Learn to Fly: Reflections on Putting Pen to Paper
The first thought of becoming a writer came to me by accident. I must have been around the age of sixteen when I opened a book that changed my life – Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski. It was not because of the depiction of alcoholism nor his hatred towards his family. The important moment appeared at the beginning of chapter 51:
I only met one student at City College that I liked, Robert Becker. He wanted to be a writer. ‘I’m going to learn everything there is to learn about writing. It will be like taking a car apart and putting it back together again.’
‘Sounds like work,’ I said.
‘I’m going to do it.’
From that moment onwards I embarked on the same journey as Becker: to learn everything there is to learn about writing. It was because of that that I applied to study Creative Writing at the University of Kent, where, at a first-year lecture, a grey-haired man with a Serbian surname talked passionately about non-fiction. His name was Dragan Todorović. I also remember it due to an anecdotal situation that happened there. He showed us the opening chapter of a book describing two Czechoslovakian parachuters, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, that were part of Operation Anthropoid, a mission leading to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich-Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The lecturer showed us the text and said that he does not expect anyone here to read out their names correctly.
“I can,” I said, raising my hand.
“I’m Czech.” We both laughed about it there.
He has not changed much from the memory I had of him from first year. We have both left Kent for Warwick, me coming to do my Master’s degree in English Literature and him becoming the Director of the Warwick Writing Programme. “Life is surreal in many ways,” he said. His grey hair and beard shining on his face with a blurred out red wall behind him. We started chatting about writing from the moment Microsoft Teams enabled us to see each other. “I have been living off of my writing since I was seventeen,” he said, thinking about his beginnings. From the money he received for his first article – a piece pitched by an editor of a local magazine regarding an official event happening in a school he went to – the teenager bought himself a typewriter. “Ever since that I’ve lived entirely off of my creative writing.”
“I always ask myself: What can I do with my word?” Dragan Todorović, Warwick Writing Programme
Creative writing does not only mean novels and poetry collections, but his portfolio contains over 2000 journalistic articles in Serbian, autobiographies of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, 24 radio plays that he also directed to name just a few of things from his portfolio. “I always ask myself: ‘What can I do with my word?’ So today it will be a story. Tomorrow it will be a novel. The day after it will be a non-fiction book. The day after that it might be advertising. It might be writing for liminal areas such as computer games or non-linear fiction or something like that. Poetry, film scripts, theatre scripts… It’s all creative writing.”
In an interview for BBC Radio Kent, he said that everyone has a novel in them. When I asked him whether he thinks that such novel is any good, he laughed. “Potentially it can be a good novel, however they are very rarely good because people are looking in the wrong direction.” He believes that people are prone to write about naturally dynamic experiences that, for Todorović, do not require any artistry. “If you are able to write well about a cold, grey, rainy Sunday afternoon in late November when everything is closed outside, then your novel will probably be very good. But if you’re trying to write excitedly about an earthquake in Mexico, give me a break. That’s not a novel.”
I tried the exercise myself and failed. My protagonist had, even in such conditions, always found a way to escape the boredom of the situation. He watched Netflix, browsed social media, called his parents… Dragan Todorović’s creative writing students achieved similar results. “They all wanted to get out of their rooms,” he said, making a general statement about the birth of a text. “Writing a good novel is like composing a good piece of classical music. If your orchestra is blaring at all times, then there is no dynamic. There is no beauty in it.” But by beauty, the writer does not mean pleasing – he means honest. “Brutal art is important because a mirror is not kind to us. I don’t expect a mirror to be kind to me, I expect it to work for me. I expect it to help me in being decent in the world.” The word honesty can be almost seen as a synonym to integrity, the most important word in Todorović’s life. For him, integrity is the keyword for journalism, a discipline where you get the “immediate satisfaction of seeing your article in print or published on radio, TV, or the internet.” The difference between journalism and fiction is that in the latter you “use reality as the ground, but then start flying.” Such thing is not possible in journalism where you do not build on reality.
I have joined the university newspaper, The Boar, right after Freshers’ Week. It was only a couple of days after I was chosen to be the Deputy Editor of Books when I started to see the name Reece Goodall everywhere. He was in our section’s inbox, all over the website and everywhere else that was connected to the paper. The man is something of an icon at the student newspaper, not only by publishing his first piece for the paper in 2014, but also by the sheer number of articles he has written during his time at Warwick. Currently being the editor of Games, the PhD student of French has 1910 articles on The Boar website (side note: this article is being written on the 16th of February. The number of articles may be even higher on the day this text will be out).
We sat down right after the paper’s editorial meeting and he answered all of my questions with a cheery smile and optimism he is known for. Journalism is not the only form of writing Reece is doing. He has self-published four novels, his fifth one releasing this August. “I like the feeling of bouncing between things,” he told me. It can feel overwhelming balancing university work and own creative writing projects. Reece’s tip is to work continually, one small step at a time. “The mistake people make is to say: ‘I’m gonna write a giant novel.’ That’s so abstract as to almost being meaningless.” While working on his PhD dissertation that he submitted ten days ago, he had much more freedom to choose when and for how long is he going to write for entertainment.
