  Write! Sing! Dance! Live your own life.  As Brenda Ueland said: “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

Your novel may end up unfinished like the coffee table you made in the shop class you once took.  So what?  Did anyone tell you in shop that you had to become Stickley to claim a chair?  I doubt it.  And the experience of trying to do something yourself irrevocably changes you in a good way.

I think all of us need every novel, every thinking person, to create a strong articulate culture. Consider how much more you appreciate an exquisite Hollandaise sauce once you’ve stood at your stove furiously stirring and watching the yellow mess separate?  Writing will change your reading in the same way.

So don’t be shy. Take a piece of paper and a pen and start today. Nothing else is required.