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. Debra says:

    I am truly unworthy of leaving you a reply but in this instance I feel the overwhelming need to say something. I have battling with “writers block” for some time now and it’s been getting me further into the pits of depression. I just read your blog and my eyes popped out in surprise and a rather loud voice in my head shrieked, “So that’s why it’s been so hard???!!! Cos it is hard!!”. In short, dear Stephen Fry, I thank you for your words of wisdom. If you don’t mind I am going to copy and paste your blog, print it out and post it in my writing space. You have given me permission to complain that writing is HARD!! :-) xoxoxoxo

  2. galeforce7 says:

    Well done on meeting the deadline, Stephen! Love the unshaven look ;) Your post has provided me with the incentive to give finishing my poems another shot. Would love to have a good few completed before I graduate next year, but DAMN it’s hard..Much love,

    Alex

  3. Aurora says:

    Hahaha!!!!Hurrayyy!!!But …What’s the title?I absolutely love writing in the late afternoon,7pm,in cold month above all! I started to write when I was 16, but …I’m nobody and nobody have a reason to read what I wrote …so …Congratulations for the new book! Kiss! :)
    P.S grate Cast Away look!

  4. ashty says:

    ” a kind of superstition told me that it would be tempting providence to change.” Ah, ah.. I even began to brace myself for the tension that always makes an appearance when one has a commission. I too had a system, and it involved working in cupboards, stocking up on cans of pop and living on a diet of dry cereal… working from roughly 8pm – 6am. Repeat for 5 days. When the project was complete, I would emerge, triumphant, clutching a CD master of my recording, find an appropriate window, put my headphones on, and listen to it 20 times in a row to check that I ‘got it right’ (whatever that means).

    When I moved to a house without a cupboard or a basement, I panicked and thought it was the end. I set up studio in the bedroom. I could no longer record through the night. What to do?!!

    In the end, the creative muses did it for me, they did not shy away from the change in routine, oh no. In fact, they made it easier. I don’t brace myself so much when I write now – it’s not that fragile. And my work is better. Deadlines, procrastination… where is the joy in that? I think it’s about the way one approaches it – I rather bizzarrely now enjoy writing essays about teaching practice (training to be a music teacher).

    Stephen, chill out and smile. It’s all in that head of yours, just let it flow.

  5. samu says:

    What do you write in now? If you haven’t already tried it, let me suggest the excellent Scrivener:

    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

    (Forgive the nauseating domain name.) Lovely fullscreen view, convenient research organisation, integrated now with WriteRoom on the iPhone. For bonus points, pair with Dropbox, so your every keystroke is instantly etched upon the Cloud, and you’d lose nothing but fingers if your Mac suddenly exploded.

  6. Linda52 says:

    “… and Gertrude Stein” lol
    My wife is a writer. Thank you for the reminder of what goes on in that room.

  7. hab318princess says:

    Hi, I’m new here… but attended a writers workshop with Phil Ford at a Torchwood Convention six months ago and he said something that’s stuck with me: There is no set way of writing – we are individuals

    I write for fun (fanfiction) as a hobby and combine writing on paper and then, most often, directly into the laptop and usually don’t have deadlines to meet.

  8. daen says:

    I’m trying to get organised enough to drag myself to the writers’ workshop at Shakespeare & Co. today at 5pm. I really am. But it’s not looking promising. Washing remains unwashed; groceries stand even now unpurchased on shelves in far-flung shops. And while I haven’t achieved the same ‘twelve-days-at-sea-with-but-a-Yorkie-bar-and-a-couple-of-paperclips’ ruggedness which you disport, Mr Fry, a brief going-over of my physog with a small hedge-trimmer would not be amiss. Autumnal malaise or a ton of laziness?

  9. Womb For Improvement says:

    Phew. Thank you for divulging the secret. I thought everyone found it easy. But that means I have no excuse, dammit.

