On Writing

Two days a week I am the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of East Anglia. Here, in my office, I help students to express themselves more clearly in their essays and dissertations and theses. For the RLF website, I have just been required to write a piece on why I write, in 200-500 words, as follows:

Why I Write, by S Foster

Considering that the first draft of the title line of this piece contained twp typos, ‘How the hell do I write?’ would be more like it. But, since I think even more slowly than I (two-finger) touch-type, then taking a secretarial course would be unlikely to achieve much other than to make matters worse.

I feel that the answer (to why I write) is meant to come bearing weight, consideration, and resonance. That’s okay: I want my work to have these characteristics, of course I do. I began (creative) writing at Art School, tutored by a poet, while at the same time, on the same course, also learning about the ineluctable flatness of the canvas, Jacques Lacan and his bold rewriting of the Freudian Oedipal crisis, the crystalline motifs of Modernism, and much more. I liked the crystalline motifs of Modernism and I like a certain type of literary writing that is something akin to them. I like work that’s about atmosphere and character before plot, and that is interested in the terms of its own construction. This is what I think I’m doing, when I write fiction: making a book that relates, in its form, to other books that I admire. Whether I succeed is a moot point; Beckett’s aphorism ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better’ would be of little comfort if you didn’t think you’d got somewhere near pulling it off.

Last year a short, non-fiction volume of mine, Walking Ollie, began shifting. In hardback, Ollie was a little literary book about a lurcher, or so I thought; certainly it sold in the modest numbers that would be consistent with an item fitting the description. For the paperback a commercial jacket was put on and suddenly you could buy it in Tesco and WH Smith. For a while, at least, this provided a new answer to why I write; though it had never much been this way before, now I could say: I write to make money.

But the fundamental answer is: I write because I can. I am at least some good at it, I know that. And the elemental answer is: it gives me a sense of self worth. For the sixteen years between leaving school and meeting the poet at the Art School I worked at a number of jobs – in catering, at taxi-driving, and later in the building trade. Experience tells me this: even when you’re at your lowest ebb with a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, there’s no better way of spending your working life than by trying to fix that. Most of all I write for that reason.

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19 Responses to On Writing

  1. chiffs says:

    “Considering that the first draft of the title line of this piece contained twp typos”
    – a genius touch. Descartes would be prod.

  2. Faye says:

    Where can we get Walking Ollie in the U.S. ? Sounds like a great read. I write because its a discipline and there’s always something to show for the effort–sometimes not much, but still glad I took the time to try to get something(even a run-on sentence. . .)on paper.

  3. OS says:

    It’s npt his strungest point, ChiffS. But the boy do wtite well.

    Let me think about this.

    OS.

  4. OS says:

    As do you. XXX

  5. Stephen Foster says:

    Hi Faye, welcome to the blog : there’s a US version which is on sale in Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

    all best, S

  6. anjali says:

    um, to quote: no red pen and more than two ticks, which is pretty good in my book.

  7. Julie Hill says:

    Do you find that if you don’t write for a while, you sort get an itch in your head? Words pile up and just have to be let out to make way for more?

  8. I reckon Julie Hill has hit the nut squarely on the head. Why do they say that ‘squarely’? Most nutheads are round.
    Ans to your Q: If we don’t write basically we go bonkers. It’s all in the genes Stephen. We can write bollocks as Iweoften do or write with the sartorial elegance of Sir a George Szirtes (hey! that has a real classy ring to it) as we rarely do.
    It’s like asking why blokes old enough to know better kick a lump of air around a wet field on a Sunday afternoo. There’s no answer.

  9. Stephen Foster says:

    I think you get irritable Julie, but perhaps that’s just the manifestation of it.

    It’s a vocation, so you don’t mind at all when it is that you’re working, midnight on a Sunday is fine; and once you’ve done enough for the day you can knock off, there’s that too, which is nice if that moment coincides with, let’s say, lunchtime.

  10. OS says:

    Write. I’ve thought about it. The willingness, or even the desperation, to write the words that are in your mind is as gwilym says, it’s in your jeans. Writing is beautiful. I don’t think there’s a better way to express what you feel. Painting is on a par methinks. It’s expressionism. It doesn’t matter how good you are at it, simply doing it is satisfying to something spiritual within us. Compared with Foster, ChiffS, gwilym, Elt, That Martian Fella, and especially the genius, Sir George, I’m as a child. However, in my own small way, I enjoy what I am: the Billy Clevery of the written word.

