How did you become a writer?
I’ve never had a precise moment of becoming a writer really, and I don’t necessarily think of myself primarily as a writer. It’s always just been something I’ve done and over the years I’ve worked on it. I guess I read a lot growing up and that in turn helped me get a basic sense for what writing should sound like. I use the term "sound" deliberately, because I often think of writing as kind of the same as speaking. I mean, if I can say something I should be able to write it down. I’m not sure all other writers necessarily think like this – sometimes I read pieces that are very elaborate and beautiful, but that would probably sound unnatural or overly ornate and artificial if you said them out aloud.
In terms of building an overt "writer" identity, though, I guess this happened in 2010 after I’d left the financial sector and I started sitting in Foyles Café in London writing about my financial experiences. Then I got somewhat obsessed by that and wrote 160 thousand words over several months whilst bankrupting myself. The book I wrote then never got published, but in the process I got commissioned to write a different book, called The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance. During this time I began to think more about writing as an overt craft.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I don’t necessarily have any definite writing influences that I can pinpoint. Rather I have a whole range of books that have probably subconsciously influenced me. I am also a musician and I can name specific musicians that have influenced me much more easily than I can name writers. But, if I had to name some classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, Moby Dick by Melville, and possibly even Kerouac’s On the Road. Also, I love sci-fi writers like William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Actually, Bob Dylan has influenced me a lot – I loved his autobiography Chronicles – and Tom Waits, another musician who has some great surreal writing and dark storytelling. My cartoonist uncle Anthony Stidolph (aka. Stidy) is a great writer too, and I reckon he’s probably influenced me.
When and where do you write?
I write on trains and planes and in coffee shops and in my room. I have no specific times that I write, but I normally don’t write very late at night. Strangely, I write a lot of stuff when I’m sitting on stages during panel discussions. I do a fair amount of events and speaking and I find that environment sparks a lot of thought, so I get it down on paper. I’d also make a distinction between writing notes (which I often do all the time), constructing a piece and editing a piece. I do these things at different times.
What are you working on now?
Well I always have a few journalism pieces and essays on the go. So I’m writing an essay on the ethics of digital finance, an essay on money, and a paper on the governance of decentralised technology systems. Apart from that I’m planning a big new book on the financial sector, which will take many months of preparation. I also have a lot of pieces that I’m writing for nobody in particular, that I start and then leave for a few months and then pick up again. The aim with these pieces is that they’ll eventually either be published or will inform other pieces I do.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I always like to think there is a difference between magic and a magician. Magicians are essentially entertaining con-men who claim to be able to produce magic on demand. No matter how they’re feeling or what the situation is, they can make the coin disappear, and this is how you know it isn’t true magic. Actual magic – if it exists – would not be something you can just conjure up on demand. It would come in waves through a confluence of forces, and it wouldn’t always work. It would ebb and flow, and you’d need to recharge yourself after a period of casting intense spells. I feel this is a pretty good analogy for writing. No writer can ever just produce writing of equal quality on command. So yes, I go through periods where I write less or get frustrated at not being able to express something or can’t think as clearly as I want, and I guess you can characterise this as periods of "writers block," but I’d be reluctant to describe it as some kind of condition that needs to be "cured." In most creative scenes people go through dynamic cycles of creativity, sometimes having high energy and sometimes feeling low. My mother is an artist and she has a mantra which is "trust the process." Sometimes she feels down and feels like a piece of work is going nowhere, but she just pushes on. It’s the only thing you can really do.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Someone once quoted the "kill your babies" line to me, which means you’ve got to be prepared to let go of paragraphs that you think are profound but that actually aren’t serving a piece. I think this is really important, but admittedly I still struggle with it.
Also, I’m never sure which writing advice to take. I write for various media outlets and you get these editors who have these hard lines on how writing is supposed to be done and they treat them like universal laws, but there are trends and fashions in writing that come and go and these laws are seldom set in stone. For example, some editors insist that you cannot write long sentences, but why pedantically limit yourself like that? This observation can be expanded into other areas like public speaking. You have these people who write books or run workshops on how to sound like a professional TED speaker, but to me the TED speaker style is clichéd and pretentious. Actually a lot of professional journalism can sound clichéd too, despite being the "correct" way to write in that context. In the music realm you get session musicians who, again, are highly proficient and know the "correct" way to play things, but seldom have anything distinctive about their playing. So, you’ve got to treat advice about "how to write" carefully, because it can often be someone projecting their biases onto you.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Well, related to last points I made above, I’d say don’t try to write like "a writer." Write with your own voice. And again, when I say "voice" I mean it literally. Can you picture yourself saying what you write to others? If you can’t picture yourself doing that, you’re either overtly performing a different persona – which can be fine if you’re doing that deliberately – or you’re not being yourself.
Secondly, I’d say try do other things beyond writing. If you have a writing impulse and you also spend time exploring or working on other projects, those projects give you material to feed your writing impulse. In my case, for example, I work on various activist campaigns, financial projects, money systems and technology collaborations, and those in turn give me material to write about. Actually, the relationship isn’t just one way – the act of writing about those things in turn helps you to make sense of them, which in turn helps you to do those things more effectively. Writing is both reflective and creative in the sense of helping you understand things and also helping you articulate things you want to see created.
Brett Scott is a journalist, campaigner and the author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money (2013). He works on financial reform, alternative finance and economic activism with a wide variety of NGOs, artists, students and start-ups, and writes for publications such as The Guardian, New Scientist, Wired Magazine and CNN.com. He is a Senior Fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab, an Associate at the Institute of Social Banking and an advisory group member of the Brixton Pound. He tweets as @suitpossum.