How I Write

by Andrew Crumey

Published in Time Out, March 2008


I know two kinds of writer: there are the ones who like to plan everything very carefully, maybe even writing little personality profiles for their characters on postcards and sticking flow-chart plot diagrams on their wall; and then there are those who reckon the whole point of writing is making it up as you go along.

Iím the second kind. I donít knock planning, I just find that it doesnít work for me. Which is odd, really, because in most other respects Iím the think ahead type. Iíd never dream of going on holiday without a guidebook Ė Iíve even been known to take a compass with me when going on a picnic (which is, I know, simply stupid). But writing is different. Itís the one corner of my life where the usual rules no longer apply Ė and thatís why I like doing it. Writing, in other words, is a matter of split personality or, as they call it nowadays, Ďsecond lifeí.

Robert Louis Stevenson had it sussed long before the internet, though it was Borges who really understood the Jekyll and Hyde plight of the author: one of his stories begins, ĎThe other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.í I know that feeling. The other Crumey Ė the one whose name is on the book covers Ė is, I suspect, the interesting one. Me, Iím just the guy who makes sure he shows up for work. I give him plenty of coffee to start the day. The school walk (more eco-friendly than Ďruní) is a further wake-up, so that by 9.30 he has no excuse not to be writing. Except that I decide to peek at my inbox first and before I know it Iím reading somebodyís damn blog. But eventually he gets going, the writer inside me, and then thereís no stopping him.

Until lunchtime, anyway, though already a good dayís work is done: anything that happens in the afternoon is a bonus. The one thing I/he always make sure of is this. Stop work when youíre half-way through something: a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence Ė then forget about it completely. It makes it so much easier to start again next day.

You might not guess it, but I teach creative writing, and I expect Iíve confused a great many students with my Ďtear up your synopsisí approach. My excuse is that I didnít start out as a literary type: in my zeroth life I was a physicist, and Iíve always felt some sympathy for Bertrand Russellís advice: ĎSay everything in the smallest number of words in which it can be said clearly.í But while physicists want to get from A to B by the shortest logical route, novelists prefer the most circuitous: a geodesic of a different kind. Eureka moments in the bathtub are nice, but novels donít get written unless somebodyís doing a lot of typing. So thatís my life. Boring, eh? I save the exciting stuff for my books.