During his earlier university days, restricted by a higher number of classes, he set out a rule to write at least 500 words a day. The sheer volume of text produced for The Boar is a prime example of how small steps come a long way. His topics range, one day writing about his favourite Pokémon, the second about a breaking news story. “Things are happening,” he said when I asked him where does he find inspiration. He showed me a notebook that works as his daily to-do list. It is a way for him to keep being organised. After we were done with our conversation, he crossed off the note of our interview with a smile. He still had other things to do that day.
“I like to think our society functions as the ‘friend’ who looks at your writing for you.” Abby Stafford, Warwick Writing Society
I asked Dragan Todorović whether he ever doubts his writing. He nodded. “I think certain stress, certain disbelief, certain trepidation is actually a creative tool. It forces you to work harder, to look deeper, to listen deeper.” Listen deeper is something that Todorović claims as his motto. “Everything that we hear around us has that first layer, that facade that is turned towards us. Everything does not only have hidden meanings, but also different layers that are trying to reach the surface to offer themselves to us. So don’t refuse them by thinking that you know it all. Listen deeper.” This is something that does not only help with writing, but with life as a whole.
I asked the professor of Creative Writing whether he thinks that writing can be taught and he promised me that he can make a good writer out of anyone. “The key element is not talent, but firm will.” But does a person really need to study this discipline at university to become better? Many famous writers, for example Stephen King, Haruki Murakami or Chuck Palahniuk have written books on writing. Mr Todorović, however, does not believe that texts like these will help. “There is the question of the master and the student. The thing about sharing time with somebody, talking about the material…” Writing classes are also important because of the community it creates: “Working with teachers is only one side of the medal. Another very important thing is to work with your peers and keep them as your own private network.”
But what to do if you’re not a student of Creative Writing but still want to find a community of other passionate writers? “I like to think our society functions as the ‘friend’ who looks at your writing for you,” Abby Stafford, the Secretary and Publicity Officer of the Warwick Writing Society, wrote me in an email. It would seem that a society like this would mainly attract Creative Writing students, but that is not the case. “While we do have several creative writing students as members, we have almost as many Maths students.”
The society, currently having 67 official members, hosts two weekly events: ‘Creative Sessions’ on Tuesdays – discussion focused and theme-based events with a writing exercise attached to the theme. The point of these, as Abby described, is to generate ideas with a huge importance put on casual and supportive atmosphere. The second type of meetings named ‘Workshop Sessions’ are held on Thursdays and the goal is exactly what the name states – to workshop. Three people send in their creative pieces, the only rule being that it needs to be less than three thousand words, and the rest of the group offers comments and criticism. “The advice and feedback in these sessions remain positive, but tend to be more constructive than the feedback given in creative sessions.”
The society also runs a publication named Kamena Magazine, which has just published its eighteenth issue. You do not need to be a member of the society to get your work there. What does Abby think is the single most important piece of advice for improving in this discipline? “The quality of your writing is, as annoyingly as it may sound, directly related to how much you read.”
Dragan Todorović agrees with her: “You need to be a voracious reader.” Reading for him does not only mean looking at words on a page. “Reading is listening to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, trying to decode why is it beautiful and an unrelenting horror at the same time, why is it impossible to withstand without heavy emotion being involved. Reading is staring at the passing river for a long time, letting your thoughts read it.” Another thing is language. Born in the Czech Republic, my first language is Czech. The language I choose for writing makes it different, not only linguistically, but also thematically. Dragan Todorović, whose first language is Serbian, said that the language he chooses for a piece depends on the first sentence. “Some of the ideas come to me in Serbian, some of them in English.”
Todorović described an interesting development in his relationship with language. “The longer I am away from my mother tongue the more condensed my language gets. I don’t mean that I’m losing words, I’m just more oriented to certain areas of language. It’s not narrowing of the vocabulary, it’s the shifting of it.” But it is not only how, but also what is he writing about. “Some very sensitive things and very small, precise feelings are actually becoming easier to express in my mother tongue.”
The writer, born in Yugoslavia, is very interested in memories. His novels exist somewhere between non-fiction and auto-fiction, for example Diary of Interrupted Days and The Book of Revenge: A Blues for Yugoslavia, Toronto, Canada. For him, writing becomes a tool of research, but also of creation. “If you start unravelling children’s memories, you will find a narrative behind all of them.” One of the reasons why he has published so much is because he writes every day. “I write towards happiness,” he said, and I asked him whether there is a number of words attached to that emotion. “Sometimes I will produce three haikus and be happy. Sometimes I will produce two thousand words and be happy. Sometimes I will produce five thousand words and be very unhappy. I’m trying to, at the end of the day, know that I have written at least a little something that I can live with. The basic idea is this: ‘if I finish the day, go to bed and die in my sleep, what will be behind me? I always have that at the back of my mind. What is it that remains after I die?”
Charles Bukowski, whose novel Post Office Dragan Todorović translated, died in 1994. He left behind books, poems, letters and other writing. Celebrating my twenty-fifth birthday in March, rereading Ham on Rye makes me meet Robert Becker again after almost a decade. I’m definitely not yet done with my mission to learn everything there is to learn about writing and I don’t think I ever will be. Just as Becker said himself, I’m going to do it, even though such thing is impossible.