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Just Get on With Your Writing

24 April, 2014
English: Doris Lessing, British writer, at lit...
Doris Lessing, 2006. Credit: Wikipedia

What if you had the chance to have  famous writer as your roomie and mentor?

In the ’60s, when writer Jenny Diski was 15, she was expelled from school and, as she puts it, ‘stuck in a loony bin where no one knew quite what to do with me.’ The person who took her in and ‘saved’ her was the famous British writer, Doris Lessing. (Click this link to read Diski’s article in The Guardian.)

Living in a writer’s home/workplace gave Diski three useful insights about a writing career.


1. Call it  working, not writing. 

Woman machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Lon...
(Credit: Library of Congress)


Lessing showed Diski what it means to establish a purposeful writing life. For Lessing, being a writer held no glamour:  ‘When I’m writing, nothing else happens here.’

Perhaps this is why Diski prefers the term working rather than writing. In a way, it makes sense. Saying  you are writing sometimes gives people the wrong idea.

It’s like the term gardening. I live where there are many show gardens. The people who maintain them do hard labour—weeding, hanging off a ladder to prune trees, fertilising, mowing, replanting. But I suspect that for some non-gardeners, the term conjures up a restful image, of trailing along perfect garden paths, stopping to cut a few flowers or make minor decorative changes.


2. Shorten the mental distance between your thoughts and your writing.


English: Screenshot from Linux software KTouch...
(Credit: Wikipedia)


Diski remembers the ‘sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen’ when Lessing was working. Lessing drafted her work on her typewriter, Diski does the same at her computer. Diski believes touch typing creates ‘the shortest possible distance’ between thoughts and writing.

Some writing books suggest that drafting first by hand helps you identify your deepest, true thoughts. But as someone who types fast at the keyboard, I agree with Diski. I enjoy the almost instantaneous movement of  ideas,  brain⇒to fingers⇒to screen.  When I use pen and paper, the process is slower and my first thoughts are overwhelmed by second and third ones. I end up editing prematurely, before I’ve worked out what I want to communicate.


3. Know thyself and just get on with writing.


Pushing the car
(Credit: Flickr– __MaRiNa__)


Lessing wrote in order  to earn a living but also to  ‘fulfil her need to be what she was.’ It was Lessing’s ‘implacable understanding of what it is to be a writer’ that showed Diski what matters most in writing.

It has nothing to do with the  decisions about how and what to write. All of that comes later.  For Diski, a writer’s elemental focus, ‘before anything else’, is  ‘knowing that you are a writer and getting on with it.’  Your writing identity grows out of process, not product. And although writers need to pay attention to both, but it’s a matter of weighting.

I admire process-oriented individuals, who get on with what they love doing. Like my friend who is a botanical illustrator. Her process activities include attending workshops, experimenting with and improving her technique, collaborating with others, setting goals. She also pursues ‘product’, entering work in exhibitions. But she does not let the judges’ decisions define her as an artist. After all, such decisions sit in the laps of the fates.

Putting  undue weighting on product can skew writers’ sense of achievement, to the point that they measure that their growth, participation, and success  solely in terms of external approval and recognition.


 © Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2014.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 April, 2014 11:06 pm

    Great post. I think we tend to have romantic notions of any career we are not in the midst of. I feel that “writer” is one of the most romanticized. I still go back and forth in my head about “what writing should be,” that is, whether it should feel closer to “work” or closer to “play.”

    The part that stood out for me about this post was the typewriter and the shorter mental distance between thinking and writing. I recently wrote a post comparing my use of pen and computer.

    While I too, have heard a lot about the benefits of handwriting, and the testimony of many friends, I can’t do my first drafts that way.


    • 25 April, 2014 5:38 pm

      Hi Sonya, I agree that when we’re writing as play we think we should be more professional and see it as work, but when it’s work we wonder why we’re torturing ourselves doing it. It’s a constant seesawing.

      Thanks for sharing your post. A few days ago, I dug out an stenographer’s notepad (spiral binder at top) and started using it. For me, it is most useful for capturing important ideas that have nothing to do with my writing project. Getting it down on paper helps keep my focus on my project.

      Here’s a post I did about marginalia:


  2. 24 April, 2014 3:33 pm

    Any writer who is published in any format that can reach readers ultimately discovers whether there is a demand or an appreciation for his or her work, although the answer might be disappointing. Let’s face it. Statistically, the answer usually is disappointing to someone who dreamed of fame and fortune.

    In the past, novice writers spent years practicing privately and with mentors before being published. Today, some new writers are comfortable testing the market by learning from their very public failures and successes. Both methods have their drawbacks and advantages. They suit writers of different temperaments with differing definitions of success.


    • 24 April, 2014 3:58 pm

      Yes, I agree that another aspect of getting on with it is exploring if one can attract readers, agent, publisher. And as you say, writers differ in how they define their successs. However, lack of commercial success should not stop people who find they enjoy the process of discovery through writing.


      • 25 April, 2014 1:04 am

        So, true, Marsha. Striving endlessly and unreasonably for public recognition and acceptance can ruin the enjoyment of what would otherwise be a wonderfully beneficial amateur pursuit. (At least from an observer’s standpoint, it seems to.) We’re not all meant to be professional writers. I ruled out the possibility for myself when I realized that there aren’t enough years left in my lifetime to develop skills that would satisfy me. Instead, I enjoy dealing with the business aspects of publishing. I redefined success, as you say.


        • 25 April, 2014 12:28 pm

          I recently finished a good ‘holiday’ read, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter–great plot, two time periods, two countries, and many changes and roundabouts in the fortunes of a raft of characters. But it wasn’t until I read your comment that I realised that one of its themes had to do with the various definitions of success .
          While most people who write may daydream about becoming a world-renowned writer, they recognise the odds aren’t in their favour and eventually find their level and may be satisfied with that. Similar to your Boston marathon: Some enter to be part of the event, some want to achieve a personal best, some want to place–but only the top runners get the wide adulation.

          Liked by 1 person

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