On Writing

Jessie Greengrass: On Writing

Photo of Jessie Greengrass on writing article

This is how all writing advice would begin, if I had my way: Hello, my name is …. I have written …. books, and everything I know applies only to me. The truth is, there are as many different ways of writing as there are people who write – as many different ways of writing as there are constraints on writing, because I think what many of these differences come down to is the different ways people evolve their methods depending on their circumstances. Very, very few people can afford the luxury of writing full time. For everyone else, most of working out how to write is figuring out how to make time for it, and how to best use the time that we can make. Personally, the bulk of my day is spent looking after two small children, and so I write early in the morning, for around forty-five – and because I have regular, small amounts of time, I do regular, small amounts of work.

“I think of writing as a job, because if I thought of it as a creative endeavour which waited on inspiration then I’d never get anywhere.”

For this reason, too, I think of writing as a job, because if I thought of it as a creative endeavour which waited on inspiration then I’d never get anywhere. Perhaps inspiration would come in the supermarket, or in the playground – but if so, bad luck. The pram in the hallways is, to me, the enemy of nothing much beyond sleep and the freedom to indulge my whims – which freedom very few of us have anyway, because we all have to eat. Perhaps, in a different life, with different rhythms, I would write differently – in my holidays, perhaps, all in one big chunk rather than a bit at a time; or in my lunch break; or while sitting on a train. Perhaps, then, I would have written different sorts of books. But I don’t think it follows that they would either have been worse, or better.

Personally, as well as writing in small chunks, I write in a very linear way, and am enormously in awe of anyone who can do anything more complicated. Before I start, I read anything that looks as though it might be useful, and I keep notes which I rarely read. The point of all the reading is more than half meditation. I look for any small detail which might seem useful, a spark or a bit of grit, but I also let it occupy me while I wait, letting my mind scurry away by itself – and then, when I can’t reasonably put it off any longer, or on January the first, whichever comes later, I start at the beginning, and I keep going until I get to the end. Then I go back to the beginning again. I’m sure that this way of working is another thing which determines what my books look like – short, in single long trains of thought.

My name is Jessie, I have written three books, and I am very wary of offering writing advice, because what if someone thought I knew what I was talking about for anyone beyond myself? The only important thing is that, somehow, some time, the writing gets done, because what is a writer, if not someone who writes? And vise versa. The only really important thing is to take your own work seriously, and find whatever method works.

Jessie Greengrass’s novel Sight was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. Her new book The High House is out now from Swift Press.

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