Saturday, 17 October 2015

Write what you know - or what you'd like to know

Before getting published with The Damned this year, I'd written aimless, meandering, directionless drivel for 20 odd years. Not that I didn't enjoy one minute of it. I wrote for pleasure, the simple joy of constructing sentences to tell stories in a dynamic and mesmerising manner.

Sadly my ideas weren't very good, my stories not very dynamic or mesmerising, and my output from this period has remained in a locked cabinet in my home ever since, the words slowly fading into the paper. I should probably burn them too, to hurry the process of eradication along.

However, I never saw these years as wasted time for a moment. I learned many things about myself and writing over those decades, namely that I had the stamina to sit at a desk for hours on end and write, that I really rather loved sitting in a room all on my own for days on end writing, and, perhaps most importantly, discovered my true writing voice.

All that said, what I produced was terrible. The problem was twofold.

Up until near the end, I was trying to sound like my writer heroes rather than trying to be true to myself, and secondly I didn't have anything to write about to give my imagination and words flight and an edge. They say to write about what you know. Well I loved a lot of things, and knew a little about a lot, but I wasn't a master of anything - and nothing which grabbed me enough to fire my inner Tolkien.

The change came when I went to the French and Belgium trenches on the trail of two great uncles who fought in the Great War. (If you've not done the trenches tour, do it. It's an incredible experience, inspiring, deeply moving and startling.) I spent five days there, and from the start I knew I had found the one thing I knew I could write about with conviction.

Whilst I knew, or thought I knew, a fair bit about the war to write an honest and real account of the conflict I still had to do a lot more research when I got back to Blighty. But because I loved the topic I wanted to do the research. Therefore, it wasn't a chore, simply a joy.

And there's the rub. They say write about what you know, but also you must write about what you love because if you possess a genuine appreciation or interest in a particular topic, firstly you'll want to learn more (making for a deeper, truer reading experience), and secondly that joy and passion will come across in your writing. The words will light up as you get them out of your head and onto the page.

Write about what you know but also write about what you'd like to know - what genuinely moves and interests you.

The final thing which came out of my experience in France was that clearly it's important to keep traveling, engaging and visiting. As writers it's so important for us to go out and discover these incredible stories, places, people and events. Keep your eyes open, your pad handy and your mind ready to absorb what you see and feel at all times. You never know when that eureka moment will hit.

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