  10. jacquiluvslife says:

    Hi All,
    I recently received some money that could potentially offer me the chance to work part time (as opposed to full time) and to write, which is something I have spent most of my life wanting to do!

    I definitely lack confidence in relation to this and was struggling with what I see as a distinct lack of talent, so to read your words and to hear from you Stephen that to write is incredibly difficult has given me a lot of food for thought, I must admit I did have a false belief that if I was meant to do it then I would find it easier!!!

    I think that as a gay woman with five biological daughters, one step daughter and 2 foster daughters I am starved of books that reflect my lived experience and the lived experience of the people with whom I live and work as we are all people who have had long term mental health needs and / or have experienced social exclusion.

    There are so many untold stories especially when it comes to people who are seeking refuge and asylum, people from ethnic minority groups and members of the gay community, I would like to document the life stories of the people I know cos they are fascinating and for herstories and histories sake need to be told!

    Cheers Stephen for sharing your experience and letting me know it CAN BE DONE!
    Hugs
    Jacx

  11. MrsBrown says:

    Dear Mr Fry
    Thank you – I am in the process of writing for my DEdCPsy at the moment and find academic writing almost as challenging as the creative stuff. Hearing that you, whom I admire so greatly, struggle with all of this makes me heartened to keep going. Also good to hear that writing superstitions are alive and well. My authorial idiosyncrasies seem to have developed exponentially with age :o)

    Mrs Brown

  12. psferris says:

    Thank you for the assurance that as I am beating my head against the table trying to pound out the perfect word currently eluding me, there are hundreds – nay thousands – of other writers pounding their heads in unison. What wonderful, quirky music we must make.

  13. Mark Lee says:

    It appears that writing, like another creative endeavor called “childbirth,” starts with a bit of enjoyable conception followed by much waiting and discomfort, culminating in grunting, sweating, and sharp cries.

  14. megp says:

    BRAVO for speaking the truth about writing. As an academic I’m constantly negotiating the waters of publish-or-perish, and I, too, spend many early early mornings pulling up to the laptop for a session. There is nothing harder. Yet there is nothing better than when it works, and so we all return again. Those who claim to have access to some sort of Romantic font from which inspiration flows like wine . . . I envy them and doubt their claims completely. Bravo for your efforts!

  15. AnnieUhOh says:

    Damn, but that was motivating, and I never really even considered myself a writer, unless you count signing up for NaNoWriMo each year to very poor results. But hey, maybe this is the reason beneath it all.

    Congrats on meeting the deadline! And I dig the scruff. Very manly and tortured artist. Or something.

  16. beejoygreen says:

    I seem to recall reading once Milton wrote in the very early hours of morning, and after the blindness, with his daughters’ help. I also recall thinking that’s a wakeup call I would have struggled to heed, even for my late dad. Early mornings do seem though to be a time for care and contemplation, so maybe it wouldn’t have been so difficult after all.

    Signed a new blog and tweet follower,
    Rebecca

  17. sunset says:

    Why have I never visited before? It is such a joy to read your words; I never doubted that your composition and grammar would be anything other than perfect but some writers achieve that along with a complete lack of flow and interest. Your writing has all the flow and interest that I could possibly desire – as has the artwork on your banner!

  18. girlynebbish says:

    I really hope you’re right, Mr. Fry. I remember hating writing in school and here I am, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism (other commenters are free to laugh derisively; I picked a horrible time to work in media). Sometimes I wish that I was born with a passion for accounting or engineering — it would have made life a great deal easier.

    It comforts me that you also think writing is hard. Maybe we’re all masochists who need to keep writing and subjecting ourselves to possible ridicule in order to get better. I just hope that my work doesn’t end up in a hundred slush piles. I don’t know, though, maybe that’s what I need and deserve.

    Note: This post has been edited for content. And I still don’t think it turned out right.

  19. sadkate says:

    Stephen, you look brilliantly hunky in hirsute mode!

