Emerging into the Light

A deadline met: such relief. You would think that after so many years I might have mastered the art – not of writing – but of putting myself in a position to write. Many writers are, like me, fascinated by process. From an early age I wanted to know whether authors worked by morning or night, whether they typed or wrote by hand and if so on what kind of paper, whether they had their backs to the window, drank wine, sat, stood or lay on their backs with their legs in the air.

I don’t profess to understand the reasons, but I work best in the mornings. And by mornings I mean mornings. When I have any serious piece of writing to complete I start by getting up early, about 6 say, and I sit in front of my computer screen till mid-afternoon. As the days pass the hour of rising becomes earlier and earlier until I’m going to bed at 7 or 8 at night and flinging back the duvet ready to write at 4 or even 3 in the morning.

In the old days I used a manual typewriter until I graduated to a golfball and finally one of those Brother machines that could keep a whole line in RAM before printing it out. I usually scribbled in longhand first, something I still often do. In 1982 I bought a BBC Acorn for £399. It came complete with a firmware programme called Wordwise which I adored and which, in my fond memory, was the best word processor ever. I used it to write the book (ie story and dialogue) of a stage musical, saving on cassette tape as I went along and finally outputting to a daisywheel printer. The show was enough of a hit to allow me to indulge my passion for computer gadgetry for the rest of my life. I still tremble at the insanity which propelled me to outlay £7,000 on an Apple Laserwriter in the autumn of 1984. But the gear, gadgets and gismos were ultimately irrelevant of course. It was all about coffee and cigarettes. Sitting in a study in Norfolk, curtains drawn (I cannot bear natural light when I’m writing), staring at that flashing I-beam on the screen. Cursing at the cursor.

Other writers may have written in the afternoons, used school exercise books and coloured pencils, sipped water and gazed out of the window but my way was my way and by the time I had written my first novel a kind of superstition told me that it would be tempting providence to change. I might frighten off those shy Muses. So, aside from the miracle of managing to give up cigarettes two and half years ago, I have kept to the same system. Well, system is hardly the word. But … it’s still so bloody difficult. I may always have been weirdly fascinated by the processes and outward routines of other writers, but deeper than that I really needed to know how much they too grunted, swore and howled at the sheer horror of having to write. “I sit at the typewriter and curse a bit,” said one of my earliest literary heroes, P. G. Wodehouse. Was he a special case?

I began writing seriously when I was about thirteen. Out streamed poetry, stories and novels, the latter of which were always aborted early, usually half way through the second chapter. It took my friend Douglas Adams to encourage me to go further and he did this by pointing out that the reason I had never managed to finish a novel was that I had never properly understood how difficult, how ragingly and absurdly difficult, it is to do. “It is almost impossibly hard,” he told me. It is supposed to be. But once you truly understand how difficult it is,” he added, with signature paradoxicality, “it all becomes a lot easier.” It was many years later that Clive James quoted to me Thomas Mann’s superb crystallisation of this “A writer,” said Mann, “is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.” How liberating that definition is. If any of you out there have ever been put off writing it might well be because you found it so insanely hard and therefore, like me, gave up and abandoned your masterworks early, regretfully assuming that you weren’t cut from the right cloth, that it must come more easily to true, natural-born writers. Perhaps you can start again now, in the knowledge that since the whole experience was so grindingly horrible you might be the real thing after all. Of course finding it difficult and managing to complete are just the first stages. They are what earn you the uniform and the brass buttons, as it were. They don’t guarantee that what you complete is any good, or even readable. That is quite a different kettle of wax, a whole other ball of fish.

You might notice below that another of my peculiar writing habits is to leave off shaving while the authorial fever is upon me. I believe Tolstoy and Gertrude Stein were the same. Pip pip.

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147 comments on “Emerging into the Light”

  1. Reeds says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your process and wonder if most writers become superstitious about following a set procedure, sort of like a cricketer, or any sports person, who has to follow the same sequence so as not to draw attention from the gods of chance.

    I find the writing process sooooo torturous that I avoid it all times. *re-reads sentence and stops typing :P

    Terry Prachett, who’s writing I adore, says it the most fun you have by yourself, I wonder at his definition of ‘fun’!

  2. MicFromWick says:

    Harsh as it may sound, if you think you are having it tough, try working a croft on the North coast of Scotland for a few winters, lambing sheep and calving coos in the blind snowdrifts in the dark at 3 in the morning when your torch batteries are going flat and you realise you have a hole in your pyjamas. You’ll soon learn to appreciate deadlines. Mind you, the beard and hair do make you look just a touch agricultural.

