Autumn is here. I’m wearing long-sleeved tops now. Here in the living room we have our first fire of the season. Red, yellow, and orange sheens are appearing on the trees, signs that another year is about to die a gloriously vibrant death.
Yet autumn, that season of endings, is also a season of beginnings, at least for students. Pre-schoolers, sixth formers, undergraduates—they’re all sharpening pencils and hauling around books again. This year, I’m back in their number, embarking on a new beginning of my own: an MA in English Studies. Who’d have thought?
As I’ve been wrestling with my first piece of writing, I’ve been reminded again of how crucial it is for writers to just write. It’s not an original dictum, but it’s certainly one that’s proved true in my own experience. Do you feel that you have nothing to say? Write, and you will discover what to say. You will discover what you think. Do you cringe as you read that first paragraph, tempted to hit delete and start again, and then again, so that the screen in front of you is always white, pristine, perfect, empty? Write. What you write isn’t meant to be good yet. The time for pruning, for editing, for self-criticism, will come, but you cannot polish something until you have something to polish. Just write.
As an undergraduate, I could begin with a topic that made me groan, a topic about which I felt I had nothing to say, yet by forcing myself to write, however unpleasant the process, and then by shaping and editing, I would end up with an essay I was satisfied with. I know I’ll find that again as a postgraduate. I’ve had to tell it to myself already: just write.
My friend Sarah and I send each other weekly writing prompts. We wrestle, sometimes (often?), with our topics, produce pieces late and with apologies (“It’s not very good, I know”), but we make ourselves do it. We’re learning the importance of humbly embracing the fact that we’re not always very good writers—that we may never be the kind of writers we’d like to be—but that this writing process is good for us all the same. I believe it was Jennifer Trafton who spoke of how writing teaches you humility, and it’s true. It’s painful to see the disconnect between what your writing is and what you want it to be.
“If I can’t win, I won’t run!”, says Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire. “If you won’t run, you can’t win”, his girlfriend retorts. It’s the same with writing. The temptation can be to say that if we can’t write something amazing, we won’t write at all. But if we don’t write anything, we can’t write anything good. So let’s shut out the voices that shame us as we sit in front of our blank screens and just write.