  20. Fryphile says:

    OMLP thank you for saying how brain-blisteringly difficult writing is. *drops bouncy rainbows of thank yous on you*

    Writing is agonizing. Forget water-boarding terror suspects. If you really want to torture them, have them write a sestina or novella or an episode of “Two and a Half Men”. Then they’ll tell you where all the WMDs are.

    It’s appallingly frustrating when you mention you’re a writer type person so someone and he responds with untouchable haughtiness about how writing is easy, anyone can write. True, anyone can write, but I’m interested in writing well. Well, as well as I can anyway. Anyway, I better stop starting sentences with the same words I used to finish them. “Them!” is a movie about giant ants. Let’s make a movie called G.I. Ant about giant army ants. Mr. Dalliard, I’ve started to talk drivel now!

    *pets your fuzzy face*

  21. Missy Frye says:

    Felicitations on conquering the deadline and thanks for the inspiring blog post. I’m now ready to continue work on my novel.

  22. Irene-Irene says:

    You look truly edible.

  23. Ghost Code says:

    Emerging

    Mastered the horror of manual machines
    Tempting muses to guarantee any miracle
    Processed scribbled mornings

    Grinding writing fever
    Knowledge peculiar to superstition
    Encourage complete progress

    Passion drawn to masterwork
    Regretful cursing

  24. happydorkgirl says:

    The relief that exudes from that photograph is palpable.

    …and thanks for the pep talk. This graduate student might be able to dig a little deeper for the strength to work on her proposal today.

  25. kanksh says:

    Omgz I can’t begin to express how encouraging the 5th paragraph of this entry is. How often I’ve considered myself a shit excuse for a real writer, not only because I’m only 17, but because it just seems so bloody hard to do.

    Maybe perfectionism is an innate quality in a real writer and that’s what makes it such a trying process. It doesn’t “come naturally” because it’s so frustrating to feel that what’s coming out naturally isn’t…doesn’t really do justice to what you want to say. We keep feeling that whatever comes through in our writing must flow in perfect harmony but it just doesn’t; the translation from thought/idea to word is a trickier process than it seems. Even as I type this that very process is going on, there’s a nagging feeling that I haven’t quite hit the spot and I have terrible urges to change things, but I know I may never be entirely satisfied. Which is why writing is so hard. To me, anyway. But I think that to feel more secure about writing takes practice, which I am…possibly, maybe…definitely avoiding because I just recoil in horror and the longing for death after writing anything that seems substandard to me. (It may also be compounded by the fact that I take a lot of essay-heavy subjects in Junior College and feel terribly inferior when I don’t write good ones. But that’s an entirely different story)

    But anyway – thank you for this post, Mr Fry :D Hope you’re recovering well from the aftermath of managing to meet the deadline.
    Lots of love from Singapore ~

  26. moshuajoody says:

    Love the fuzz, grizzly bear.

    Prose I must type from the start, preferably in a shady room with my books behind me for grabbing and caressing in between spurts of actual writing. And I must beat my body into submission to do it. Poetry, on the other hand, has to come to me and is merely scribbled on whatever’s at hand, later transcribed to the pc, and destined to go through several, more serious but nitpicky revisions sporadically over the next two or three years. Unfortunate processes both.

  27. PSnyder says:

    I’m waiting for the proof copy of my first novel. I’ve often wondered how it is I can be so tortured by something I love so much.

  28. SilvanaFe says:

    I’d like to read all the book in your bookshelf. Maybe I could learn the English language. I love your new look.
    kisses from Italy

  29. SilvanaFe says:

    books..ops

  30. sandybeach says:

    Where have I been? Whilst doing some essay writing avoidance I was browsing through a well known on-line bookstore only to come across some of your podcasts. I thought, they’ll be good for the train – and then promptly laughed all the way to Newcastle. Trains can be bizarrely lonely places and it felt like I had a friend sitting next to me. So here am (doing more essay writing avoidance – trying to pull something together on Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Twelfth Night) but your blog has given me the will to make the push for my Wednesday deadline.

