‘80% of success is showing up’: so said Woody Allen. He admitted that sometimes it’s much easier to stay at home in bed, but if you want to achieve something – as obvious as it may sound – you’ve got to show up. The great artists, writers, musicians, scientists, sportspersons, dancers – all of them were blessed with ability and talent, but you can be sure that any natural capacity would have come to naught had they not shown up at their desk, piano, easel or gym hour after day after week after month after year. Having a talent for something is the easy part, everyone has a talent for something, but showing up to help it grow – pursuing the daily grind – that’s the hard part. And commitment to people counts too; showing up for others at the appointed time. Just as an ability and talent will fade if you don’t show up for it, so too will the friend tire from being let down time and time again; they’ll begin to slip away from your life.
This is all fresh in my mind after spending time with a friend this week taking about writing. She has a specific subject matter in mind but feels daunted by the act of beginning and needed a push to get her engine firing. “Why do you want to write it at all?”I asked her. “I want to write because if I keep it all inside me I think I will explode!”she told me without hesitation. It sounded like the best of reasons to me; reminded me of a line from Kazuo Ishiguro’s compelling talk he gave on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. He described shutting himself away in a small village in Norfolk, embarking on a creative writing course and becoming, as he put it, “engaged in an urgent act of preservation.” In some ways, my friend’s words mirrored Ishiguro’s, except her drive is one of self-preservation.
It’s not an easy path to choose, however. No discipline is, be it chipping at a block of marble, endless arpeggios on the cello, or clocking up miles on a bicycle. American writer, Philip Roth, died recently and many anecdotes about him were reported in the media. One stayed with me: from the day he gave up writing (a few years before he died) he kept a Post-it note by his computer screen that read: ‘the struggle with writing is over.’ Which would lead one to believe that even a talent as mighty as Roth didn’t always find showing up easy. It’s said that James Joyce often spent a whole day toiling over one sentence, Ernest Hemingway the same – andif that is not struggle, what is? (I’d have throttled them both, but I suppose it is an extreme version of showing up.)
My friend and I talked about writing tips, style guides, rules and approaches; that it is good to absorb them all, then perfectly acceptable to reject them and do your own thing. Dorothy Parker was partial to a rule book, as she once wrote: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of‘The Elements of Style’. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Oh, Dorothy, you and your witty barbs! Parker, though, isn’t the only one to speak of tortured writers who beat themselves up over their shortcomings. The young Irish writer, Donal Ryan, said: “I’ve heard writers claim they feel sickened by everything they’ve written, that they are ashamed of their sentences’ imperfections, apparent to them only in retrospect.” But Ryan has good advice to cure the sickness:“be still and silent and wait for that soft settling of words, for that moment, however fleeting, of rightness.” The aforementioned style guide (‘The Elements of Style’) was co-written byE.B. White, the author of ‘Charlotte’s Web’. White didn’t seem to be the sort of writer to beat himself up; instead he strongly encouraged writers not to over-think, over-write or over-explain. He’s the one who said: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies.” Stop poking and scrutinising, I understand him to say, just get the words down.
The Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, has had global success with a trilogy of novels set in Naples, beginning with, ‘My Brilliant Friend’. She is brilliant herself and I latched onto words of hers from an article in last month’s Guardian: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have travelled extensively. Writing should in no case be postponed to an ‘after’.” I think this is what I told my own brilliant friend as we chatted this week. Maybe not quite as eloquently, but it was I wanted to say. Show up and go for it.