Private Pursuits: The Difficulty of Writing

Autograph from Dr. Adam Fox

Writing is hard. It is harder still when fighting battles with yourself.

Yet this is trampled on completely when November’s fad of eleven years, NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month, comes around. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel by November 30th.

Like many other things around me at the moment, it is an alien existence. It has taken me three years to come close to 50,000 words for my thesis. Writers will be soon be surpassing that toil in less than 3% of the time.

NaNoWriMo has received a lot of strong opinion, largely because it encourages quantity over quality. The official page freely concedes, ‘Make no mistake: you will be writing a lot of crap’.

Sometimes I have sympathy for the freedom, precisely because adding 500 words of quality to my doctoral thesis seems like a colossal achievement. It is also something that, for better or worse, the world of academia has contemplated itself. But I also loathe it for the way it can disregard the graft that goes into a small amount.

Writing often delves into dark, private pursuits. This can make great novels, but equally can create torment when the emphasis is short rather than long, and quality over quantity.

This time last year, I was using my relative anonymity at a new university to write on dark private matters. This November, illness would not let go, and a bundle of commission work has involved similarly dark undertones. The back-story of the programme I have been working on centres around how UK teenage girls have fallen into crisis, and how their lives could have brighter futures. The proposed scheme is worthy, and it will revolutionize the landscape for youth employment if it achieves its ambitions, but it has been an uncomfortable subject nonetheless, and a time-consuming endeavour.

How widely does tone and address need to vary across different platforms? Here, the PR had to be statistical. The site copy had to be factual, directional and yet enticing. The speech to the press had to be explanatory, stirring, and deliberative. The speech to the contributors had to be epideictic, rich in sentiment and praise. Two other speeches for separate events had to be similar but different, had to use different quotes that were witty and female-orientated but not sexist or offensive, and had to be realistic about the economy but not negative.

There is also a certain amount of manoeuvring to accommodate sensitive material for different audiences. Handling the press carefully is essential. Even when the parameters of the main project are identifying a severe weakness (or absence) on their part, we need them on our side here.

And there is pressure. I am still a relative newbie to professional writing. To be entrusted with all of this material is a great privilege, not least because of the magnificent campaign it supports, and it is a dream start to a portfolio. I am close to making ends meet, which is all I ever wanted until the PhD was completed. But is it good enough? Will more work come along? Can I justify searching for it while my own research is desperately in need of attention?

Where I do engage with NaNoWriMo is that writing can be its own reward. I frequently start blog entries and discard them because I have long spent hours constructing posts and felt disappointed at the end product. Time simply cannot be spent undermining my own confidence, and the Promethean days of the summer still loom.

Clarity of expression, structure of argument, and flair of delivery are difficult to learn. You want it to come naturally, without tireless editing and re-arranging. Most challenging of all is accepting one’s own quality control – a tenet vital to postgraduate research. Mercifully, some forum activity this weekend (aided by inspiring minds) has lead to contributions that, for the first time in a good while, I can tolerate reading back. It is as unexpected and welcome as a Sunderland victory over Chelsea, and important because, for a slow and methodical writer, spending hours on short works is a risk.

As several private matters over the past few weeks have identified, risks have to be worth taking.

One such risk is the decision to head to Germany this week for a private album launch party, where I will be the UK’s only representative. I have to do this to crack a stigma that still haunts as vividly as a Weeping Angel.

Alphaville: I Die For You Today (2010)



4 thoughts on “Private Pursuits: The Difficulty of Writing

  1. Hi! For me, each piece of writing needs to have a specific purpose–even blog posts that, again for me, need to fit within the mission of the entire blog. And, in order for that purpose to be fulfilled, the craft of writing needs to be carefully employed with each word and sentence.

    With respect to a novel, that craft involves research, outlining, the initial writing, rewriting, meticulous editing, and then a repetition of most of those steps–all of which take a huge amount of time.

