I have an antagonistic relationship with “writing tips” – the ones you find on literary blogs or on Twitter or in newspapers (including, on occasion, the one for which I work, the Guardian). Reading these things, which I find I am compelled to do, fills me with a sense of futility and inadequacy. Mostly they lead me to conclude that I’m somehow “not doing it right” and am, in fact, a fraud.
This is quite unfair, of course, to those authors who’ve thought properly about what might help and done readers the favour of passing on their wisdom. Nevertheless, it’s the most banal-seeming, demystifying stuff that I always find least exhausting. Margaret Atwood, for example, who writes, in her excellent dry way: “If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.” Or Hilary Mantel who began her writing tips for the Guardian with the following injunction: “Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.” Yes. Writing is a job. It involves basic competencies, like not losing your work. And sorting out your tax.
In homage to these titans of fiction, my overly banal and dry piece of advice would be this: are you in this for the long haul? Then get yourself an exercise routine.
I hate “doing exercise”. I really do. The idea of sport is a terrible to me. Nevertheless, I do make myself exercise. I go for horrible 6-7km runs. I drag myself to yoga class. And once a week I do star jumps and planks with a friend, complaining vociferously for as long as I have the breath to do so, after which the whimpering begins.
Why do I put myself through it? Because if you are writing book-length nonfiction or fiction, your job is slow and still. To write a book, words must be written on a page. This takes a lot of time. Unless you have a standing desk, or a treadmill desk, neither of which are yet a feature of the reading rooms of Gladstone’s Library, it is also sedentary. When I’m in writing mode, it’s theoretically possible that my day’s target of 1,000 words will be achieved between 7am and 1pm. Glorious day! Oh afternoon of freedom! Or maybe, let’s be real, there’ll be a slow start for no discernible reason other than sluggishness, then a fight to the death from 10am-5pm and it’s winter and dark outside already. As my late thirties drifted into my early forties, the penny dropped: writing is seriously bad for my body. And yet my body is necessary for my writing; it holds up my brain, and has fingers attached. Hence, the exercise routine.
I say I hate running. True, but I like being outside. Just as all those writing tips say, getting away from the desk, thinking about nothing, is a good thing. And I like a change of scene from the London run, which involves traffic and pollution. At Gladstone’s, where I am intensely privileged to be a writer-in-residence for February, I have grown fond of my run. It takes me through a mixture of parkland and woods, and then down a long, straight lane between fields.
I look forward to seeing the looming ridge of Alderley Edge, each day different depending on the clarity of the light. I’ve watched a buzzard, and a sparrowhawk, and enjoyed the sight of long-tailed tits as they flitter about the branches, performing their excitable high-pitched chittering. There’s nothing lonely and enraptured about all this – it’s a busy spot, and sometimes the path is dotted with that feature so typical of the British countryside, the small black plastic bag filled with dog excrement. The route covers privately owned land, and a remarkable number of signs tell you precisely where you can and can’t be, and for which bits a permit is officially required. The hum of the A55 is always there, and when the landscape pulls apart to show me Alderley Edge, I also get an eyeful of the heavily industrialised Dee valley. And yet. I like to get out at dusk, and there’s a moment when I’m running down a muddy path towards a river, and old Hawarden Castle rises above me like something in a fairytale, and, almost invariably at this point, a tawny owl hoots. And the pain of going for a run is suddenly completely worth it.
Written by Writer in Residence, Charlotte Higgins, February 2020