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. SereniTee says:

    Hi, Stephen. Your post hits so close to home for me that it has been a virtual kick in the arse. Your writing feels like home; it flows, it reads easily, it entertains in a high-brow fashion without being hoity-toity, and that’s just something you don’t see these days. I’m currently writing a book, also, and am finding it the most difficult thing. Besides the said writing, there is the worry of editors and publishers, criticisms and rejection, etc. My book will sell, however; I can see it on the store shelves already. It relates to the fool’s journey, a la Joseph Campbell, tarot cards, Carl Sagan…that first step is a doozy, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with that single, scary step. I’ve taken that step and my life will, thankfully, never be the same. Mr. Fry, I admire and respect you. You entertain me and make me think. Thank you for being to me all that you are. Namaste’.

  2. Susan says:

    Congratulations :-) Even thinking about my last serious deadline scares me witless, but the relief of deadline met is a drug with a high most adictive. I’m going to enjoy yours while feeling just a little envious now that it has passed! Without the bloody agony before where would be the joy afterwards. You are blessed indeed. (And now do have a shave, and a good breakfast you look a bit worn out!)

  3. zyloyu says:

    Nice picture! And nice bookshelf.

    I usually write at night. The words start coming from 10 p.m., the peak is at 2 a.m. and it lasts till 4-5 a.m. Then they go to you, probably :)

    Have a well-deserved rest! Congrats on finishing your work!

    Soupy twist!

  4. Mostly Harmless says:

    Congrats on meeting the deadline! Recently deadlines at school have been for slightly less interesting pieces of work, and I’m fitting any writing into my free time. If you’re interested. I have, also, only if you’re interested, discovered the joys of http://www.ficly.com, a brilliant community writing website, with a 1024 character limit. Fab.

  5. Dave Wilson says:

    Is that natural light I see cast upon you? Tisk and pish, adjust your drapery man. No writing today then…!

  6. talodi says:

    I tend to stockpile dirty cups, and use the same cup all day for constant tea without washing it, and start with a whole new cup the next day!

  7. mgerrard says:

    Fascinating to the writers among your numerous admirers, because this is, of course, the kind of thing that fascinates writers. Another good bit of advice I was given recently for anyone struggling to start a novel was – remember, you’re only writing the first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

  8. ozalba says:

    Well done sir, and thank you for this reassuring insight into the scribe’s world. I guess I’m a would-be writer, who finds it too much effort; it seems I must now apply myself and suffer, with the prospect of actually producing a complete and substantial work. As it is, Twitter (@ozalba), haiku and 6-word stories seem to me a more approachable challenge. There is one work in the pipeline though, inspired by good old DNA: http://tinyurl.com/p5cygt; something might come of that yet.

  9. Mike Reed says:

    I did Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ seminar last year, and enjoyed it immensely. One of things McKee said was, ‘Amateur writers love everything they write. Professionals hate everything they write.’

    Congratulations on getting there, and thanks for the inspiring words.

  10. Whirlochre says:

    A timely post, this. Saves me from having to thrash myself hard over the backside with the tendrils of a writer’s despair.

    I, too, have been up since 6, grunting like a wrestler as I try to polish off a few errant paragraphs. I can’t even walk someone across a bloody living room. A to B. Him. There. Go. But no. It’s like Jason and his Technicolour Adjective Coat meets Laurence Whatsit Bowen’s colour wheel as Goldie conducts Beethoven’s 5th before an audience of all the world’s odours.

    So I’m pinning that Clive James quote above my monitor.

    And ditching the heron posture.

  11. jude dodd says:

    You ARE a fright to look at, but no pain no gain I suppose. The bit about the NO natural light frightens me a little…it’s the one thing I DO need if I am to write anything, or concentrate. I hope you appreciate the natural world when not writing! The art of writing seems to me like creating a patchwork quilt: looks random but actually excruciatingly well-crafted. I am reminded of John Cleese describing the “crafting” of his 13 precious Fawlty Towers episodes: repeatedly writing and re-writing all the strands of the story, weaving them together until they culminate in the one single, coalesced, triumphant finale. Well done.

