Victor Hugo did it Naked

Victor Hugo did it naked, standing at a lectern facing a third floor window of his Guernsey home, overlooking St Peter Port harbour. Tennessee Williams couldn’t stop doing it and worried constantly about it. George Orwell thought it “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness”, while Evelyn Waugh required “merely silence” to do it; he preferred his children to be “away”. John Lennon thought it ‘torture’ and GK Chesterton believed there was only one way to do it.

penFor many authors, writing is not a pleasurable experience, although Victor Hugo may have discovered a fun element.

Why am I writing about writing? Well, I’ve written one book and I’m desperately trying to write a second. I didn’t begin writing my first until into middle-age and it took me a few years to complete.  I’d always wanted to write, so why did it take me so long?

Because I will do anything rather than sit down and write; tasks I normally hate: cleaning, paying bills, laundry, suddenly take precedence over writing, even though it’s the writing and the ideas for writing that are constantly swirling around in my mind. When I finally force myself to write, the early stages are the hardest, the period when nothing will come, when I believe I’m an utter moron and question my ability: “who are you kidding, thinking you can write?” This is often the stage where I just have to do that extra piece of research, read the latest book on how to write or the latest author biography, switch on that must-see TV programme – or just give up and open a bottle of wine.

But why is writing so hard?

John Yorke, in his recent book Into the Woods, shows that stories follow a pattern, a common structure. This is not a new idea, far from it, but Yorke believes that the archetypal structure matches deep psychological needs within us all: order from chaos, characters changing, confronting their demons to become the people they were always capable of being. This supplies a need for the reader, who is comforted by the process, identifying with the character that brings order from turmoil, confronts and slays the enemy. The detective story is a perfect example: a problem is solved; there is resolution. Most of us do not confront what we fear; we hide and play it safe. This explains the hunger for stories, be they in books, films, soap operas or reality TV shows: secret fears are confronted and overcome.

I have oversimplified outrageously, but I believe that for many writers the process of sitting down and writing is also, like story structure, a confrontation with the enemy: self-knowledge, not only in the sense of revealing oneself but in conquering doubts over one’s ability. In practical terms writing should be easy, you just sit down (or stand naked at a lectern) and do it. But it isn’t easy. Steven Pressfield in The War of Art puts it bluntly:

“How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumours and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive smart-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is telling us to? Resistance defeats us.”

I love the idea of writing, I want to write but hide from its practice, unless … unless I force myself to sit and write, probably awful stuff, for at least an hour. Then, miraculously, something happens – not always, it’s not that easy – and the awful stuff begins to make sense: it flows, ideas appear from everywhere, ideas that had been locked away, ideas locked away by me while I resisted and wasted my time, pour onto the page, ideas I didn’t know I’d had; plots change, characters change, and for a blessed few hours I am creating something, something worthwhile and I am enjoying writing. But that initial process of beginning – it’s hard, and I resist it much more often than I embrace it.

The truth is that writing is very hard work; you have to be dedicated and professional to keep going. Norman Mailer put it well:

“One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honor decent professionals are entitled to wear.”

Apparently more than 80% of people say they want to write a book, but less than 1% do. Not all those would-be writers have the ability to write – The X Factor shows us that believing you have talent and actually possessing it are two very different things – but I’m sure there are many talented people among that group telling themselves every day that they will start that novel tomorrow or next week or after they’ve finished researching the history of Florentine art for that Renaissance murder mystery they’ve been planning for five years. Steven Pressfield, straight as ever, gets right to it:

“We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.”

And GK Chesterton’s

“one way to do it”

his method of getting it done?

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

I’m about to do just that, right after I’ve cleaned those windows, they’re filthy.

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19 thoughts on “Victor Hugo did it Naked

  1. Orwell’s declaration that it is a long bout of painful illness isn’t a far stretch. Writing certainly wears on the mind, and the mind is the fountainhead of health. May I quote your intro and Yorke paragraph – probably in the coming week – with a link to your blog – in my series on the writing process? I explain why I’m starting it, in my recent post on the successful blogger.

  2. I love the quotes. Although there’s one that I’ve been trying to remember while reading this, especially where you said “Because I will do anything rather than sit down and write …” It goes something like, “Writers try the hardest they can to put off writing. (Or do anything else but write.)” Do you know who might have said it, and what the actual quote is?

    • I know what you mean. There are so many – I just used a few that I’d jotted down in a notebook. The quote you’re trying to remember sounds like quite a few that I’ve seen. If I come across it I’ll let you know.

  3. Pingback: Week 9: What Caught My Senses This Week | Keep Calm and Write On

  4. Pingback: Chris Hilton: Victor Hugo did it Naked | First Night Design

  5. Thanks for your comment. Another of my blogs deals with the dangers of too much technology. We go here for inspiration, advice, publicity, whatever, but it keeps us from writing. So many reasons not to sit down and write!

