Writing is fraught with myths, many romanticised and some downright damaging. It’s taken me a while to spot some of the dangerous ones, and I’m probably still in thrall to some others. Here are a couple that I can mostly remember are, in fact, false. And as an educated and mostly competent adult writer, if these myths are harming my practice, what damage can myths do to our less confident writers in the classroom?
Writing = Fiction
Although I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some success as an educational writer, I find it all too easy to completely write off my non-fiction writing as somehow not ‘real’ or ‘proper’. Let me be clear: this is absolutely a self-defeatist thing. I have no problem taking other people’s non-fiction or educational writing seriously. I found this view particularly difficult with the standard advice to write every day, as I found myself all-too-easily discounting the teaching-related work as just not writing. So, clearly, I needed to add daily fiction work on top – which was soon too much. I’m still not completely sure whether this is really a ‘writing about teaching doesn’t count, because that’s too much like your job’ thing, or simply another version of ‘whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t count because you’re doing it’…
Real Writers Have Ideas Constantly
Y’know like when you hear writers say in interviews ‘and then this character popped into my mind and demanded I tell their story’? Having listened to and read many writers on writing over the last few things that does, in fact, seem pretty rare, so maybe it is OK that I had to learn to sit down and generate ideas. Once I stopped hoping the muse would drop in some time and simply worked at producing ideas, everything changed. It’s easy to believe that if ideas don’t find you, you aren’t supposed to be a writer, but the truth is rather more prosaic.
Real Writers Can Speak to their Characters
This is not a thing that ever happens to me. It’s another thing you’ll occasionally hear in an interview with an author, where they’ll talk about arguing with a character who ‘wanted their story to be different’ or chatting to their character while out and about. It all sounds lovely, but it’s an imaginative world away from mine. When I’m writing fiction, which I am at the moment, I’m like I was as a child playing with Lego – more like a stage manager than an inhabitant of that world. I don’t believe myself, even for a second, to be in that world. I’m just not capable of that kind of imaginative leap – but that doesn’t mean I can’t shape and mould that world on the page. For a long time, I allowed this perceived shortfall in my imagination to prevent me from writing fiction, but not any more. I no longer believe that this kind of ‘tipping over’ is necessary to create a world strongly enough for an audience.
So, what of the students?
I think it’s worth being aware of the mystique of the writer in contemporary society. Even if students aren’t reading about writing, they may well have some sense of writers as ‘other’, which ultimately can make writing for themselves difficult. Two contemporary writers whose works they may be familiar with, and who have spoken about the process in a useful way, are J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. I always love to show students Rowling’s planning for Order of the Phoenix, which has been on the internet for a few years now and is a thing of beauty. And Neil Gaiman has literally hundreds of useful comments on writing on the web but here’s a good starting point. If you’re reading or have recently read anything by a living writer with a class (an extract, a non-fiction article…), it’s worth looking them up on Twitter to see them talking about the business of writing too – students love this!