    Now to the other matter. Plot versus intellectual content. Or, as winger puts it: ” I like work that’s about atmosphere and character before plot, and that is interested in the terms of its own construction. This is what I think I’m doing, when I write fiction: making a book that relates, in its form, to other books that I admire.”

    Horses for courses I say me boy. Variety for all tastes. It would be a sad world if most readers had to carry a dictionary around with them to decipher the intelectualty of some writers. At the same time, there is a market for those of higher intellect. Horses for courses I say me boy.

    I’ve read ALL winger’s books. His book of lists was crap. He will admit to that I think. But that is his odd one out. He didn’t write it for it’s literary merit. He wrote it purely for the dosh. And that’s the reason it was crap. When the boy puts his mind to it, he can turn out works of art that are gems. His first book, It Cracks Like Breaking Skin, was fascinating. Walking Ollie and Along Came Dylan are just plain superb. There’s a reason for that, they’re a reflection of what he is: a brilliant observer of everyday life and an ability to phrase the events in such a way that they become a work of art. I’ve been with him in the slums of Berlin and the high life of Monaco…and he doesn’t miss a trick. Everything he sees is stored away, meticulously, for future use.

    But, and this is an argument that we will have when we’re next in away together, plot versus intellectuality. I intend to grind him into the cobbled stones of Krakow with that argument.

    TRDB rules. 😉

    Julie…

    “Do you find that if you don’t write for a while, you sort get an itch in your head? Words pile up and just have to be let out to make way for more?”

    My itch is in a different place. Winger often says I talk out of my arse. 😉

    M le etc…

  11. chiffs says:

    Ahem. I like the The Book of Lists, I like the unexpected laughs I get, er, unexpectedly. And there’s actually a great essay in The BoL, about masturbation, travel, love, art and wrestling. But I can’t remember who wrote it. Some foriner,

  12. Stephen Foster says:

    Monaco. What a dump that place was.

  13. OS says:

    Sorry, Chiffs, but I get fed up of ‘best ten of this and that’. I read it on a daily basis [or I avoid it on a daily basis]. It bores the pants off me. I skipped through the BoL. There were some small gems in there, as you say, but on the whole, it didn’t do anything for me. I mean, there was even a Manure fan, [an esteemed one, granted] putting his twopennyworth in. How low can a book get!

    I’ll trawl through it and re-read the mastubation and love bit. Now that is a good bit. 😉

    OS. XXX

  14. John says:

    Hi

    I’m not sure if I’ve entered this discussion too late, I fear I probably have!

    Really interesting reading Stephen’s reasons for writing, especially as I’m a big admirer of all his work. Fiction and non-fiction. Really looking forward to the next work of fiction.

    Stephen, I try to write myself but find a sense of self-consciousness a massive barrier. I get halfway through something and then the same old sense of… it’s hard to find the right word… self-ponceyness grips me, which then transpires into total self-doubt towards my own ability. I almost ask myself ‘why is someone like me trying to write?’

    Is this something you’ve experienced yourself?

    Cheers, John

  15. Well, I don’t think those reasons tell the whole story John, they’re a snapshot of something, and a lot to do with form, with which I am very interested, and which has little to do with ‘interlectewallity’ as Old Stokie complains.

    Beyond those considerations, a more primitive force, if you begin writing as I did (with biographical and semi-autobiographical short stories) is ‘having something to say.’ And everybody is worth a voice, though that isn’t the same as saying ‘everybody can do it.’

    The answer to your rather charming ‘self-ponceyness’ is, No, I never felt that. I was pretty lucky in that I was starting to write at Art School, in a group, so I heard other people struggling, or sometimes not, with their early work: though I was sometimes self-conscious about being there (at Art School) at the beginning, that soon wore off because I loved it so much.

    I wonder if being amongst like minded people might help you. There is the Arvon Foundation http://www.arvonfoundation.org/p1.html
    which might be worth looking at…

  16. OS says:

    “and which has little to do with ‘interlectewallity’ as Old Stokie complains.”

    Do one, Foster, boy! I can see we’re in for a rough time in Krakow while we’re eating cabbage and sprouts. ;(

    M. le etc…

  17. OS says:

    BTW, Stephen, I’ve asked you before but you’ve ignored me. Why is George’s site down? I hope he’s ok. Give him a bell to make sure he’s ok.

    GG. xXx [ng]

  18. Stephen Foster says:

    I think it’s back up – it was when I looked in this afternoon. Sprouts are great, but not until after the first frost.

  19. Hertz von Zeasider says:

    Well I thought the Book of Lists was ace and I’ve just purchased the Dylan one.

    Hiya OS

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