A Prison of the Mind

Earlier this week, I signed a petition, directed at justice secretary Chris Grayling, urging him to reconsider the rule changes which ban prisoners from receiving books and other items from outside. This issue is getting quite a lot of attention in the media – social and otherwise – and a large number of high-profile writers (including Jeffrey Archer, one of the few to have done time in both jail and Parliament) have joined the campaign. Now, I am utterly unqualified to comment on the treatment of prisoners so I’m not going to try – I’ve put a few links below for more information. The reason I signed the petition has less to do with my views on rehabilitation, and a lot more to do with a gut reaction: quite simply, the idea of being denied books strikes horror deep into my soul. Books can provide so many things: education, enlightenment, escape (metaphorically speaking). As an avid reader and aspiring author, they are such an important part of my life that I can’t imagine living without them. Well, actually, I can, but I don’t want to (a vivid imagination can be both a blessing and a curse). And so, I regard restricting access to books as a punishment of extreme cruelty, a prison of the mind, which I wouldn’t inflict on even the most hardened criminal.
I’m pretty sure that others who support this campaign will share my abject horror of booklessness. Indeed, many writers have exploited such feelings, since love of reading is about the only thing you can be reasonably confident your readers will have in common. Just think of the awful parents in Matilda who try to make their daughter watch TV rather than read, or the ‘firemen’ of Fahrenheit 451 who burn all books they find. For my money, the best (for which read stomach-churningly horrifying) depiction of book deprivation can be found in The Handmaid’s Tale, a book which literally gave me nightmares and sends my pulse racing and my palms sweating even as I type these words. And no, I am not exaggerating, not in the slightest. Thank you, Margaret Atwood.

But is there such a thing as too much reverence for books? This is the question raised by an intriguing birthday present I received last week from a writer friend. It’s a book called ‘Wreck this Journal’ and it has the tagline ‘To Create is to Destroy’. It consists of a series of instructions to, as the name suggests, wreck it: one page tells you to rip it, another tells you to smear your dinner on it, another tells you to take the book in the shower with you. As the photograph shows, I’ve made a start, but, indoctrinated by my father into treating books as precious things, it was a struggle. Once I got started, however, I have to admit that it’s a strangely liberating experience, to defy my own reverence for printed pages and just unleash creative destruction upon them. It’s a great idea which I encourage all writers to try. But, here’s the thing, you have to develop that reverence to start with, and you’ll never get it if you’re denied the books.


Article by Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which started the campaign: http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2014/03/23/comment-why-has-grayling-banned-prisoners-being-sent-books
Authors’ letter to the Telegraph: http://www.howardleague.org/letter-to-the-telegraph/
Guardian article about the campaign: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/26/prison-books-ban-writers-chris-grayling
The petition: http://tinyurl.com/ncgtgtv

Bad advice for writers

Aspiring writers are often short of many things: time, money, inspiration, friends, sanity… but one thing which is never in short supply, as a writer with human contacts and/or an internet connection, is advice. Unfortunately, much of the advice on offer is not actually very good, and if I didn’t know better I’d say it was promulgated by a secret society of successful writers trying to ensure nobody else climbs up the ladder behind them. Here’s a selection of some of my, um, favourites:


1) ‘Write what you know.’

Possibly the most commonly-encountered piece of advice for new writers, and probably the worst. I mean, it’s all very well if what you know is international espionage, bedding gorgeous celebrities and how to find a cure for cancer with one hand tied behind your back, but if that’s the case, you probably don’t have much spare time for writing. Assuming your life is more humdrum, therefore, why would anyone want to read about it? Diary of a Nobody has already been done. So use your imagination. Make stuff up. That’s what writers do.


2) ‘Write your first draft by longhand.’

Or on a vintage typewriter. Or in your own blood, by the light of a guttering candle. First drafts are troublesome enough without inflicting further difficulties on yourself. The computer might lack some of the glamour of scribing in days of yore, but it’s a jolly useful invention nonetheless. Do you really think Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t have used laptops if they could? Course they would. Austen might have even managed to crank out a few more novels if she’d have had a quicker way to work. Think about that the next time you’re tempted to pick up a quill pen and a sheet of vellum.


3) ‘Set aside a special writing space.’

My objection to the fabled ‘room of one’s own’ isn’t so much that it’s a bad idea as that it’s simply not very practical. Most of us have to live with restricted space and/or other people, so the opportunity for creating a little writing cave is limited, and telling people they need one is just encouraging procrastination. Which is one area where writers need absolutely no encouragement. Much the same applies to setting aside a regular slot of writing time. All well and good if you can, but not an excuse for slacking off if you can’t. There’s only one way to get on with writing a book: get on with it, wherever and whenever you can.


4) ‘<famous author>’s Top Ten Tips!’

There are hundreds of these floating around the aether, containing gems of advice from successful writers on everything from punctuation to diet. Underlying the whole cottage industry is the cargo-cult logic that adopting the same habits as Iris Murdoch will make you write like Iris Murdoch. I’m afraid this doesn’t actually work, any more than buying a replica ‘Blackie’ Fender Stratocaster will make you play guitar like Eric Clapton. Now, some of these tips can be quite entertaining. Some may even be useful. But as to uncovering the secret of success from these writers? All you need to know is this: they are all different.