How do I think of what to write? It varies. Perhaps I see something and respond to it: it hits me, I hit back. Or – I have carried something around in my mind and it comes to the surface. Or somebody says something, or points something out … and the seed sits in my treasured subconscious until thoughts trip out of my fingers on to the screen. And I make sentences. I have learned over time to respect mental processes over which I have no control : just because I appear not to be thinking doesn’t mean I am not, and the forcing house of writing annalog once a week – what I call my homework – has produced its own discipline.
But I have to be careful. The only tabloid editor I ever worked for shouted at me in exasperation “There is a subject in here, if you would just get to it … !” And I have come to balancing as on a high wire, between following my nose, thinking aloud, and trimming to get to the point. The shouter was the same man who described journalism as a craft, a trade, something you may have had an inkling of but you made into something by doing it again and again, learning the shape of the thing and how to mould it differently. Sidebar: I have no news background so I think whatever I do is quite different.
In the days when I did daily radio, I was bored to sobs by the endless repetition of the news and I still am. Rolling news is a killer. It depends for interest on what you the viewer/reader/listener is interested in and whether that is the focus of the news of the day, or on what they call “breaking news” – big stories. The compulsion to find a big story may lead to misinformation – doesn’t happen often but it is unsettling when it does. After all, if this organisation which is telling you what is going on in the world gets it wrong, what hope for everybody else? And entirely too much “talking up” – who might get the medal? who might fall off a chair and break his neck? who got the most snow?
I write about the inside, the continuum, what is particular. I write about experiences but I also write about how they feel. I write stories so that you not only hear what happened but think about how that might be lived through. I told my son’s brother, his best friend, that I had described him as a child of pain. It wasn’t meant to be intrusive, just precisely descriptive. The only audience I am talking to in all this is myself. Can I believe what I have written ? Does it speak to me ?
I read all the time and in her broken nights, augmented by the radio on softly, Salad (so called because she is an even worse typist than I) heard an admired writer say that you can’t write if you don’t read. You read to learn, you read to learn to avoid, you read inescapably, like a kid scratching a healing graze. Only the graze of writing never heals and you go right on rubbing at it, opening it and re-opening it like Maximus’s scar in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s not a new thought, the reading and writing equation, but like Van Gogh spending years learning to draw plaster casts before he drew from life, you have to have that discipline in order to ditch it and through both learning it and putting it aside, go on to something else.
It is not simple when you think of one thing to write about but it is simpler. Sometimes you get several ideas that come in a crowd and if you’re lucky you can weave them together into a harmonious whole. But that’s rare. Mostly what happens when you have several ideas is you spend hours trying to get them to interrelate and then more hours choosing which ones to dump. So you develop ways of following the thought through and watching it peter out … like a disappearing river down a pothole. And then you start again. Neither prayer nor crossed fingers meets the need of a hammered sentence.