  3. Ferret says:

    I’m glad to hear you busted the deadline, though with a beard like that I can see you replacing Hugh Laurie on house, rather than writing!

  4. michael says:

    i’d never heard that thomas mann quote before. it does make me happy.

    i’m not a writer but paint&draw a lot and i was never good at communicating with other people when young.

    Does he mean writing is hard for writers because they are choosey? Or that artists are often folks who couldn’t communicate, got frustrated, and worked over the years to adapt and evolve something that works for them…but is a very different animal?..i wonder.

    i like your shirt.

  5. michael says:

    p.s. was gertrude stein able to grow a beard? i must find out how!!! :D

  6. CjC says:

    Deadlines are more hideous than messy death itself. I have them frequently, usually for 1500 words on pieces by Janacek and Takemitsu, which I’ve never heard, with a bit of Mozart thrown in. Always involves despair, banging head on desk, wailing, and sending a lot of texts to a friend who is in the same boat. Only the £75 keeps me going! Oh yes, and my great love of Janacek….

  7. Eickelberg says:

    I need dark chocolate frozen yogurt in order to write anything that requires a lot of thinking. I also need to be able to talk to myself out loud and pace around, so that keeps me from ever trying to write anything in public.
    But I’m struck by the cigarettes mention. I thought that Stephen must’ve given them up. I didn’t realize for how long. I also managed to quit them approx 1 1/2 years ago–the quitting of which also affected alcohol intake. It’s just not fun to drink a beer or whiskey w/out a cig, so that went out the window except for one nightly Guiness. Alarmingly healthy now, in my 40s, I still look to a future wherein I can re-add vices. I imagine that at age 70 I will give myself carte blanche to smoke and drink like a fiend. So, the question is, will my writing get better or worse? You know that truth about rock stars who quit drugs, booze, and/or start families–their new music invariably sucks. But if you take up the old vices, will you get that magic back? (ha ha)

  8. Kuroshii says:

    I love this! I still have your NYT article from a few years ago, if I remember correctly it was titled “excuse me mr. author, but what sort of pen do you use?” (in which you expanded on the fascination with process that many writers share) saved on my hard drive. I’m not at my own computer at the moment or I’d make sure of the title.

    Me, I scribble zero-drafts longhand and then transcribe my chicken-scratch into Word. I can add oodles more wordcount directly into the computer-document later, but not that first draft. This is what works for me, in that words actually get written (as opposed to other methods)…

    …but it’s still very much like pulling teeth. Nope, you’re not alone. Not by any definition. :)

  9. snowflakeobsidian says:

    When I was studying for my degree, I always found I worked best in the mornings – 99% of all my reports and my Management Report were written before breakfast. Very strange . . . . .

  10. leannich says:

    The 18th-century Venetian playwright Goldoni used to get his manservant to tie him to his chair every morning so that he could do nothing but write. At least, so I once heard. (History does not record whether their bondage relationship went any further than this.)

    Thanks for this reminder that writing is HARD, damn it. Timely.

  11. doreenleigh says:

    How reassuring this blog was for me. To realize that someone whose creativity I am so in awe of also struggles with the process.

    I choreograph. The process to create a piece takes me three months, but the end results have been good. I have not been choreographing for several months; rather, I have been beating myself up mentally about the process: WHY can’t I cut that time down? WHY can’t I REMEMBER those excellent bits of dances that appear in my head as I am about to fall asleep…or when I’m driving…or when I’m doing something else and can’t drop everything and jot things down.

    Thank you so much, Stephen, for sharing this with us. It has made a difference for me.

    Also, I totally love that picture of you!!

  12. Ah, when writing I don’t abandon shaving, as I’ve already done that– I’m one of the Beardy Bastard Bards who litter the writing community.

    You know, it’s funny, but I never used to find writing hard, no matter the size of the project — it’s as I’ve gotten older that the *act* of sitting down and focusing on writing, and getting the pages out, has turned into something demonic, akin to giving birth to a boulder. Once I get going, it’s usually not a problem, and sometimes the only thing that stops me is keeling over sideways from exhaustion (a side benefit of being co-morbid with Bipolar and ADHD; I hyperfocus wonderfully at times, to the cost of my health.)

    Added to that is that when it comes to writing, I’m seem to function best at night, between midnight and 6am. This is something that made matters rather interesting when writing for television in L.A., as there was the added bonus of having to venture into Hollywood for meetings, usually on the heels of a crash rewrite job following a previous meeting. By the weekend I was usually pie-eyed and crazy…and writing my way through on coffee, cigarettes and the occasional donut.