  12. maenja says:

    I am no writer, I do not have anything to do with it, but I enjoyed to read from a writer who writes about writing! ;)

  13. tony42 says:

    Beautiful, interesting and funny. Lovely writing Stephen, thank you.

    I particularly enjoyed the DNA quote, how easy it is to forget his wonderful turn of phrase; so witty, what a terrible loss to the world. A timely reminder too as Last Chance… is almost upon us, lucky us.


  14. megant says:

    I’m mainly an early morning writer too, I think my brain fades as the day goes on – but 3 in the morning is truly inspiring. Love your Mann quote, wonderful words of wisdom, lovely post (though I think that growing a beard might be a bit beyond me)

  15. Bookmarked says:

    There is something about chapter 2. Some ancient, terrible curse about that number of chapters in any work. It always provokes me to look back at what I’ve done with critical eye. Followed shortly by a scrapping of the whole project.

    I’ve picked up some “habits” when it comes to writing, which seem to stick. Whenever I write on a train, I will come up with the most surreal and awkwardly phrased things ever that need careful editing to make sense. When writing at a desk, table or other flat surface, I tend to surround myself with cups of half-drunk tea (6, at the most impressive/squalid count) and play a form of russian roulette trying to find the one that’s still hot.

    Congratulations on meeting your deadline, however. At least, until the next one.

  16. ses says:

    Thank-you Stephen for this. I am (trying) to write my dissertation at the moment and I find it a comfort that it is alright to be a hermit and let yourself go a little while immersed in the writing process!

  17. piano_aisha says:

    Am reading this while putting off an arranging assignment for my music degree… you may just have given me the motivation to get moving. Hoping it works the same for music as for words.

  18. green ink says:

    One of the things I always wonder about once a deadline has been met, is if the work would have been the same if you’d started earlier (or rather if I’d started earlier). As someone who has a habit of starting at the last possible moment, I always wonder if the result would have been the same if I’d started earlier.
    Usually I comfort myself that I did a good job, and waiting until the last minute gives you time to develop your ideas.

    As for habits when working. Shaving is definitely postponed, much to the chagrin of my fiancee. I can never really get started before 10am, but I can work until 3 or 4 in the morning, munching on whole weat biscuits all the while. Lately audiobooks have been very addictive while drawing as well.

    The Hippopotamus accompanied my last deadline.

  19. L.McMahon says:

    Well done on the deadline .
    I am not a writer but have found it very interesting to hear what one must endure to get it out there !
    I have been enjoying your blog.

  20. Jonathan King says:

    Funnily enough, like Douglas I love deadlines but for the reason that they are the only things that make me finish writing. Usually artificial ones, set by myself.

  21. Cora Devine says:

    Thank you for that timely reminder; Have been struggling to write a synopsis for a 150,000 word novel, and enduring the blank or puzzled looks of my family and friends when I try to explain that it is hard!
    And I rather like the beard…

  22. helenthornber says:

    Perfect timing of blog. Recently I have been in despair about my own novel(s). Technically there are five in my head (bloody good stories if I say so myself), two in various stages on paper and not one finished. It took me a good 2-3 years to get the blogging thing working for me, so I am sure with perseverance the novel thing will get there too.

    I am reading ‘A Writers Tale’by Russell T Davies and I am now adding you to the list of people to turn to when I think I’m not doing it “right”. There is something very comforting in knowing that I’m not the only one who find discipline next to impossible unless there is a deadline looming in the very near future!

  23. thezookeeper says:

    Keep the beard! It’s just the right length that you could pass as Hugh and finally get some time on that “House” program of his, especially as you’re looking so svelte these days!

    Anyway, congratulations on completion – when do we get to see the tome?

