Ian McMillan: The writer in all of us

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I’ve always believed that everybody has got at least one book in them, straining to come out like a blockage in a pipe. Ah, maybe that doesn’t work; sounds a bit graphic, almost medical. Let’s scrub that out and start again. I’ve always believed that everybody has got at least one book in them, wanting to come out like a person stuck in a revolving door in a big office block. Ah, maybe that doesn’t work either: sounds a bit forced, as though the words are trying far too hard to impress. Let’s cross that out and have another go.

I’ve always believed that everybody has got at least one book inside them wanting to come out like sunshine from behind a cloud. That’s a bit better; it’s simpler, it’s an image that works well. I’ll leave that line in and move on to the next one, then the next, and gradually I’ll build a paragraph that feels like it’s strong enough to hold the ideas that I want to convey in this week’s column and the jokes I want to decorate it with.

I still believe that everybody has got in book in them, and I reckon that (as soon as you’ve finished reading this column, of course) today is the day to start writing it.

I’m describing my writing methods because, whenever I read one of the many books I’ve got tottering in piles in the spare room, I always try to imagine the process the writer has gone through to get to the finished product. Of course, sometimes your mind just hands you a free gift, a line or an image that makes you want to let off party poppers but mostly these writers will have written a line, then rewritten it and then rewritten it again. To get to publication, the books reviewed in this week’s magazine will have gone through more filters than London drinking water, and that has to be a good thing, both for the book and for London, because nobody wants to drink dirty sentences. Hmm: that sentence could do with a bit more work and all.

So, going back to the start of all this, I still believe that everybody has got in book in them, and I reckon that (as soon as you’ve finished reading this column, of course) today is the day to start writing it. Once you’ve decided, of course, the problems begin to mount up: I’m not good at putting my ideas down on paper/I’ve got nothing to say/I can’t spell. My advice would be to ignore all that and just get yourself a notebook and open it to the first page. The notebook, in my opinion, should be plain and not lined and then you don’t feel constricted. And then maybe just think about an early memory, maybe the first thing you can remember, and write it down.

A couple of weeks ago I was doing a writing session with some besuited executives from a big company and I got them doing just that: writing about their first memory. They were used to making big decisions around big shiny tables and they were nervous. But they did it, because anybody can. “I never thought I’d be able to write something so personal,” one of them said. Well she did. And so can you.

See you at the Nobel Prize ceremony!