    So, for some of us, writing isn’t always the hard thing — it’s committing to the act. I suspect part of that is that it’s so often a solitary act, committed in what amounts to high secrecy, rather like (cliche alert!) masturbation in a monastery. Some of us can write in crowded places and shop windows and whatnot, but most of us…we need that hidey-hole, that darkened cave (and some of us need music as well. I always did. There’s a reason rhythm keeps finding its way into my novels and stories; the poetry is unaffected by that, however.)

    So does your beard maintain a single color, Stephen, or are you one those people who grow whiskers in multiple hues? (My late father’s beard was multi-color; mine’s a fiery Celtic red that contrasts with the black hair.)

  13. teiladnam says:

    I lie in bed on my stomach and write in a notebook in such terrible cursive that only I can decipher it. (This is very uncomfortable.) Occasionally I’ll finish something and type it up and let people read it, and they’ll tell me it’s great, and I’ll be disappointed that they weren’t more enthusiastic about it.

    I have to agree that that Thomas Mann quote is excellent.

  14. spiritualjaye says:

    I love to write, but only for myself, as my writing style is far to unstructured… I’ve had no training and tend to write as I think, which if you could see inside my head, is pretty busy.. jumbled.. emotional and expressive…!!

    I have scraps of paper and bundles of writings, all over the place as I often just grab pen and paper and pour out everything that’s fighting to get out.. the problem is writing it quick enough before my mind flits to something else…

    I have my best ‘thoughts’ in the shower or relaxing in the bath, when everything seems to flow so eloquently and I know exactly what to say… sadly i haven’t yet found a waterproof dictaphone… but when I do, I’m gonna have so much fun with it..!!

    My 12 year old son like me, has loads of projects on his computer, that are started and not finished… perhaps I need to find an online creative writing course, that we can do together…

    Thank you for your wonderful words, which as always are a joy to read.. blessings Jaye

  15. katieb says:

    Stephen, Stephen, shocked at the pic! Do you have an eating disorder? No more weight loss please, we loved you as you were.

  16. dirtywhitecandy says:

    The biggest problem is that darn muse. At first it gives you a big idea, slaps it on the desk like a mad boss and runs around cackling about how clever it’s been. Build me a tower with twiddles on top, it says, which sounds fun and entertaining and maybe even profound. After that the boss doesn’t turn up for work. And you realise your boss’s plan is idiotic, you didn’t understand it properly and you need to ask a lot of questions. Tough. You just have to finish, somehow, although the muse can’t be bothered to fill in all these holes and you don’t feel you do it very well. Why is writing a novel so much more of a struggle than writing non-fiction? Because we don’t have a subject to keep us sane or guide us; we have absolutely nothing.

  17. PJ Davy says:

    I am a writer and I’m feeling a bit nervous about saying this, but I love to write. I actually (whisper who dares) enjoy doing it. Which is sort of why I do it. Am I, perhaps, not doing it properly, then? When I’m not doing it I’m thinking about doing it. When I am doing it I’m happy, happy, happy. And I can write day or night, lights on or off, with any computer/pen that comes to hand, with or without tea/water/mango juice, and I don’t care what’s going on around me or if the moon is in Uranus. In fact, I only have two things (illness aside) that would render me unable to write – alcohol, and the entreaties of my two small children. So, I write ‘cos it’s fun. Should I be worried about this?

  18. losingstreaker says:

    Abba’s Bjorn and Benny nailed the writing process.

    They likened creativity to a dragon who lives in a cave. If you only pop down to the cave a couple of times a week, you’ll never see the dragon. But if you get up early every day and watching the cave for seven hours a day, you’ll maybe get the odd glimpse.

    Got to get that desk time in.

  19. bevminter says:

    Well done you for finishing…. I am not erudite enough to write but I am at my most creative between 3 and 7 am. All very well you say but the school run tends to put paid to that….

    Much fondness

  20. ButterflyLuca says:

    As a PhD student approaching the final weeks of writing up (I’m not even entirely sure what season it is anymore) I completely feel your pain. If I could grow a beard, I would. Just as a physical symbol of my own stagnation.

  21. annakypros says:

    I write daily (comments to blogs) for years now but I havend hooked up with anyone yet. – Ann

  22. dixie says:

    Dear Mr Fry, I thoroughly enjoyed your article about the pleasure and pain of writing and was most intrigued to learn of your peculiar habit to ‘leave off shaving’ once the muse has brushed against your whiskers. You may be interested in a highly amusing video clip by another international best selling author, Bradley Trevor Greive, who expands on the importance of literary facial hair in his piece, “Hemingway – Man With A Beard”. Herewith the link should you be so inclined. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCwFk4ungJY

  23. conniec says:

    Great post, Stephen. Studying process is one of my favorite ways to procrastinate. I had one of those Brother typewriter/word processor things.

    dirtywhitecandy, your muse and mine must be first cousins.

