The illusion of ease

The Guardian books blog is not always an essential read. (‘Novels you can eat.’ ”When can we get Tolstoy on ITunes?’ ‘Name your top ten books with punctuation in the title.’)

But every week it features A L Kennedy. This time she touches on something I’ve written about before: the shallow preconception that the process of writing should be laboured and joyless if its results are to be appreciated. But Kennedy goes further, drilling down to the sediment that makes great writing. It’s a while since I’ve read anything in an arts and books feature that does this.

No one can teach you how to write, or how you write or how you could write better – they can assist you in various areas, but the way that you learn how you write, the way you really improve, is by diving in and reworking, taking apart, breaking down, questioning, exploring, forgetting and losing and finding and remembering and generally testing your prose until it shows you what it needs to be, until you can see its nature and then help it to express itself as best you can under your current circumstances. This gives you – slowly – an understanding of how you use words on the page to say what you need to. And by making a mental commitment to believe that you are not as good as you could be, you allow yourself to move forward, to mature as writer. This can seem disheartening and frustrating – why wouldn’t it? It involves performing surgery on something intimately your own: the way you express your self. But why wouldn’t you want to express your voice, your story, your nature more deeply, more beautifully, more effectively? Fretting and worrying at something you made up, an intimate product of your hopes, enthusiasms, passions – it’s bound to feel odd, unnatural, but it’s also deeply rewarding. In time, you will willingly, if not always happily, put invisible hours, days and weeks of effort into offering someone you don’t know and who will probably never thank you something that will appear to be ‘effortless’.

And don’t remind me of the conversation I once had with a prominent academic, who intended the phrase ‘But it’s so effortless …’ as an adverse comment on a novel. I simply couldn’t rant convincingly enough to ensure that particular book could win a small but useful prize. The narrative’s illusion of ease – and just you try creating an illusion of ease, matey – was too convincing. A parallel idiocy might involve refusing to applaud Derek Jacobi at the end of a performance, because he looked as if he wasn’t acting.

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