  24. 80howard says:

    I hated having to write “srories” at school, even “what I did in my holidays” was a trauma (despite lovely holidays camping in North Wales!). And now I’m desperately hoping my boss hasn’t realised that I haven’t handed in my final essay and I will pass my probationary year without the full quota. Despite all the trauma I have gone through when having to write anything, I know there is definately not a ‘writer’ within me. I admire your writing talent all the more for it.
    But I do find chocolate digestives help. x

  25. our man in Canberra says:

    As someone who seems to have procrastination knitted into their DNA, I’ve always enjoyed Peter De Vries (Reuben, Reuben) take on writing: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

    (and whoever said I’m not much of a writer but a hell of a rewriter also deserves a gold star)

  26. Antonia says:

    Hahahaha. What a photo! :D Oh, I shoulkd also read what you’ve written.

  27. Zehra says:

    I think this is why I dated writers and only have daymares of being one. It will be my 4th career. Maybe. Good luck with the next one. And beards are sexy. Mostly. x

  28. lyla1310 says:

    I also write best in the early mornings. In fact, the only time I have ever been awake and mentally alert before 5am was while studying for my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees; usually when I had to knock out 3000 word essays by 1pm that day (I thrive on extreme pressure!). My location of choice was usually the dining room next to the kitchen, with a kettle and tea making facilities only 10 ft away. The dress code for the rendezvous with my laptop was usually my dressing gown and fluffy slippers…this never varied. Great blog Stephen, struck a cord with me…ahh the memories!

  29. ajbezark says:

    Many thanks. Not since Salieri’s absolution to all mediocrities at the finale of “Amadeus” have I felt such relief.

    I’m in the middle of a four-way deadline; two down, two to go. I’ll do anything to avoid coming face-to-pixel with that damn blinking I-beam. My desk is never cleaner, my tweets never more frequent, than when I’m on a killer deadline. I always thought it was because I was a dirty, rotten, lazy coward. Now I realize that I am a dirty, rotten, lazy coward… but I’m not alone.

    Decades ago, my favorite literary hero, Oscar Madison, consoled his friend Felix Unger with the greatest truth I’d ever heard on the subject:

    “I hate writing… but I love having written.”

    I just looked it up, and imagine my surprise: he was actually quoting Dorothy Parker. Now, strangely, I feel even better. I may be a dirty, rotten, lazy coward, Oscar… but I’m no plagiarist.

    Thanks again, Stephen.

  30. Cora Devine says:

    Plus I now know where I’ve been going wrong; I get up almost every day inspired to write immediately; but then being a bit sweaty, have a long hot shower; full body moisturise; blow dry my hair; perhaps a smudge of make-up in case anyone calls…About seventeen cups of tea and endless procrastination on Twitter etc. Now I know to let it all slide and grow a beard.

  31. JOnKEnna says:

    Well done and congrats. Yes, writing is hard labour. Puzzling thing is… I love it. Anyway it makes no difference because we HAVE to do it, don’t we? No choice in the matter! Strange creatures.

  32. Gertrude Susanne says:

    Emerging into the Light? (somewhat reminiscent of Falco´s song Out of the Dark ).
    Isn´t it fascinating how a specific activity dictates one´s circadian rhythm, if only for the duration one pursues said activity?

    Has the transition from manual typewriter to today´s technology had any effect on your “daily output”? I found manual typewriters an absolute nightmare; when I first started in the early 80s my little fingers were hurting for weeks! Nowadays, with keyboards it´s easy peasy – so much faster, especially when you touch type. (Would you believe that when you master the art of touch typing in one language and then switch to touch typing in another that, initially, your “brain-finger” coordination goes straight out of the window? Not ideal for a translator…)
    That you managed to do some serious writing in the absence of nicotine should make you feel very proud, as for some writers the two (or perhaps even three, adding coffee) are intricately entwined and the absence of cigarettes is detrimental to their writing.

