The Fire – How to Write and Write and Write

fireThis post is not intended to be one of those inspirational articles about how we all have a good book in us. I’m just stating something that is patently obvious to me: anyone can write a book—they just have to want it enough that the thought of not doing it frightens them. And I think this applies to many things other than writing.

In my opinion, writing great prose is so much harder than writing a lot of prose. The great cliché, quality over quantity, applies here. However, there is something to be said for quantity—especially when many talented, budding writers I know seem to struggle to write anything more than a medium-sized short story.

It took me a long time to write my first novel (Lyrebird and Dreamboy): just over four and a half years, which is ridiculous for something that is only eighty-thousand words long. During that four and a half years I often ran out of energy, enthusiasm or willpower (or all three) and I could go a couple of months without writing anything at all. I was working a lot, and I spent a lot of my free time sitting in front of the telly or reading fantasy and sci-fi books. It’s only recently that I have had an energy that ensures that I can write almost every day. I have a silly name for this energy; I call it The Fire. Don’t judge me. If I had this fire in me years ago I’d have finished the novel in less than six months. So what is The Fire and how did I get it? And, following from that, how can you get it too?

Over the last six months I have written a lot. To say I’ve wanted to write would be a gross understatement as it has felt more like I’ve needed to write. This fire is an intense thing, but a good thing. It isn’t inspiration and I’ve not been visited by the Muses. It’s just motivation and a clear sense of perspective: I want to write novels for a living; no profession would make me happier than to be a writer of novels; and no one is going to write them except me.

A few friends have congratulated me on my work ethic. When they ask me about my writing I tell them what I’ve done in the past week or so and what I intend to do in the next week or so. I tell them that I’m not happy unless I’ve written something good within the last couple of days and that when I get home from work during the week I write all evening—sometimes until one or two in the morning. My friends say that they wish they could have that kind of determination—that they wish that they could write a book. And I tell them all the same thing: anyone can write a book if they actually want to write a book.

This wasn’t always obvious to me, as I also used to think of the novelist as something special: the holy alchemist, the dedicated savant, the perfect professional. But that’s all bullshit. When people say ‘I wish I could write a book’ they’re saying what I used to say back when it hadn’t occurred to me that I actually could write a book. They’re saying that writing a book is this magical, wonderful thing that they would like to do, but probably won’t. But they can. Of course they can. However, they can’t finish one without The Fire.

The Fire, for me, wasn’t just born out of enthusiasm for writing; it was born from the fear that I would never be a proper writer. I know that a lot of writers, artists, musicians and even athletes worry that their passion maybe isn’t their vocation—that it’s perhaps just their hobby. It’s something a lot of people in their mid-twenties feel, though it is not really limited by age. I had been sitting on my novel for a long time and it was beginning to stagnate. I had a little niggling guilt in the back of my head that told me I should write, but it was ignorable. Then several perspective-changing life events happened to me and I was in a bad place. I needed to find some avenue of escape, something I could control, and I soon realised that writing was something I could do to make myself happy again. And once I started getting happy again, I realised how much I wanted to be a novelist and that I perhaps couldn’t be properly happy if I didn’t achieve this. I got scared that I would never be a real writer (I’m still scared of this), and I realised that I could use this fear to make myself write. I realised that my naturally anxious nature could be used to my advantage. I’m so scared that I won’t become a proper writer that I won’t let myself have a night off if I haven’t met my writing target for the week. I’m so scared of not becoming a proper writer that I move my social life around to suit my writing schedule. I’m so scared of not becoming a proper writer that I plan my entire weeks around finding at least two or three nights where I can write all night with no interruption. And months ago, while I was flapping around with the fear and The Fire in me, I realised that everything I was writing was so much better than it had ever been. I realised that my writing had jumped up a gear and that I maybe could be a proper writer. Then, a while later, it felt like it was inevitable. It doesn’t always feel inevitable, but it does feel that way sometimes. And it’s a wonderful feeling.

“Fear is a great motivator,” said fifty per cent of all comic book villains and gangsters in films. It’s an overused idiom, but it’s very true. I think writing a lot, and sticking at it like a crazy, word-drunk fool has only been possible for me because I am generally anxious – a quality that could be debilitating but, used like this, is a strength.

When you say that you wish you could write a book, are you saying: “I love writing, I have something to say and I won’t be happy unless I say it.” Or are you really saying: “I admire novelists and I would like to have written a book someday.” If it’s the latter, it’s going to be very hard to build up enough momentum and enthusiasm to write a novel or a large collection of short stories. It’s very likely that your willpower will peter out at some point. But if you’re saying the former, then start to imagine a future in which you don’t pursue it. Imagine yourself in twenty or thirty years without a novel or two in the bookshops. Imagine a literary world without your contribution. Imagine what you’ll be doing and how you’ll be feeling. That imagining scares me. It scares me so much that I might write something after I write this blog post. I might stay up a while and remind myself that I love writing and that I’ll always love it and that it’s such a privilege that I grew up in a family, in a country, in a world in which my being a writer is actually possible. I can be a writer because I want to. I can be a writer because the alternative would feel like something was missing. I can be a writer because I’m never happier than in the moments at two o’clock in the morning, on a school night, when I’ve just finished a fevered bout of writing and I can’t sleep for the excitement. I can be a writer because I need to be.

Have your say. Leave a comment.
  1. Melody says:

    Excellent post, Peter. Fear is naturally much more powerful than enthusiasm (in my opinion) and by trying to make use of it like you have done it becomes a driving force. I am very happy for you that the fire has helped you focus so well. This is really inspiring and can be applied to many other aspirations.

    • Peter McCune says:

      Thanks Melody. I agree: fear is much more powerful than enthusiasm. It’s just not as pleasant an experience. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting.

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