BY SIMON WINTER
Bill Nighy, the famous English actor, recently celebrated his 74th birthday. Interviewed, he said, ‘I am a world-class procrastinator. I’m only an actor because I’ve been putting off being a writer for 35 years.’
He’s in good company. There must be millions of aspiring writers who’ve lacked sufficient impetus to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Thomas Gray mused on this while walking in a country churchyard: ‘Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest’, gone to his grave without having written anything. This thought inspired Gray to write some of the most poetic lines in the English language:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Everyone who has harboured hopes of becoming a successful writer knows how daunting it can be to be faced with a blank sheet, a tabula rasa. It takes an enormous effort of will just to set down that first letter. Monty Python satirised this in their hilarious skit called Novel Writing:
Hello and welcome to Dorchester where a very good crowd has turned out to watch local boy Thomas Hardy write his new novel … And the crowd goes quiet now as Hardy settles himself down at the desk, body straight, shoulders relaxed, pen held lightly but firmly in the right hand. He dips the pen in the ink [the announcer becomes excited] and he’s off! It’s the first word, but it’s not a word … Oh no! It’s a doodle way up on top of the left-hand margin … What a disappointing start! But he’s off again and here he goes – the first word of Thomas Hardy’s new novel, at 10:35 on this very lovely morning. It’s three letters … It’s the definite article, and it’s ‘THE’! … He’s crossed it out! Thomas Hardy on the first day of his new novel has crossed out the only word he’s written so far, and he’s gazing off into space.
I, too, have struggled with this crippling brain freeze. It isn’t that I have nothing to say; otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting there with my pen or finger poised. No, it’s what psychologists call Imposter Syndrome, the paralysing self-doubt that makes me wonder whether anyone would be sufficiently interested in what I have to say to bother reading it. From what I’ve read, it’s not only novices who suffer from this affliction; it can strike even those with a record of publishing success.
The most helpful advice I’ve come across to enable me to negotiate my way past this mental block is this tip from Erica Jong, the author of Fear of Flying: ‘If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line … write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.’
I’ve written nine books, four of which have been published and one of which is currently prescribed for literature study at secondary school level. None of them would have seen the light of day had I not written the first draft with only one reader in mind – myself.
In fact, I resist the temptation to discuss my writing with anyone until I’m sufficiently confident to do so, and I don’t ask for feedback on what I’ve written until I’ve completed the first draft to my satisfaction. By that stage, I’m ready to accept constructive criticism and to begin work on a second draft – that is, if I can get the first word out of the way.
About the Author
Simon Winter is the author of the popular children’s book The Cape of Good Stories, which he also illustrated; the young adult novel Bye Bye, Black Sheep, which is being used for literature study in several schools; and the acclaimed biography Charles Leonard: South Africa’s Forgotten Revolutionary Leader, which was nominated for the SA Sunday Times Non-Fiction Award in 2022. He also received the SlugNews Poetry Award. Simon holds a post-graduate degree in education from the University of Cape Town and, before becoming a writer and artist, was a high school principal and English teacher. He was honoured to receive several prestigious awards during his 40-year professional career. He and his wife live on Signal Hill in Green Point, and they have two daughters and two grandchildren. Simon hopes to live long enough to see the Proteas win the Cricket World Cup and Stoke City FC win anything. You may contact Simon at email@example.com.