Compliments of the festive season – Hanukkah, Christmas, the Holidays or whatever other euphemism you choose to describe that most sensitive of festivals! This is the time of year, generally, when all of us slow down, abdicate from the rat-race, and begin to take stock of where our lives are going. It is a time when people begin to think about their job situations, their family circumstances, what they have achieved over the preceding months and years. For some of us – and, if statistics are to be believed, many of us – it is a time for assessing whether we are doing justice to our writing projects. Whatever happened to that novel you started writing? Where is your plan to write your memoirs? How many poems have you written over the past year? What about your plan to pursue a career as a freelance journalist in your spare time?
It’s time to take down your over-thumbed manuscript from the top shelf of the closet, dust it off, and re-evaluate whether it is a goer, or whether you need to try something different. Do you have a sliver of an idea for a new novel based on your experiences as a debt-collector for a loan shark company, or as a waste management technician, or as a teacher in an elementary school? After all, isn’t the perennial advice to novelists: “write about what you know”? Or should you do some research for your novel. How about studying the habits and lifestyles of pygmies in equatorial Borneo? Or reading up on the lot of coal miners in Wales during the nineteenth century? Or exploring the possibility of sentient life on another planet and its endeavors to find sentient life on ours?
But perhaps novel-writing is not your thing. Sure, you would love to see your story in print, but the novel is such a huge undertaking that you’re not sure you have the stamina to reach the end before old-age and decrepitude catch up with you. What about writing a short story? There are still many magazines and journals that publish short stories of up to 5,000 words. There are also short-story competitions with real prize money attached to them (some of them quite substantial). The short story is an art form that can be difficult to tackle effectively. (Nowadays, the best short stories begin in media res, right in the thick of the action where the protagonist is already keyed up for some destiny-changing task or is just about to carry out a deed that will have ripple effects through out the rest of his or her life.) On the other hand, you might start writing a short story and suddenly the narrative takes off and becomes a 30k word novella, or even longer. That’s still a viable publishing possibility.
But maybe you don’t think you have time to write stories and prefer, instead, to concentrate on poetry. One of the surefire ways in which you can inspire yourself is by reading other poets. You may have a favorite poet whose work you admire, or even just a favorite set of poems. How did the poet achieve the effects he has expressed in his or her poetry? Of course, poetry is an art form and is only partially open to analysis. But if you can break down some of the techniques used in various different poems and then try to imitate them, you are well on your way to expanding your skill as a poet and writing meaningful poetry that can touch people’s hearts and minds, or share something profound using the economy of words that only poetry is capable of.
Then again, you may have got to a point in your life where you realize that you have had enough experience to write a memoir or autobiography (although inexperience doesn’t seem to be an obstacle in many cases!). This can be a fun project to pursue: gathering illustrative photographs from the early years, researching times and dates, interviewing those who know you and are familiar with your life. However, beware. Even the most interesting people can produce unreadable drivel if their writing style is found wanting. It is not enough to have wrestled alligators, climbed Mount Everest – twice, or even at one time have been a jobbing astronaut; if you can’t write prose that captures readers’ imaginations, then the book is doomed to failure. (To that extent, one possible solution is to employ a ghostwriter to produce the manuscript.) Conversely, even if you have not led a life that scintillates with riveting detail and unusual events, you can still produce a book that will sell in the thousands if you can write well. Humorous memoirs come under this category. In this case, one of the things that attracts readers is what I call the “texture” of the writing. If you can write work that is a pleasure to read, then people will buy it.
If you have any ambition as a writer at all, Yuletide is the perfect time to re-energize your resolve and do something about it. How will you set aside time every day or week for writing? How will you make sure that you contribute some lasting legacy to humanity’s store of literature? You’ve got a few days off without the pressure of work. Go for it! You know you have it in you…