    Thank you ever so much for sharing your experience of how difficult writing is, at the same time encouraging those who may have doubts about their own abilities and skills not to give up prematurely or to try again. You have, in a way, answered a “tweery” and I am determined to sign up for a creative writing course and, depending on how I fare, perhaps later for some serious one-year course (full-time job permitting). And I´ll get myself a writing desk with deep drawers for all the insipid, er, incipient masterpieces to disappear in. I´m not sure, though, whether I´ll follow in Gertrude S´s footsteps, shame Gertrude Lawrence was not a writer, I bet she would have developed some writing habits far more stylish than leaving off shaving! As far as you are concerned: Eugene O´Neill entitled one of his masterpieces “Stubble becomes Stephen”, I believe.
    Try to recuperate from the writing frenzy and enjoy some more accidental spillage down your throat if the fancy tickles you. Jeder braucht einmal eine Belohnung! GSx

  33. crackers_76 says:

    I love your bookshelf.

  34. Jesster says:

    Oh good, you are a bit more chirpy than your last blog! Well done, enjoy your achievement. I suppose the only thing with writing is that the deadlines keep coming for you, but don’t think about that yet! I am, as always, in awe.

  35. LynxLuna says:

    First of all, congratulations for having beaten the doomed deadline, Mr. Fry! I am still on that University pandemonium of deadlines, so I can perfectly understand the pain of one of those approaching. Gah.

    Secondly, I so loved your comments about authors. I love writing, but as you say, the better you think you are doing it, the harder it becomes, until you groan in despair and desire to leave the words to die alone. I am in that mood just right now (and obviously I don’t refer to this comment, although struggling with English is descouraging enough for the young, average Spanish writer).

    Anyway, you sort of opened my eyes, and I am so grateful for this. When I think I can’t get on with a writing I’ll remember your advise. Thankyou very much and good luck with the next deadline!


  36. Ei2g says:

    Aside from the yawning gulf between your success as a writer and my humble offerings, I can at least relate to the struggles of production. I have two novels that are about half written, the pain of proceeding so great. I too often forget that I am but composing the first draft.

    Sometimes even getting out whitterings at http://www.surrealscoop.com makes extraction by a dentist seem preferable.

  37. nonoyesyes says:

    Fabulous mini blog told with such great reality….very real to me having been through exactly that kind of long road up to and beyond; with writing. I wrote an entire novel in approx 2 months and then spent 12 months editing editing editing correcting correcting till I went slowly mad!
    Written by looking directly at screen in darkened room; it was totally real how you function as you write with daylight shut out! (got it re the ciggs) I had coffee; that was it in total!
    I am ridiculously pleased that you arrived at where you needed to get to with your writing; I applaud your gutsty stamina and wish you even more success with the continuing ability to bring thought to paper, with a concept hardly won!

  38. exoskeleton says:

    In all the adequate amount of books I’ve read, I don’t think I’ve pondered the method more than a handful of times. It’s something I think about every time I admire a painting though. I never realized my imagination was limited in quite that way. While I’m tap-tapping about limited imagination: I’d have never guessed anyone ever disliked natural light in any context.

    I’m pleased to know this major piece of writing is complete, even though it’s not my problem when it’s not. In fact, I might like it better unfinished if my goal were to see what further progress on that beard would look like.

  39. wendishness says:

    Terrifically witty post and some great advice offered which now gives me a ‘reason’ why I might write, then procrastinate, write some more, toss it out….

    As for best time to write, I have always found throughout the night works the best for me. Very few distractions but I also find at night there’s a slight sensory deprivation which helps me focus better on the task at hand. Well…until I start the procrastination cycle and inevitably get sidetracked!

  40. Tryphena says:

    I’d lock myself in a room for six months with no daylight and write beyond exhaustion if it gave me the money to surround myself with half the literature you own. You are a very lucky man to have such a talent, and I am an envious woman. Forty one years old, never envied anyone before… not prettier women, better mothers, celebrities, athletes, because my glass is always half full. But I am now jealous of a middle-aged man with stubble who has been deprived of daylight! Thanks, Stephen!

