How did you become a writer?
I was shy and introverted when I was growing up (and, for that matter, now).I suspect that the art of sentence writing, which lets you endlessly rework your words until they fall right, appeals to people like me who in life are tongue-tied and slow-witted.
I started my career writing academic articles and monographs. Writing in academia is regarded as a fairly neutral activity – simply a way of disseminating your research findings. But this does at least get you into the habit of writing and publishing. And so, when I moved into journalism and writing books for a broader readership, I’d learned some of the ropes.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I tend to like writers who write in clean, elegant sentences: Annie Dillard, Diana Athill, Jamaica Kincaid, James Baldwin. I’ve also been influenced by a lot of new nature writing (Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane) – not because I write that kind of book, but because I liked its combining of deep, scholarly knowledge with a personal, intimate voice. Academic writing tends, for perfectly good reasons, to hide itself behind an anonymously professionalised voice and I wanted to move beyond that.
When and where do you write?
I can write anywhere. But my favourite place, when I have time, is at my office desk at work, where I have the luxury of two screens: good for checking facts and multitasking, bad for getting distracted.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a family memoir about the island that my grandmother came from in the west of Ireland. It will hopefully have a bit more of a story in it than my previous writing but will also be about bigger things: the relationship between Ireland and Britain, postwar history, families, memory and grief.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not fully, although I’ve had many bad days and many false starts. I’m quite an incremental writer, chipping away gradually, so although it’s a bit of a slog and I never ride on a wave of inspiration, it never quite grinds to a halt either. If you write non-fiction, as I do, there’s always something else to do if you get stuck with the writing: fact-checking, research, reading, reading. The American poet, William Stafford, said something like ‘if you get stuck, lower your standards and carry on’. So if you get writer’s block, just lower your standards. You can always improve it later on.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
My late father, who was also a writer, said that writing was like dropping a stone down a very deep well. For ages it feels like nothing is happening, and even when you’ve published something, it seems to disappear into nowhere. But then you might hear a tiny “plop” in the water as it makes contact with someone. You never quite know what impact your writing will have, so you just have to write in a way that feels right to you and hope that it connects with someone when it finally reaches the bottom of the well.
What’s your advice to new writers?
First, focus on technique as much as on ideas and subject matter. The painter Edgar Degas once complained to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé that, while he had great ideas, he couldn’t seem to write a great poem. Mallarmé responded that, alas, poems are made of words, not ideas. That feels right to me: writing is made up of words. The only way into your ideas is through the words, so you need to learn how to choose the right words and put them in the right order.
Second, remember that writing is rewriting. Get a first draft down as quickly as you can, and then the hard work begins.
Third, read your work out loud to yourself or, better still, get someone else to read it to you. It may help to clear your head of what you think you’ve said, and introduce you to what you’ve actually said. In other words, it will turn you from a writer into a reader of your work.
Joe Moran is the author, most recently, of First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life (Viking). He has written for the Guardian, New Statesman, TLS and other newspapers and magazines. He is Professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University, UK.