How I write: Jonathan Chamberlain
“Writing is easy,” according to Red Smith, an American sports writer. “You just sit down in front of a typewriter and open a vein.” Some people just hate writing, others love it. For some, the words come out like breaking rocks and for others it trickles out of the pot like liquid honey – the words get everywhere but they’re formless and sticky.
Well, the first thing you need to know about how I write is the hours I spend organising the material and then how I slowly structure each paragraph and… Oh all right. I’m lying.
I’m afraid I’m the kind of writer everyone hates: I long ago took a scalpel to my critical faculties. The result is that the words pour out of me. Later I go back to tidy them up. But it wasn’t always so and you can see this very clearly with my book Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion (Blacksmith Books, 2008). This was originally self-published in 1981 – and to anyone who still has that mournful, black cover book all I can say is: I’m really, really sorry. The number of typos doesn’t bear thinking about – but I didn’t want to appear rude to the typesetter by asking her to correct all that work she’d done for me. (And the truth then was that I wasn’t as up on basic punctuation and spelling as I ought to have been). Writing it was like breaking rocks. This was my first book and it shows. However, it helped me overcome the brute resistance of words and a few years later I was asked to write an essay on the Cheung Chau Bun Festival. This has been included as an appendix to Chinese Gods – I think you’ll see how much more fluid it is as a piece of writing.
So, how do I really write? It’s like this. I sit down at my word processor at around 9.30am and switch it on. Then I play a game of Hearts. After the computer has beaten me three times in a row I turn my attention to Free Cell. The computer tells me I’ve won 85 per cent of the last 8,349 games that I’ve played. It is now 9.53am so I click on the internet backgammon button and play a game with a demented teenager who keeps swearing at me. Finally, I win or he wins – is it really that important? – and I’ve got no more excuses. Now it’s time for email. Forty-five minutes later I start to roll up my sleeves. It’s time to start writing. Well, OK, just one more game of backgammon. It’s about 11am before I have battered my brain into submission and I manage to rip off an hour and a half of writing before it’s time to take a break for lunch. For the afternoon session, the prevarication is usually not quite so bad.
See? Easy! Just take a scalpel to your critical faculties. It works every time.
In addition to Chinese Gods, Jonathan Chamberlain is author of King Hui: the Man who Owned all the Opium in Hong Kong and Cancer: the Complete Recovery Guide www.fightingcancer.com