Keep Reading Things
“Keep reading great things, memorise what you read, be hard on yourself. In other words, it requires the dedication of a Samurai. Set yourself high standards.” Edna O’Brien at Hay Festival 2013
I read this on Twitter last year and quickly noted it down. There was something in it that chimed with me. I think it was the way it encapsulated the sheer graft needed to be a writer. And yet, ironically, last May, when I innocently scribbled the words into my notebook, I hadn’t really even begun to graft; I had no clue what graft was in store.
Yes, I had written a fair number of drafts of my book. My work as an agent taught me that as a writer you really had to be robust, be prepared to take notes, take risks, to move things around, to make changes even right up until the final hours of a deadline. And with this work ethic in mind, 7 drafts took me to agent submission, 2 more to publisher submission, and then there were 2 further drafts in between two rounds of rejections, until very happily a publisher took my book on. And when did the real work begin? In all honesty I would say it began then, when an Editor came on board.
So to be “hard on yourself” is I think a prerequisite. You absolutely cannot write a book without being challenged, and in the process I think you must challenge yourself again just as hard if you are to do your best work. And this inevitably involves setting yourself high standards, just as Edna O’Brien said.
Of course setting yourself high standards can at times be a pain. I know I have often set myself standards that are just too high, only to be left feeling like my best work will never be good enough. But when it came to writing there was I think a usefulness in this slightly nightmarish personality trait. I had no problem re-working metaphors, sentences, whole paragraphs until they were right and if they weren’t then ditching them altogether and starting again. And I’m not blowing my own trumpet here. I mean maybe I threw out some perfectly good writing, made life harder for myself than I needed to. Maybe the way I worked was complete madness… Probably, possibly. It certainly pushed me much further than I ever expected to be pushed at times. But I came to learn through the process that if a word or sentence didn’t feel right, then there was one reason for that, and that was simply because it wasn’t right. I had to learn to trust my inner voice, because without doubt I felt I had a responsibility to myself and to my reader to make it right.
Of course writing with high standards is no different to doing another job with high standards. Like anything in life we can sometimes do a perfectly decent job without pushing ourselves to our limits and get broadly the same results. But there is I think a responsibility that comes with writing a book; a responsibility to yourself to write something that you can stand by, and a responsibility to your reader to write something that will connect, so that it can be believed and understood and hopefully felt. And it’s not just the permanence of print that sets the bar so high in this. It’s the importance of saying what you want to say and it being understood. And when you think of it like that, then why would it not take anything less than “the dedication of a Samurai” to make sure you get it right.