Guest Editorial – The Shortcut to Great Writing by Brian Kirk
Brian Kirk is an award-winning poet and short story writer from Dublin. His children’s novel The Rising Son was published in December 2015. He was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series in 2013 and highly commended in the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2014 and 2015. His first poetry collection After The Fall was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017. He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.
Writing isn’t hard. You can sit at your desk and put down words without too much difficulty. But good writing is hard to achieve, and great writing is as rare as hen’s teeth. There are plenty of blogs out there that give excellent advice to aspiring writers about how to improve your writing, and I feel like I’ve read most of them. I’m not being disparaging here, by the way. I love to read writing blogs and interviews with authors about how they get their work done, and I know I’ve picked up lots of tips from these sources over the years. But simply reading advice from others isn’t enough if you want to write well.
Looking back over my own experience of writing (poetry and stories mainly) there seems to be some indicators of success that I can identify, if we take success to be equated with publication. At the start there was a longish period of erratic writing with no publication to show for it. There had always been a sizeable amount of reading going on (and this is a must if you are serious about becoming a writer); but it was reading without focus, reading with a reader’s and not a writer’s eye. But I’ll come back to reading later. After a few years the number of poems and stories published per year began to rise and was maintained. There are some obvious reasons which explain why this limited success was established. Firstly, I was writing more regularly and therefore had more work, new poems and stories, to send out. As I began to establish the habit of regular writing, I also began to send work out in a more systematic fashion, going so far as to employ the use of spreadsheets to monitor the status of my submissions. If you throw enough mud against the wall some of it is bound to stick, after all.
Sometimes I get the feeling I’m the slowest learner in the world. Talking to other writers about their craft I know I’m not alone. There is a sense of being emptied out when a poem, a story or a book is finished. People who don’t write can’t understand this. They think writing is like any other activity; once you’ve done it, you should be able to do it again and again and again. But writing is not like anything else. We often refer to the ‘process’ and the ‘craft’ and we attend ‘workshops’, but writing isn’t as tangible as those words often imply. By the time a poem or story is written and revised and re-written I often have no idea where it came from in the first place or how exactly I carried it off. Even if I had a clear idea at the outset (which is rare) of what I wanted to achieve, the basis for the manifold decisions and revisions (apologies to Prufrock) I must have made in the white heat of composition elude me after the fact.
I wrote a novel a number of years ago. It was my third attempt at the long form and, although it wasn’t published, I was satisfied with the completed work from a narrative and technical point of view. A couple of years later I embarked on writing another novel. Using the lessons I’d learned from my earlier experience, I set out full of confidence in my abilities. Two years later I was almost a broken man. It was awful. The story no longer appealed to me, the characters were two dimensional and their interactions forced and clunky. I couldn’t understand how I could be struggling so much to write a novel having done it successfully in the recent past. This is just how it is – for me anyway. Every new poem, story or novel is unknown terrain that I must familiarise myself with on its own terms as I set out. It seems unfair, and it probably is.
Before I go any further, I should say something about workshops. I’ve attended many workshops over the years, poetry and prose, and I’ve always come away refreshed, with new ideas and approaches and drafts of poems and stories I would never have written otherwise in my pocket. But, like reading advice on blogs, attending workshops is not enough in itself to guarantee good writing. You must do the work on your own in the main. It’s a cliché that writing is a solitary pursuit, but like a lot of clichés it has a nub of truth in it. Another solitary pursuit is reading, and without reading widely it is unlikely you will ever write anything of value. There may, of course, be exceptions to this rule, but I don’t see how someone who doesn’t read poetry could ever write poetry, for example.
There are many ways to approach reading. We read for enjoyment, to escape the mundanity of life, to find out more about the world, to learn how others live or have lived. However, writers read differently to others. Writers read to understand how the poem works, how the story evolves, to take apart the inner workings of the piece and hold it up to the light. If a poem makes an impact on us, we want to understand how its effects are achieved. If we are moved or surprised by a piece of fiction, we want to identify the point at which the story turned and shifted on its emotional axis.
After reading the most important thing to do is write. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? You should aim to make writing, like reading, a daily habit. Don’t beat yourself up if some days you don’t find the time but try to make room for writing in your day. Think of all the time that the TV and your phone/internet eat up every day. After reading and writing comes re-writing. Yes, we’ve all heard it before but it’s true. The real good stuff only comes when you put in the time, when you really focus on the project you’re committed to. Sure, now and again, there are moments of magical inspiration, but these are rare, and anyway I find they only come when you’re deeply immersed in the work and your unconscious mind is silently tapped while you’re physically away from the page.
Some people are more social than others; they enjoy collaborating, exchanging ideas with others and often work best as part of a group. If you’re so inclined, I advise you to join a writing group. It’s a great way to keep motivated and can be a real support for you in lean or difficult times. I’ve been in groups over the years and I’ve always benefitted from being among talented peers. I’ve also been the solitary guy ploughing away on my own in a room, and all that time spent in your own head can be unhealthy at times. I’ve been lucky to have had a few fellow writers over the years who I could send work to, knowing I would get critical feedback and some encouragement in return. I was always happy to return the favour.
This last year, thanks to Words Ireland, I was lucky to be given the opportunity to work with a mentor on my near finished book of short stories. I had a series of one-to-one, intense meetings with Dermot Bolger between November and April this year as we worked our way through my collection, “What Do You Actually Want?”. His interrogation of the stories really helped me get a handle on how the manuscript will finally hang together. This level of detailed input is rare, more like that of an editor working with a writer towards publication than a normal workshop feedback situation. I would encourage you to seek out a mentor for specific projects such as a novel or collection of stories or poems. A good mentor will force you to keep improving the work; they will push you to be the best you can.
So, in summary: you must read, you must write and re-write. You can attend workshops, join a group or work alone, find like-minded peers you can discuss your work with, get a mentor, read author blogs and interviews, go to readings and book launches. It’s that easy or that hard. But if you’re a writer you don’t dwell on these things, you just do them because that’s what you have to do. And, of course, we all know, in your heart of hearts, there are no such things as shortcuts.
© Brian Kirk