    And thank you for your comment on your many books that only got to the second chapter – mine did too. When I was a child I was very jealous of a friend of mine who seemed to be able to write reams. I always thought she would become a writer and not me (probably still the case). Maybe there’s hope for me yet though… back to it!

  31. Gaina says:

    See, I knew you’d do it. :)

    Although I’m a visual artist and not a writer, this blog feels very relevant to me at the moment. I start University again next week and I’ve been panicking a bit because it’s my final year which culminates in my first exhibition and I just didn’t have any ideas. I am finding it incredibly difficult to get myself in ‘work mode’ and getting cross with myself because it is as you say very difficult and I’m doing my usual ‘thing’ of thinking I’m stupid because don’t find it easy, when in fact it’s supposed to be difficult! The fact that the things which have come easily to me are pieces that I don’t look back on terribly fondly should have given me a clue, but there you go :P.

    As for my creative quirks? I need the right music (almost always very heavy metal which makes me a very calm and cheerful bunny), nice incense and I absolutely *cannot* think without a fountain pen – the flow of the ink seems to help ideas to ‘flow’ into my sketch books.

  32. Elifant71 says:

    I am relieved to hear that what I go through is similar to others that write either for pleasure or the pain of work. I sometimes find myself learing at the screen of my computer demanding a word come to mind that will set me off again, but there are times when the screen wins and I must back away, silently retreating until I can manouver from another direction. Thanks for the words of encouragement. Look forward to whatever you give us next!

  33. Literary_Lover says:

    I like to write undressed, wearing my old cotton pyjamas and with a glass of chilled white wine to hand.

  34. Egao says:

    Sounds strange. I like to slepp in the morning ’cause if I don’t, I usually do the homework I did not end the previous evening.:) Excuse me, maybe it sounds silly, but what Tolstoy do you mean? There were at least two of them in Russia. Sorry to disturb you.

  35. taluta says:

    I am far to distraught about being unable to write to make an intelligent comment. Well, a stupid one would be good at this point too :-( Well done for meeting your deadline Mister Fry :-)

  36. mrdalliard says:

    Lovely as you are Stephen, I am enjoying looking at all of those books in the background! Fantastic, glad people still read them.

  37. Inkey41 says:

    And, in addition, what I like to know about a writer, is what are all those titles on your bookshelves? (Being able to almost see them in the blog photo is tantalizingly painful.) Good luck on finishing your latest project, and inspiring me to begin…even at this late date… Now I know what I always suspected: It’s hard to start, hard to continue, and hard to finish-just plain old hard.

  38. doolols says:

    Writing? Hmm. Closed room, no interruptions, something nondescript on the radio / iPod / whatever. Often it ends resulting in silence.

    We writers need to lose ourselves in the work, we need to inhabit our characters, we need to feel our hero’s environs. Only then can we write.

    Well done on meeting the deadline, sir. A major task completed.

    When’s the next one? ;)

  39. csdaley says:

    Thank You so much for this blog. This last year was the year I broke though and got that hard novel out. I blogged about how difficult the first one was for me. I am now on my 2nd novel. Who knows I might even be getting better.

  40. Becky_Haag says:

    It may be just as frustrating to be a compulsive writer. I was ‘diagnosed’ in my first college incarnation by my creative writing teacher who would ramble on about the mud in Normandy and how the boys were all 6 inches taller by the time they got to Germany. I have been writing the same story with the same characters for 16 years, pretty much non-stop and all hand written on non-lined paper in a script approximately the size of 11 pt. Times New Roman. I discovered in high school, that if I wasn’t writing a story of some sort, it started to push other things out of my brain, like algebra. My research writing teacher in my second college incarnation said she would give anything to have that ability to write anything about nothing, but I told her it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I have never hit a writer’s block because the story’s already there, I’m just writing it down. But you tell people that and they smile nervously and slowly back away. But that’s the reaction I get from most people anyway…
    Hugs
    Toodle-pip

  41. leica says:

    Fran Lebowitz once said she hated being a writer because it was like perpetually having a term paper due.

