Henry Ford said that you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. Unfortunately, many writers haven’t heard the news or refuse to believe it. We are always declaring that we are going to write a book and, like St Augustine before he became saintly, neglecting to add “… but not yet.” 1
What we do is talk about it – writing, that is. We join groups and discuss the problems we are having about characters and plots, settings, themes and ideas. Our poems are all in our heads. Our novels (three or four in various early stages of construction) are stuck at around chapter seven. Sometimes we begin another novel with fresh characters and hope that this time it will work (breaking news: it doesn’t). Our short stories have lost their way, or their point, or their ooomph. Our articles waffle. But – we can talk for Africa when we get together with other would-be writers who have all got their fists clamped (metaphorically) to their foreheads and whingeing, just like us.
What’s so hard about writing? Nothing really. Not about writing as such, assuming that we have paid attention in school and learned how to make marks on paper that become words and sentences and paragraphs. A little more difficult is making those words mean something. Words that, put together with other words, are interesting enough for other people to read. Words that, in the order that we put them, have never been put together in quite that way before by anyone else. Words that tell a story, convey a feeling, reflect a mood, describe an event, explore a character, clarify a thought, or tackle a problem.
So far, not too difficult. In fact we can all do this. It’s what we do when we phone a friend or meet someone over coffee, and babble on about this and that without a thought for the words we use and the way we use them. Words tumble out, we hum and ha, we stop in mid-sentence and change tack, we muddle up our tenses and drift off course –and we don’t care. And that, I think, is the point.
Very few of us speak in measured phrases and carefully considered sentences and paragraphs when we are talking informally. We don’t generally think ahead and work out what we want to say and how to say it, unless exceptional circumstances demand it. And we don’t care. It isn’t important. We are at ease, relaxed. We are just doing what people do when they meet: we talk. In the end, that’s what writing is: talking on paper. How hard is that?
1 St Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.”