    If a writer is using NaNoWriMo for the specific purpose of igniting creativity and getting the basic premise for a novel out of his/her head and onto paper, then I think the idea is very beneficial. But if a writer believes that the specific purpose of NaNoWriMo is to end up with a quality, viable, 50,000 word novel that anyone would actually want to read or buy, after only thirty days of work, then I have concerns.

    So try not to put so much pressure on yourself. Part of the joy in pursuing the passion of writing is found in learning all the nuances of the craft and then taking the time necessary to create a quality product. Years ago I was tempted by NaNoWriMo. But after completing two novels, of which I’m extremely proud, I’m no longer interested in attacking 50,000 words in such a frenzy.

    This might make me an oddball, but at least I now know who I am and what works for me. If the pressure doesn’t feel right to you, then skip the challenge. One of the most important phrases I ever learned was, “When in doubt, don’t.”

    All the best to you!

    1. Hi Cheri, and thanks for your reply.

      Certainly, I have a strained relationship with writing at times. Both an 80,000 word PhD thesis and short web copy make every 100 words a challenge. In a bizarre chain, I am trusted by a reputable company to provide their copy, while the quality of my academic work is ripped to shreds by a formidable supervisor. Alas, this makes it difficult to know precisely who I am and what works for me; it creates a barrage of uncertainty instead.

      I completed a 30,000 word dissertation in 2007, which had to be submitted hardbound with gold lettering. It was like a child. I wonder if you feel the same way about your own novels (which look absolutely amazing, by the way). I held the physical product for only a few minutes before it disappeared off to Edinburgh’s archives, never to be touched again. It is a vague memory that I would like to relive.

      A doctoral thesis in literature, unless eventually published as a monograph, is read by so few people and promises so little in this austere age that the incentives to complete it are precariously thin. The sight of your novels is an inspiration. You must be so proud. I hope to once again hold the product of the years of work. That previous occurrence is the single unambiguous moment of pride I can remember in a four year postgraduate career, and it seems a long time ago now.

      Some people are naturally talented writers. I am not one of them. I can only believe that graft gets you within touching distance. I have to be encouraged by the pressure, because to be a professional in any business should not be easy, and I have achieved nothing yet, unlike yourself.

      Thank you for reading, and I hope to reciprocate in the near future by treating myself to one of your fabulous looking novels.

      All best wishes,

  2. A look around the Nanowrimo website will show many things; an organisation with links to charity that aims to encourage writing – actual writing – in large numbers of youth, a huge community of writers supporting and encouraging each other to have some fun, just for a month, with words, an, of course, some crap books. I think it can be easy to use the ‘quantity over quality’ argument (which is, I think, totally valid) and by accident miss the more social aspects of Nanowrimo. It’s fun – look on the forums to see people from different countries joking and writing, spuring each other on, asking advice. I’m doing it this year, and I really am enjoying it. It’s the sense of community which helps you to write down what’s been in your head for so long. Oh, it’ll need editing – maybe even deleting – but it’s an achievment done in earnest. Since there is no prize, and in reality, no way of knowing true word counts, it is simply its own reward.

    Remember Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook? It’s like that – half an hour to cook a decent meal, from all those random ingrediants? Patently ridiculous – but with banter, and humour, and a light heart, you get entertainment, that’s innocent but memorable.

    Your PhD is, then, an expensive, amazing, once in a lifetime meal out – harder, more meaingful, simply better, but not in the same league, because its very nature seperates it.

    Love your thoughts

    1. Cheers Sy! I didn’t know you were joining in this year! I hope it is evident that my issue is not with the scheme in itself; just, as is said at the top, it is an alien existence.

      Lack of community is another frustration. As I said to you elsewhere, I am one of two PhD students at Leicester doing anything between 1450-1850, and that is a ridiculous gulf. Freelance writing is equally as isolating when that comes along, because it is only your concern.

      As I’ve been trying to remind myself, even if writing is one’s vocation, it just may not be the source of banter, humour and light-heartedness. One has to look elsewhere for that.

      As ever, thanks for everything! 🙂

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