The Writer Writes About Writing

You all know that occasionally I will link you a regular Saturday feature of The Guardian‘s online book section called “My Writing Life.”  That feature delivers exactly what its name implies:  a discussion by a writer of what her or his writing day is like, and a sense of what the process of writing is like for that person.

Discussions of what a process is like are inevitably prosaic affairs, although craftsmen in any field are likely to be interested in how others involved in their field do what they do, and may well find the discussion fascinating.  Every once in a while, however, we find a writer who actually writes well when he is discussing the craft of writing.

Take, for instance, Jake Arnott, and his comments on his latest novel:

The Fatal Tree is set in 18th-century London and I was lucky enough to be working close to where most of the action is set and could explore its labyrinthine topography. I would follow the banks of the River Fleet, its underground course flowing down Ray Street into Farringdon Road. This was the main sewer that John Gay dubbed Cloacina, the goddess of the gutter, and it now runs beneath the new cycle lane that runs along that street down to Blackfriars. Or I might plod above it, over the crossing at Holborn viaduct to St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Here the procession to Tyburn for the condemned began, a gruesome narrative of its own with hidden detours like the alleyway of Little Turnstile where the thief Jack Sheppard planned to make his final escape from the noose. As well as providing necessary mental exercise, these peregrinations became essential to the imagining of the book.”

Arnott’s sentences become pleasantly labyrinthine themselves, enticing us to follow him along in his thought; and enticing many of us, I suspect, to buy his novel, and see where it leads us.

His whole essay is a hopeful, honest missive, worth the time of all of us who hunch over a keyboard or a notebook each day, delighting when the words come and despairing when they don’t.  The quotation Arnott pulls from Truman Capote sounds like it might be apocryphal, but I myself, having practiced it one day last week, believe it to be true in all senses.  Sometimes one word, or, in my case, one small passage, is all the day will allow you to squeeze in.  If that word is the right word, though, or if that passage solves a problem for you or fits what you are writing at the moment, then breathe a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of writing, break for the day, and then go back to work the next day.  And count that one word or that one brief passage as a good day’s work done.  Chances are, you’ll know how to go forward the next day and be even more productive.

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