Taking Dictation from God


Posted by in July's Magazine

Let us now speak of remarkable things. The Greek goddess Athena’s father was Zeus, God of all Greek Gods. Her mother was Metis. After sleeping with Metis, Zeus was told that any child born by her would usurp him. Not good. To stop Metis giving birth to anyone and, as only Greek Gods knew how, Zeus swallowed Metis whole. Too late. Metis was already pregnant with Athena. Athena grew and grew inside Zeus. This gave him such a headache he asked his son Hermes to split his head open with an axe, which Hermes did. Out popped Athena, all grown-up with her shield and sword, ready to do battle.

I used to think stories popped out of a writer’s head in much the same way as Athena popped out of the head of her father: fully formed in every way. I also thought only a privileged few could write such perfect stories and these few had the mystical writing gene, without which you could not be a writer. I imagined these divine people sitting at their desks, sleeves rolled up, humming little tunes to themselves while words slipped smooth as runny honey onto the page. Writers like our very own Muriel Spark, who compared writing to “taking dictation from God.”

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Or the Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who said that his epic poem Kubla Khan was given to him by God in a dream – which, by the way, is also how Stephanie Meyer said her ideas for the Twilight novels came to her.

My thinking, however, was that of the uninitiated.

Since becoming a writer I have discovered stories do not pop out of a writer’s head in a oner. Far from it. When we writers – beginners and experienced alike – sit down to write, we almost never have a fully formed story in our head. If we are lucky we may, like Virginia Woolf, start with an image of an old lady in the corner opposite (on the train), but more often than not, we have little or no idea where we are headed. This is not wondrous, this is scary.

“Writing a novel is like heading across a loch in a rowing boat and you’re surrounded by mist. You can’t see a thing but you keep rowing, and you keep rowing and keep rowing. Eventually, the mist clears and you see the other side and you head for land.” James Robertson

Do not give up
If you’re not afraid to write a shitty first draft, and don’t give up easily, you have what it takes to be a successful writer
Nor is there a mysterious writing gene (which is a relief, to be honest), recent research suggests being able to write well is more to do with having an attitude than an attribute. And what is that attitude? Well, while we are all different, it seems we writers have three things in common.

Thing number one: almost all writers write ‘shitty first drafts’. Yep. Shitty. You see, at this stage getting the words down is all that matters and the best way to free ourselves from the fear of the blank page is to write rubbish. The less perfect the words, the easier it is to write them.

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
After getting the words down, getting them right comes next. Not so easy. This bit takes determination and leads me to thing number two: almost all writers are stubborn, pig-headed people, who do not give up. The great Ernest Hemingway said he wrote the last page of his novel A Farewell To Arms thirty-nine times. When asked what stumped him about that page in particular he replied “getting the words right.”
Getting the words right is about engaging the reader in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called, in a very, very clumsy sentence, “the willing suspension of disbelief in the moment.” In other words, it’s about being a convincing liar. When you get the words right, you can persuade a reader that wizards and hobbits and vampires exist but when you get the words wrong, you can’t even make us believe Janet said hello to John.

Thing number three: writers have something to say. We writers would like nothing better than to get on our soapbox and rant on about our ideas, but who likes a raving ranter? No one. So, instead we quietly weave our ideas in the seductive emotion of a story and our readers are none the wiser – we are a tad sneaky like that.

So, if you’re not afraid to write a shitty first draft, and if you don’t give up easily – and can tell convincing lies – and if you have something to say, you have what it takes to be a successful writer.
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Twitter: @mwheelaghan
Web: mariannewheelaghan.co.uk

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