  6. This is a terrific article, Chris, not the usual whinge! I didn’t start writing properly (by which I mean novel length) until my mid 30s. I wasn’t working at the time but wrote a fair few. I then had a gap of about 10 years, simply because my life was too busy for me to make time for it. Then it got all nice and calm again, and I began again in 2010, which is when I began the Amazon publishing. I am quite prolific, so you might be interested in how I am so; I treat it like a job, almost. Back in the mid-nineties when I wrote several novels I did the same; every day I would start writing at one pm. Like you, I sometimes used to almost dread it; isn’t it crazy???!! I do know exactly what you mean! Now, I am not working, but what I do is the same; I start every day, as soon as I’ve had my morning tweet. Necessary commitments allowing, of course (by which I mean necessary appointments, not day time TV!). If I have a lot of things I need to do (apparently, houses need cleaning now and then!!), I do them all on one day so that the next is clear for writing.

    I’m not meaning to be sounding “oh look at me, I’m so great and have it sussed” – I just mean that it’s NOT about ‘waiting for the mood’ – I think you have to treat it it like your job or it just doesn’t happen; I though that might help those who find it hard to find motivation! Having said all this, rarely a day goes by when I don’t have the odd “bugger this” moment and move on to Spider Solitaire! I think the other main way to ‘make it happen’ is to give it priority – writing comes before anything else for me; television, reading, social life – oh, and housework!

    • Hi Terry, thanks for the praise. Interesting to hear how you got started and continue to write. You’re much more disciplined than me. I didn’t really start writing regularly until I started the blog, and even then it’s a real effort. The first time I made myself write was when I started the new novel, Leaving. I promised myself 1000 words a day and kept it up until the first draft was finished. Even if I wrote nonsense I kept to the 1000 words (or more) a day. Since finishing the draft I’ve reverted to type; I only write when I have to. The editing will be harder than the draft – I’ve already found a couple of incidents in the wrong order – and haven’t figured it out yet. I intend to do the main editing at Christmas in Cuba. three weeks. We will see.

      I too ignore housework: perhaps twice a year for me (apart from essentials). I will usually do anything instead of writing though. I’m much better lately but work has intruded again and I find that my mind slowly fills up with other stuff. Once I finish work (maybe two years), I think I’ll be much better (if I’m not senile by then). Keep up the good work. And thanks again for writing. Chris.

  7. I love this because it’s unnervingly accurate. Then again, I hate this because it’s too accurate. Haha.
    You wrote a beautiful post

  8. (Apparently more than 80% of people say they want to write a book, but less than 1% do.)
    I agree with this .And I can call myself among 1% .Writing a book is not an easy task ,Many tough times comes in the way but one who sticks to it and try his or her level best for publishing can be a published author. Like I did now my book is published its an inspirational poetry book by name is not
    SWEET MEMORIES WITH SOUR FACTS
    BY ASIA SALEEM
    On Amazon & other online stores

  9. Oh! You are spying on me, aren’t you! How did you know that I would rather do those nasty old dishes than write, which is what I really WANT to be doing? My head fills up with ideas while I am doing other things, then when I sit down to write I notice the windows need cleaning and the puppies (know anyone who wants one? They are free for the taking!) have chewed up something and spread it everywhere. They are learning, but my writing is taking a hit!
    I got in the habit a while back to take along pens and pads of paper to jot down notes while I’m waiting, wherever I am. However, notepads are too big to just carry in your pocket (if you want them to be big enough to write…), so I got a voice recorder and carry it in my purse.
    I have begun that disciplined “Put your butt in the chair and write” kind of writing and found that it works! Though, getting my butt into the chair is a rather tricky business.
    What I usually do is this:
    1. I turn on my computer and think about writing
    2. Go take care of a distraction (usually taking care of momma)
    3. Return to computer and open writing program
    4. Go take care of a distraction (Letting all the dogs out and/or doing dishes)
    5. Get out other writing items (I sometimes record ideas or write them in notebooks)
    6. Make sure I’m on the proper story I want to write (I usually have three going at once)
    7. Call my friend to see how she’s doing (she just lost her husband after months of hospital stays)
    8. type in the notes I’ve collected since the last time I wrote
    9. Call my boyfriend to see how his day is going
    10. Write
    11. Take care of a distraction (It’s lunch time now so must make lunch)
    12. Return to my computer and refocus on my writing.
    13. Let the dogs out again (if it’s warm enough, leave the door open so they can let themselves out!)
    14. Write (its usually the best time for me to write. The dogs don’t need care and momma is napping. I get a lot done between 1pm and 4pm.
    Perhaps, I should just do all this other stuff before lunch and wait until 1pm to write…

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder that I can’t write unless my butt is in the chair!!!!

  10. Wow, what a reply! Your avoidance is much more complicated than mine (although I do have a mother to take care of) (no dogs). Waiting till 1.00 sounds like a good idea. Three hours a day would be good. I tend to write in bursts. Done practically nothing for five weeks. Now I’m fairly busy. All the same, we all know the answer: apply the seat of the pants….

    Good luck with your efforts!

  11. I’m amazed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s equally educative and engaging, and let me tell you, you have
    hit the nail on the head. The issue is something which not
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  12. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s a while since I wrote it. Our need for order takes many forms, mostly an avoidance of reality. Writers need to address this. I try, but it’s difficult, as it is for all writers. Thanks for an interesting reply.

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