Martin Amis describes how he starts a novel and, in many ways, this gels with me too.
“The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea—or glimmer, or throb—appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write. The idea can be incredibly thin—a situation, a character in a certain place at a certain time. With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.” [from The Paris Review]
Martin Amis passes away, aged 73. A poignant moment and one that causes some reflection. After all, I am the same age :-). Martin grew up with well-established writers in both his parents; I was fortunate to have a father who loved writing, taught creative writing, and had his short stories published. Anyway, back to Martin.
In the prelude to his new autobiographical novel, “Inside Story,” acclaimed writer Martin Amis shares an anecdote about speaking at an assembly at his daughter’s school. When he asked the adolescent audience how many of them wanted to become writers, he said nearly two thirds of the room raised their hands.
Amis wasn’t surprised at all by this. Amis believes a desire to write is innate in almost all of us, especially at that young age.
“I think that the urge to write is almost universal,” he said. “I think it is something that naturally coincides with adolescence. This desire you have to commune with yourself, and to take notes, and to write poems, that comes upon us when we become articulate in this new sense when we’re adolescent.”
The subtitle of Amis’ book is “How To Write” and he’s turned the structure of “Inside Story” into something akin to a literary mixtape.
When asked why he decided to go about putting the book together this way, Amis offers another lesson by gently admonishing that “why” is the wrong question to ask a writer. “‘Why?’ did you decide is usually the wrong verb, because in writing you make dozens of little decisions every page, but the big decisions are subconscious. They emerge with the force of instinct and not from the front of the brain, but from the back,” Amis said.