How I Write

by Andrew Crumey

Published in Time Out, March 2008


I know two kinds of writer: there are the ones who like to plan everything very carefully, maybe even writing little personality profiles for their characters on postcards and sticking flow-chart plot diagrams on their wall; and then there are those who reckon the whole point of writing is making it up as you go along.

I'm the second kind. I don't knock planning, I just find that it doesn't work for me. Which is odd, really, because in most other respects I'm the think ahead type. I'd never dream of going on holiday without a guidebook - I've even been known to take a compass with me when going on a picnic (which is, I know, simply stupid). But writing is different. It's the one corner of my life where the usual rules no longer apply - and that's why I like doing it. Writing, in other words, is a matter of split personality or, as they call it nowadays, 'second life'.

Robert Louis Stevenson had it sussed long before the internet, though it was Borges who really understood the Jekyll and Hyde plight of the author: one of his stories begins, 'The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.' I know that feeling. The other Crumey - the one whose name is on the book covers - is, I suspect, the interesting one. Me, I'm just the guy who makes sure he shows up for work. I give him plenty of coffee to start the day. The school walk (more eco-friendly than 'run') is a further wake-up, so that by 9.30 he has no excuse not to be writing. Except that I decide to peek at my inbox first and before I know it I'm reading somebody's damn blog. But eventually he gets going, the writer inside me, and then there's no stopping him.

Until lunchtime, anyway, though already a good day's work is done: anything that happens in the afternoon is a bonus. The one thing I/he always make sure of is this. Stop work when you're half-way through something: a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence - then forget about it completely. It makes it so much easier to start again next day.

You might not guess it, but I teach creative writing, and I expect I've confused a great many students with my 'tear up your synopsis' approach. My excuse is that I didn't start out as a literary type: in my zeroth life I was a physicist, and I've always felt some sympathy for Bertrand Russell's advice: 'Say everything in the smallest number of words in which it can be said clearly.' But while physicists want to get from A to B by the shortest logical route, novelists prefer the most circuitous: a geodesic of a different kind. Eureka moments in the bathtub are nice, but novels don't get written unless somebody's doing a lot of typing. So that's my life. Boring, eh? I save the exciting stuff for my books.