Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Writers, Like Dogs, Should Be Let Off Leads

A friend came over at the weekend with his dog, and we went on lots of long walks. Since my dog died last summer I've been missing the dog walks and I was looking forward to walking a dog again. But it didn't live up to my expectations. This dog had a habit of catching a scent and following it, leaving the poor owner scouring the countryside for hours before eventually tracking him down. As a result my friend kept his dog on a lead all the time.

Now, one of the things I loved about my old dog was his sheer pleasure in running about and sniffing and generally having fun out on a walk. Dogs have a tremendous capacity for simply enjoying themselves which I find irresistible - no wonder people who have dogs are apparently happier than those without. The lead was one of those long ones on elastic, but it inhibited joyfulness. Basically, the dog had to stick to the path and not chase after rabbits or stick his nose down badger holes or do any other doggy things. Of course the dog didn't run away, which would have been annoying, but it also made for a less enjoyable walk.

We can be like that as writers. We know what works and stop taking risks in our writing. Or we write with half our mind on who might read our work - parent, lover, child or friend. Or we've had success with one type of writing and are now reluctant to try something else, even though the story we have nagging at our brains won't suit that form.

Sometimes I have to tell students I want them to fail, just to get them to push their boundaries a little further than feels comfortable. Maybe the writing they produce doesn't 'work', but they will at least have learned something about their process. More usually, they surprise themselves by its success and what they can do if they take a few risks.

Personally, I'd rather write with the risk of getting lost, rather than stick to the path all the time and I'd rather read untethered writing too. Take risks! The only thing you have to lose is your time.


liz fenwick said...

Thats what I did during NaNoWriMo last year...it was sheer bliss and necessary to stretch the writing muscle.

Anonymous said...

QUOTE "Or we write with half our mind on who might read our work" QUOTE.

But we are told to study our markets and to write what readers want to read. (I'm talking about short story writing here).

I suppose writing books is different to an extent but even so novelists must still have to bear in mind who they are writing for.

I do sometimes write "off the lead" but I've never yet managed to sell any of them.

(Sorry about the caps. I tried to put the quote in italics but couldn't make it work.)

Jim Murdoch said...

Three things frighten me: 1) that I will end up writing the same novel over and over again because it’s safe, 2) I’ll try not to do that and will always wonder what the hell I’m doing trying to write something I’ve never written before and probably am not capable of writing anyway, and, 3) I’ll never write another thing for fear of either 1) or 2).

Sarah Duncan said...

It's the great thing about NaNo - permission to write what you like and not to worry about the content.

Gail, I was thinking of people like mothers, fathers, strict teachers from our childhood, our own children. If they're metaphorically sitting on your shoulder when you write, then you'd never get anything done.

Knowing where the market is is useful, but you shouldn't write for it - certainly not the first drafts. The exception is the women's magazine short story market which have very specific requirements for the type of story they want, and they're not interested in anything else so if you're writing for the womags, yes, you need to bear the reader in mind. But then, they want safe writing...

Jim - yes, yes, and of dear me yes to 1) 2) and 3).