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Books: The Covid column, or How to be a better writer in 2022

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Daily Maverick readers want writing advice. Ben Williams has a tip or two.

Am I typing this column right now, or is this a Covid fever dream?

I’ll know by the time these words are published — alternatively, if they’re not, they’ll likely be absorbed into the microclots currently circulating in my head, and thence phaged into oblivion, never to bother me again. Win-win.

Meanwhile, lucky reader, if you’re not a figment, enjoy your front-row seat at my Plague Rave.

(Yes, I’m currently sweating out Omicron. My shots and I were not clever enough to outwit the wee beastie.)

Recently, Daily Maverick polled its audience on the type of books content that appeals most. Turns out that learning more about how to write them — books — ranks high on the list.

I thought to kick the year off, then, with a few tips for invoking one’s writerly persona more concretely into being. Adhere to these and you’ll surely stroll out of 2022 with a stronger claim to the title “wordsmith” than when you strolled in.

(Side note: may we all, please, enjoy a dainty stroll out of 2022.)

I have solid credentials: three writing degrees, including an MFA — may Flannery O’Connor, who frowned on such things, forgive me. Not to mention that I’ve had the symptoms of being a writer all my life, if never quite the full-blown condition. This has bequeathed me the appropriate distance to judge what counts and what doesn’t.

We begin, then, with the most important rule of all.

Sit down and write, often.

 

If you’ve been interested in learning how to be a better writer for a while, you will have already encountered the following rather terrorising injunction. It’s the “ABC” rule, of course: Apply Bum to Chair. All writing of significance is preceded by this act. If you can’t do this, take up photography.

(Philip Roth famously wrote standing up to avert back pain, but “AESD” — Apply Elbows to Standing Desk — doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.)

The ABC rule leads us to a subtler, and possibly more useful observation on the craft of writing, which is that writing, like reading, is cumulative. The thing to do is sit down and write, often. Word count targets, devils that they are, are hugely useful. A writer creates a body of work from all sorts of scraps — poems, fragments, short stories, chapters of a novel, diary entries, columns (!) and so on. Words, and words alone, feed this body of work. They must come out. Write 10,000 words this year. It will go faster than you think.

It helps to regularly contemplate your own death.

 
Another important but overlooked aspect of writing is that it’s collaborative. Successful writing requires the input of others. You can pay for this input by taking a writing course; you can establish or join a writing circle; you can solicit anonymous feedback on Reddit. But you must involve others. Having readers makes writers into writers long before they don the mantle. Get some.

That said, writing is also a confidence gig. If you’re confident in your writing, you’ll write better. If not, you’ll write worse. It follows that if someone’s criticism or advice makes you feel more confident about your attempts, you should double down on them. If they make you feel wretched, then kick their bullshit feedback to the kerb and exclude them wholly from your writing life. Possibly your entire life. Sounds dramatic, but experience has taught me that it’s the way to go.

Finally — and here we’re taking a bit of a leap in philosophical dimension, but needs must — it helps to regularly contemplate your own death. This ensures rather sweaty focus on what’s at stake: utter oblivion, or the hope of a chance for your voice.

Forget religion. Writing is your best bet for defrauding the Pale Horseman.

Take the aforementioned Flannery O’Connor. (Alert: plague ravings ahead!) As the band Killdozer put it in their memorable-for-many-reasons 1989 song “Lupus” –

“She wrote many books before death came upon her.”

And that’s why we remember her. She wrote and wrote.

If you prefer a lighter touch, turn to Carl Sagan. Writing, he said, binds “together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time.”

We’re living through a plague. Death is everywhere. Don’t you want to frantically write something down? Do it! Words are still the only things that reliably beat The End. If you manage to remember this every day, the life of a writer awaits.

Now, back to those pesky microclots. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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