Thursday, 3 February 2011

The vital ingredient.

Talent + Self-Belief x Hard Work (+ Luck) = SUCCESS.

We’re all agree that those are major components in the ongoing search for success, yes? And not just in writing, the same could be said of any industry from journalism to acting. It’s all pretty obvious – talent is nothing if you don’t put the work in and everyone could do with the good luck of being in the right place at the right time. But it’s the self-belief that actually makes you sit down day after day after day and face that blank screen or page.

But what makes self-belief? Where does it come from? Some people are just born with it, others have to acquire it along the way. Here’s what I think it is:

Support + Optimism.

Without optimism, that cheerful hope that one day it will all be worth it, why would you do it? If you sit down thinking “Well, this will never see the light of day,” why are you wasting your time? If it’s for sheer love of writing then I applaud you because although I love to write, I write with a view to sharing it. Even if it’s only ever seen by a family member or friend I work in the hope that something I write will make someone grin and say “I loved it!” Making it the best that it can possibly be for that shadowy future reader is what keeps me going. That and knowing that it’d smart to hear that something I’ve written is crap.

And then there’s self-belief, that tricky little bugger. When you stall at 10,000 words because you’ve written yourself into a corner or have happened across the single most clichéd line in the history of the written language (and ye gods, you’ve written it!) you have to have the gumption to open your eyes and face it. The “I can’t do this” attitude leads to Googling funny pictures of kittens (been there) instead of figuring out how to get your character out of that locked toilet.

If you write, you probably read a lot. I know I do. Perhaps your self-belief comes from having read something awful and just knowing that you can do better. The “If they can do it, so can I!” attitude. Or perhaps someone else believed in you so much that you thought that maybe then were onto something and that grew into believing in yourself and your own abilities. The latter is how it happened for me….

I always went crazy for writing in school. Especially when we got fountain pens. At least half the pleasure for me was the act of writing itself. Creating neat blue curly writing on smooth white paper. That’s something I still enjoy, the simple, sensual pleasure of writing something down.

But I also loved stories. As an only child I would chatter away to myself when I was playing. I once managed to convince myself there were wolves in the little wood next to the top field where our weekend caravan was. I’ve never run home so fast and I’ve never enjoyed gossip as much as I enjoyed describing that wild chase to my rapt family. Writing down my tall tales was just natural progression and sometimes I went a little overboard:

Year 7 History homework – Write a short story about how Mary Stuart felt after Darney’s death. Cue an 8pg response from me about her wig, her accent and – oh yes – her feelings.

Year 8 English homework – Write a short story about homelessness. A holiday project, which meant I produced a front cover, illustrations, the whole she-bang. A crush on the teacher probably helped that one along…

But then there was Year 9, which was the turning point for me. Our half-term project was to write our own whodunit. I wrote a story about a crime of passion in which you were supposed to side with the killer. I vividly remember the first Friday after half-term. English was the last lesson before lunch and everyone tore out to get their hands on chips, but I was asked to stay behind. I assumed the teacher had noticed me smuggling fingerfuls of muffin out of my bag. But apparently not. She said, “I read your story. I loved it. I’d like to put it in the school magazine.” Once more I’d made it up into a book, complete with illustrated front cover and here was my teacher, hugging it to her chest and telling me she wanted to publish it. None of my friends really got why that was a big deal for me, but I was lucky that my family always thought writing was a good thing. Not something that ought to make way for a proper job – like being an palaeontologist, which was my first ambition (I was going to write the seminal work on what wiped out the dinosaurs).

My Grandad was a stickler for spelling and grammar, to the extent that he bought be a pocket spell-checker. Because if you’re going to do something – do it properly. Mum just thinks everything I write it totally brilliant, which is great for when I need a boost. And Nan isn’t afraid to ask awkward questions or say if she thinks something doesn’t work.

So many times in this post I’ve started to write “I’m not published, but I think…” or “I’m not that good, but…” but why should I qualify my opinions? No, I’m not published, I’m not the world’s greatest, number one writer – these are just the facts. But I do write. But I do know what got me started and what keeps me going.

If you’re finding it a struggle to face the blank page, have a think about what you’re missing. It could just be the vital ingredient.

[Also, at the moment, Egypt is in the midst of a great turning point. The people are determined to see the back of Mubarak. You might want to read this post about it. Thanks.]


  1. Good post. I don't like formulas, I despise success- but I like your attitudes and remember publication isn't everything. And when you do get published, don't forget us suckers who aren't!
    Best wishes,

  2. Funnily enough I'm not a formula lover myself. Too mathematical for my taste!

    I should have really explained what I mean by "success." Success for me was finishing my first novel. Success right now, given my hectic schedule is being able to fit writing into my week. It's not something that can be counted up, it's probably not what most other people would consider "success" but for me it is. And it still takes those elements to get there!

    Thanks for your comment, Jon.

  3. "At least half the pleasure for me was the act of writing itself. Creating neat blue curly writing on smooth white paper." Love it.

  4. Well, what to add but persistance. Fail, fail and fail again. Each failure is a success in its own right. As for the sentence quoted by Namrate, it is very Winston Smith, as in Orwell's 1984, - nothing sexier than ink on a page.

  5. DOT and Namrata - so right. I get a real thrill out of writing something really neatly with my fountain pen!

  6. what a wonderful attitude to have. wishing you all the best xxx (to jynk from rrren)