  42. Philhellene says:

    A deep interest inhow other writers work and finding the act of writing like carving a pound of flesh from my body – an account of my experience. In addition, every Saturday in the Guardian the thing I first turn to is the picture of a writer’s room, as if that would unlock the secret of their creativity.

    Armed with this blog post I may well return to my attempts at writing a piece I’d be prepared to show to others, thank you.

  43. marley says:

    Another one who prefers to write early in the morning when the creative juices are flowing freely! My problem is that once I get started on something, I become oblivious to everything else around me. Coffees remain undrunk;teas beg to be put back into the teapot/teabag (delete as appropriate)as they feel rejected and neglected, depsite the additional company of milk and hot, now cold, water. I curse the phone when it rings, then on word free days curse the machine for not ringing. My output at present floors those who know me, wondering how I manged to fit in, and complete, so much in the relatively short time I have been writing.
    I don’t know, either. But always having a writing pad with me, or an narrow-lined, ring-plan type pad, complete with an assortment of pens and pencils tends to ensure I can write at the drop of an ink blot. My problem at present is finding an agent and publisher. My other problem is that I’m just starting my second year of my BA in EngLIt with the Open University after taking early retirement from 35 years chained to the oars of the Banking Industry (a collective noun for such being a Wunch), and jumping ship when the captain said he wanted to go water skiing.
    My other problem lies in the essays. Content? Fine. Word length? Ah, there you have me.

  44. Uphill says:

    I can fully understand the way you feel when struggling with the words. I often fund myself banging my head against the wall, hoping it makes it easier for the words to get out of my mind and onto the paper. It leaves me with nothing more then a severe headache time after time.
    Keeping focus is key when writing and using the ‘getting things done’ methodology gets me there often enough.
    I’ll pick up the writerdefinition. Makes it all clear.

    (ps Since I’m Dutch and English is not my mother tongue the comment could (and possibly) will contain some grammatical and/or spelling errors. My apologies for the inconvenience.)

  45. tudde says:

    Your non-shaving reminds me of the Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre (Harold Finehair – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harald_Finehair), who refused to cut his hair or beard before he unified Norway into one kingdom in 872. :)

    Wonder if that was harder than writing a novel? Maybe some previous king had told him that uniting your first kingdom is really hard, but that it gets easier after you realise how hard it is…

  46. MistressNomad says:

    Sir Fry,

    Thank you.

    I have often wondered, while sobbing over my keyboard (which is awful for the electrics, let me assure you), if I am just a fraud. If I were a real writer, it should flow freely from me, while angels sing and unicorns prance about in the background.

    It isn’t. I shut myself in my room, and tear at my own hair for hours, trying to put down something, ANYTHING, that doesn’t seem totally cliche and generally horrendous. Nine times out of ten I fail. Because even if my writers like I, I do not. It isn’t good enough. It never is.

    I grew up with a writer, who assured me that this, unfortunately, is infact the one true mark of a writer. But it made no difference. The blank page is the worst sort of mockery I’ve ever encountered.

    I registered on your website especially so that I could tell you “thank you” for this post. And that it calms my mind somewhat that even a writer as prolofic and great as yourself, it is a task not unlike ripping your toenails out with a pair of pliers in order to do what we’re driven to do – write.

    So, thank you. Write on.

    Love,
    Cassie

  47. NuMoon says:

    Well, I can’t write for toffee, maybe I am a writer!

  48. vbelenkovich says:

    Stephen,

    What are those uniformly looking volumes at the bottom shelf?

    Off topic.

    Ordered from UK and watched your Fry in America saga.

    Hilarious! And what is the best thing about it it is re-watch-able. We checked.

    Thanks a lot,

    From Russia with love,

    Vlad&Nat

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