  24. Mr. Fanton says:

    I feel your pain, sir. I spent ages trying to write, before I realised I hadn’t taken the lid off my pen.

  25. bazarakus says:

    I have been trying to get back to writing since I finished a course in March. The ideas still come but they are so overwhelmed by the reasons to avoid sitting down to work (work, family, TV, food, sport) it’s ridiculous.
    Anyway, I have a piece of knowledge which would be great for QI. I don’t want to spoil it by saying it here. You may know it already or you may not. You also may get bloody hundreds of people suggesting ideas, so you may feel the need not to hear mine. Which is fine also.

    All the best


  26. Descartes says:

    I always liked that bit about Oscar Wilde and the comma-sometimes that’s how my writing feels. We all suffer, and it is good to know that you face the same demons as the rest of us-of course, you triumph over them. Good job.

  27. TossTheParadox says:

    What ho!

    I really relish this little piece (although, in my opinion, your definition of “little” must differ vastly from the average figure) – really made my lips curl and twitch happily.
    I have such troubles writing recently. I actually think my jumpiness and stress in school derives from the fact that I think my writing is pure wet disgusting over-done cheese (a little adjective-charged too). Anyway, that’s the uninteresting part of my comment.
    You always makes me believe that writing is one of the simple tasks to perform in the world – YOU LIAR:)
    Thanks Mr. Fry!

  28. rjrockwell says:

    Ew, Stephen, you’re adorable even when you look like you smell bad! –more persuasive even than your words about what you’ve just been through. Can’t wait to see the results!

  29. MollyPrewett says:

    Nothing like a good deadline to motivate me. I remember the most wreched night of my life was spent writing my dissertation the night before I had to have it bound and then handed in. I seem to remember managing to produce about 7,000 words that night, spelling theatre incorrectly at least 5 different ways in the last chapter.
    I think, for the good of mankind, my novel is destined to remain firmly inside my own head.
    Happily, your’s haven’t!
    Nice stubble, very Greek Philosopher.

  30. Jane_Doe says:

    Oh, this seems SO familiar to me. All good ideas seem to come to light when I’m gatting ready to sleep, when I have no opportunity to write them down.

    Oh, and I wright ONLY at nights. I need peace, quet and darkness to write. I go to bed at 5 or 6 am, and wake up.. well.. never mind when I wake up :)

    To Kuroshii and all others that can help: you mentioned “NYT article from a few years ago, titled “excuse me mr. author, but what sort of pen do you use?” (in which you expanded on the fascination with process that many writers share)” and said it is saved on your hard drive. Can you share this article with the Stephen Fry Live Journal Community in my person?? It’s their reqest too. The link will be ok too. Many thanks!

  31. jshorobin says:

    Loved your article, makes me smile as I remember it well, working through the night, tapping the keys, trying to make my brain work, knowing that I had to finish an essay, for that very morning, when I was working towards a degree. Not that it did me any good getting a degree! as now I spend most of my time with my head down school toilets cleaning them, well that’s another story! (Thank you for been you and keeping a smile on my face, and if it wasn’t for audio books read by you of course, I would slowley go mad with boredom, it makes sweeping floors and mopping stairs almost enjoyable now.

    cheers Janine

  32. Rachel Pictor says:

    I love this post! It’s always good to know just how many people struggle with writing and deadlines so I know it’s not just me.

    Thanks Stephen!

  33. mcgirl2008 says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post! The Douglas Adams quote makes me feel so much better about where I am in the process of learning to write. I’ve shared the post with all my writing friends in RWA (Romance Writers of America) and they add their appreciation – thank you!

  34. masha maximova says:

    could be just me, but it looks like i might well be your daughter :)

  35. AnneSaturley says:

    I am so delighted to be able to communicate with you, Stephen, as I have followed much of your career via different media, and loved all aspects of it (the career, the man)…I probably first came across you in Masterpiece Theatre’s Jeeves and Wooster. You were exactly as I had always imagined Jeeves to be (since I discovered him at about the age of 8 or 9. Then I kept seeing you on things like Blackadder, including a memorable turn as the Iron Duke! By the time I knew I loved you; being a woman, it had to be in a platonic way; still…Next I saw a squib about you in The New Yorker and almost simultaneouly bought your book The Incomplete History of Classical Music. All joking aside, if that can ever be said, it’s obviously you know and appreciate a great deal about music. Last night I sighed as I had been watching Stephen Fry in America and had come to the last episode…I have been to both Alaska and Hawaii(I’m Canadian)…anyway I loved the whole series. Sorry for gushing so much! I just feel that if I knew you, we would have such a lot in common. So, to repeat, I am delighted to have discovered you on the Internet. Cheers!

