How To Become A Writer

With sincere apologies to Lorrie Moore

First, on your inaugural day at primary school, identify your chosen tool of self-expression and stick a wax crayon up your left nostril. It will guarantee instant attention, a crowd reaction and great PR. Ignore the attempts by authority to rein in your creativity.

Suffer the physical pain of parental corporal punishment for your verbal rebellion but not in silence; the neighbours need to hear, whatever your mother might say.

When your junior school teacher declares, ‘Elaine, you will never be famous but you will be notorious,’ rejoice and start working on your memoir.

 Scare yourself stupid reading pornographic tales of Japanese concentration camps in the News of The World that your father hides under the front room settee. Wonder at the power of the written word and the visual image.

Win an italic handwriting competition in The Children’s Newspaper and with your prize Osmiroid pen fill in your five-year diary with asterisks and crosses denoting sexual experimentation and general teenage angst. You will spend your later years trying to decipher the code. Was ‘x’ a snog or a hand down the knickers?

 Enrol at university and devote five years to how to be a Fashion Designer, get praised for an essay on the relevance of marriage and wonder in amazement that someone other than you loves the sound of your own voice. Discover John Updike and dream about New England and the sophisticated middle classes.

Commit the next seven years to writing captions and features on a fashion magazine and learning how to smoke.

Move to Milan. Read the dictionary in bed and learn how to win arguments in Italian, buy coke in LA, write press releases in French and take Germans out to dinner.

Get pregnant, stop smoking, move back to England and work for British designers, nagging and blagging for funding, sponsorship, double-page spreads, profile pieces and a stand at a trade fair that’s not near the toilets. Write up external examiner reports for employers who ‘can’t write’. Realise your addiction to the written word and your power as a ‘dealer’.

 Have more children and forget how to spell. Question grown-ups on what it is like to sleep though the night. You will read Roger McGough, Jacqueline Wilson and John Burningham over and over again. You will write shopping lists, letters to Father Christmas, PTA minutes and desperate appeals to the LEA demanding they statement your autistic son.

 Your husband gets leukaemia and they give him a week, he gives you three and a half years. You keep notebooks, Red & Black. Obsessional writing. You learn to sit still, write it down and wait for the end.

 To add structure to chaos, you sign up for the Certificate of Creative Writing at Sussex. You complete the course but submit your work a week late. The excuse that your husband has just died is rejected. You write a feature on being a widow for the Guardian and tell Sussex what you think. In writing.

 Six years later, searching for direction, you enrol on another course. You start a novel and impress an agent. But you meet a man; you fall in love and follow him westwards to Cornwall. And write an article about it for a magazine.

People in Cornwall ask what you are? What do you do? And you realise that you have no idea. But you write an article about it for a magazine.

 You have a heart attack and phone your editor from your hospital bed. Later that year, you enrol on a MA Writing course to prove you’re intelligent and shake off your working-class inferiority complex.

 You get kicked out of Cornwall, move back to London with laptop and dog. You travel to Antigua to write about it, Mallorca to listen to your heart, Crete to talk to your husband, India to be grateful and Nepal to look outside your world.

 One year later, you discover your dead parents’ diaries and love letters. Stunned by the treasures and revelations scrawled on the fragile pages, you are inspired to start workshops and retreats, encouraging everyone, especially mothers, to write down their lives. And your daughter becomes an editor and corrects your punctuation………ha!

 Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s ‘How to Become a Writer’ now published as a Faber Modern Classic.




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