  41. longuspoddius says:

    Tolstoy, Stein, Fry, and Alan Cork. Surely you can’t have forgotten Alan Cork?!

  42. xanderlee says:

    Well done for ‘plopping’ out this lovely wee blog.
    You do look like you are suffering for your arts. If it makes you feel any better, I look in a similar state most mornings (and I don’t write…too much real life to have to deal with ;-) with minimal effort. Luckily though (as a female) I dont have quite the same problem with shaving!

  43. Ian Butter says:

    My wife tells me that childbirth was only marginally worse than the pain she suffered during the production of my first book – a tome for all insomniacs on the vagaries of the modern town planning system. A house littered with post-it notes and referenced articles, increasing levels of caffeine intake and late night sessions at the laptop and a deadline of December 31st so Christmas was a blur. But it’s oh so nice when it stops.

    By the way, as a committed techy, have you ever ventured into voice recognition software? Does brain to computer work for you or do you have to write/type to actually ‘create’?

  44. Davidius says:

    Might I suggest setting yourself artificial mini-deadlines? There’s a great web application called Write or Die which helps you do just that. It works by timing how long you’ve not been writing, and then “punishing” you for it. You won’t write Shakespearean sonnets with it, but it’s brilliant for first drafts – you can easily knock out 1500 words an hour with it. Check it out at: http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html

  45. christmasstree says:

    I have written one book but as you said its extremely hard work. I have resided to the fact that poetry it more satisfying and has more “instant” pleasures.

  46. sytaylor says:

    In the time it took me to register for this website, you went from 42 to 44 comments. So, this will fall on deaf eyes. Maybe this melancholy attitude to my writing does demonstrate I am finally ready to finish my first piece of writing, beyond a semi regular blog.

    Yet consider this, I once attempted to start a website community to help people learn how to write in 2004/5. I managed to write up a very compelling argument and had a lot of interest. I was going to call it ourbook.com until I realised it was taken. Eventually I got stuck, lost momentum and gave up. Only to learn in 2008 somebody had launched webook.com an almost carbon copy of my idea.

    Can I prove it? Circumstantially possibly, I have email trails, but had no protection on the idea.

    So not only did I fail to teach myself and others to write, I failed to do what I did for a living at the time, make a website. The inability to finish a creative idea separates my mania from having any real impact in the world.

    I respect you Stephen, not because it’s popular or quazi-cool; But because you finish what you start. Admirable.

  47. flamingonw says:

    Hmm…. Ok fine. I guess I will find a way to force myself to write that thing… I’ve been stopped by 2 things – fear of immersing myself in the intense emotional world of my story (but is it any worse than the state I currently find myself with my family right now? Not really, plus I have full control over my own story world…) And second, fear of sucking. Fear of being like one of those American Idol contestants who everyone praises to high heaven and who then makes a complete ass of themselves on national television…

    Maybe you can write about that whole “kettle of fish” sometime, too, and help a girl out…

  48. hectormac says:

    A hack writer with 30 years of inexperience under my belt, I always found that deadlines were strangely liberating. There are those who claim they are ‘conceptualising’. They are bull-shitters; procrastination is half the fun, and there is nothing like writing under the cosh to bring forth the best. In extremis, the mantra is “Get It Down; Hone And Polish Later”. In the ultimate extremity, be sure to maintain a copy of Microsoft Word on your hard drive; it affords a totally credible mitigating excuse.

  49. flamingonw says:

    Also? I have the considerable momentum of being someone who has NEVER really finished ANYTHING of my own… Hard to turn that barge around….

  50. ChooChoo says:

    I also work best in the morning. Unfortunately I have no talent for getting up early. Perhaps that’s why I’m the queen of procastination.

    Grindingly horrible… Sounds about right. But somehow I fee better about that now. Then again, I’m not actually writing right now, which makes it easier to feel better about it.

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