  36. stealthpooch says:

    I believe that writing is the most painful yet concurrently the most satisfying activity I do. I often think of that Thomas Mann quote to console myself when I have trouble getting words on paper. The pain for me mostly involves sitting down and getting started, and once I get into it I usually get fairly lost. Well, that’s usually the plan anyway….

    Oh, and the joy of holding a wad of paper that is a polished piece of writing… Nothing can match it!

  37. Ralph Corderoy says:

    “BBC Acorn for £399″ An Acorn BBC Model B? They were that price, perhaps the Wordwise was thrown in for a discount, or were you onto Wordwise+ by that point? Did you move upto Computer Concepts’ later InterWord? I hear many people still preferred Wordwise with its Teletext MODE 7 screen taking just 1KiB.

    Is it also true that when filming Jeeves and Wooster you found yourself on location at Computer Concepts’ Gaddesden Place, the birthplace of Wordwise, and they showed the ARM-based Acorn Archimedes they were writing for? http://site.xara.com/gaddesden/

  38. john.raynor says:

    Following the superb exposure of your good self on both television and radio, recently, I thought I would like to find your website and am happy to communicate my thoughts about the writing process. Sorry I’m unable to comment on your change of appearance as I am a blind writer.
    I just wish I did have a deadline to keep, as this at least suggests a degree of success. I am a writer of computer software between 8:00 a.m. and 5.30 p.m., after which I can relax a little to write pure fiction. This does tend to lengthen the writing process, one of my novels taking eight years to complete. To date, I have completed several short stories, two novels and two autobiographical works and am currently writing a novel for teenagers.
    Any spare time before I fall asleep is shared between my young family and writing.

    There is a distinct advantage to writing without the luxury of seeing what is written – As I type, the JAWS speech synthesiser repeats the characters and words and when I wish to review what is written, I sit back and let it read to me. It does imply some degree of feeling to my text, but is nothing compared to Your Harry Potter audio books which I greatly enjoyed.

    All the best, Stephen.

    From John Raynor

  39. lindamakwa says:

    You look very sweet in your photo. A loveable rouge. I am not a writer but respect those who do. I find everyone who has a passion has a love/hate relationship with it. I look forward to reading your much appreciative work.

  40. john123 says:

    Out of topic:

    So basicly firs Mr. Fry he says this:


    and then, we can clearly see, that he supports Adobe Flash.

    Well Done Mr. Fry, well done.

  41. fidelbistro says:

    Pessoa taught me about homonyms. One of my homonyms is the twitterer and FUTURE RADIO 96.9 FM texter Fidel Bistro

    – best wishes Daniel Pounds

  42. Miragi says:

    It would be utterly exquisite if the Mann quote were absolute truth. But, as you mentioned, the first stages never guarantee that it won’t suck once it’s written. Therein lies my conundrum, especially in the realm of fiction. For now, I’ll sigh contentedly, knowing that my talent is just waiting on me to get my proverbial crap together! Thank you!!

  43. philperson says:

    I think that every writer believes in his/her heart(I know that I do) that there is a certain combination of techniques and habits, as yet untested, that, when discovered, will make the process of writing rediculously easy. That is why we take such interest in the writing habits of other, more succesful, writers. As yet I have not dicovered the combination that works for me.

  44. Texas Chainstore Manager says:

    “But once you truly understand how difficult it is,” he added, with signature paradoxicality, “it all becomes a lot easier.”

    Inspiring…. I might actually do some work today!

  45. GirlGatsby says:

    I write better at night. There’s something about the soft, velvety darkness that intensifies everything within and without me; the heavy silence almost producing a state of meditation I suppose, ergo making my writing far more F.Scott Fitzgerald and D.H.Lawrence than anything else I produce during the day when noise, light and various other distractions leave me feeling like I couldn’t even manage a Mills & Boon.

  46. miec says:

    Thank you for that wonderful article, I write as well, close to completing my first novel and what amazes me is every time I sit down to write a new section I feel dread, once I am into it I love it and get hyper sometimes afterwards when its flowing, other times it feels like drudgery (not of the loo cleaning variety, I’ve done that too, still do) but it can be hard. Like you Stephen I am a morning writer but need the light. I used to think I was the only one that wrote in the morning, glad to hear someone else does. I also need music to write to and thank God for i-tunes because I can set playlists according to mood or a particular chapter.

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