A story broke, today, about a new cure for alzheimer’s. It seems the damage can be reversed using ultrasound. It makes the loss Sir Terry Pratchett yesterday, to the same disease, all the more poignant. Yet I suspect he, of all people, would have appreciated the tragic irony in it.
Terry Pratchett is probably the reason I write. His books – and the outlook in his books – have been a huge influence on me, personally, because he puts the moderate, intelligent viewpoint – especially in his early works – with so much subtle sympathy. To me, the attitude and political viewpoint of his books sums up everything that is good about that moderate, live-and-let-live British view of the world. And if you’re foreign reading this and you want to know what pukka British is well, one aspect is that.
I bought my first Pratchett book when I was about 19 and at university. I think he’d written four disc world books at that point. Even then, I wrote a fair bit of stuff, myself, all of it funny fantasy. I’d never seen a funny fantasy book in a shop and I couldn’t see myself persuading anyone to buy it. In fact, I had resigned myself to writing reams of words which no-one would ever see.
And then I read The Colour of Magic.
And it was a revelation. Because it was exactly what I was trying to do, except it was done properly, down to the last detail.
I remember hoovering it up and just thinking, “I want to write like this.” Except that it’s really, really hard to write like Sir Terry.
Within a couple of months, I’d decided that he was probably going to write all my books for me and I’d never write like that anyway. I put my efforts at novel writing aside and started writing stand up. But I continued to love the books and admire the man. I loved reading the books as they came out, seeing his style grow and evolve. He had the common touch, too. Remember the book about vampires? I can’t remember which one it is but it’s early – in the first 10. The vampires are complaining that there’s nothing to eat and not even a tampax for a nice cup of tea. I laughed like a drain at that because it’s the kind of joke I’d have with myself but deem to tasteless for the ‘normals’. And he’s put it in a book. I liked that he pricked the hide of the pompous and poked fun at the self important.
It made me feel an affinity with him as someone who, perhaps, might not quite fit. Here was a mind like my own a person like me. Doing well. And that’s the thing about Sir Terry, almost anyone who read and loved his books felt like that about him. He had this way of touching on the unmentioned humour of … well … pretty much everything and for pretty much anyone in a way that made you feel as if he would be a complete gas to go to the pub with.
The one time I met him was at a book signing, and he was every bit as lovely as you’d expect, from reading the books. He must have been there about four hours and signed literally hundreds of books. I got there early and queued up the street for that brief few second meeting. He was affable, friendly and chatty. He kept the queue moving without making anyone feel rushed. It was impressive.
18 months or so after meeting the great man in the flesh, I was invited to apply for a job which I then managed to actually not get. I thought someone up there was trying to tell me something: ie that Real Life and Real Work are for the Normals and not for me. So I started writing funny novels again. With a vengeance. Because even if Terry Pratchett had written them all for me, no two people will write the same book right?
Trouble was, I was churning out pages and pages of shockingly piss poor writing that I sincerely wished someone else had written. And I didn’t know how to make it right.
And then a friend found Sir Terry’s e-mail address and I sent him an e-mail. Naturally, writing to the god, whose work I just loved, and I sent a joke, ‘are you the real Terry or a fake terry like terrylene?’ I asked him. And I got a reply saying. ‘I’m the real Terry’ so I sent him another one, which basically said, ‘bloody hell! can I ask you some questions?’ and he sent one back along the lines of ‘now look, it’s all very well but questions only take a minute to ask and a long time to answer, so you can ask me three things.’
So I asked him the first question: if he had to work hard to sell his book or ‘did you just send it in to the first publisher you could think of and they wrote back and said yes please?’ his answer, ‘That’s pretty much the size of it.’
There is no doubt that – after a pause to marvel how anyone could be that good at something – I asked him a second question. But since a computer crash has long since dispensed with my transcript of the correspondence I can’t remember what I asked or what he said. Clearly I wasted the opportunity but at least, true to M T list making form, it means there is NO THING TWO. Moving on.
The third question I asked was if he had any general advice for myself and a writer friend who were both struggling to make our stuff work. At the time I was doing a creative writing course. The teacher wrote literary fiction and she thought my writing was ‘just stupid’. But Sir Terry, bless him, he bothered to write back. And he this is what he told me.
‘If you want to write, and write well, you have to practise. Write. Write every day…’ he said.
And I can’t remember the exact working of the rest of it – which seems strangely apposite and is entirely typical – but the gist of it is this.
Write. Write as much as you can. And when you can’t think of anything to write, write about how irritated you are that you can’t think of a bloody thing to write about. Write something. Anything and do whatever it takes to spend some time, every day doing it. Practise and you will gain such an instinctive grasp of words that expressing your thoughts is effortless, and more to the point, accurate. And when you learn that… that’s when you will learn how to say the difficult things and your words will have power.
That doesn’t read very well because the hard disk crash ate the words Sir Terry wrote, which I no longer remember and my words lack the power of his – although I’m working on that – but the essence is burned into my soul*.
His advice came at a time when I was on the brink of giving up, on writing on work on everything. When I’d resigned myself to a dead end life and a succession of dead end jobs working for a university that paid most of its workers an annual salary equating to less than the average town rent. When, I had been told I was worthless for so long by so many people that, despite the best efforts of those who thought different, I’d begun to believe it. It was tough advice – he didn’t pull any punches – but it made me feel that perhaps there was something I could do, possibly even do well, if I tried really, really hard. And I set out to do it. There are a lot of other factors which turned my life around and switched on my self confidence, but the small ember of resolve I felt after that e-mail was part of the small beginnings.
So thank you, Sir Terry, for making the world lighter and better and wiser for all of us, thank you for 70 books, and thank you for the advice. The world is a quieter, duller place for your passing.
* that’s a little melodramatic isn’t it? Never mind.#
# this is a post about Terry Pratchett, people. Footnotes are obligatory.
Since Sir Terry was one of the people who advocated leaving your comfort zone regularly, I scared myself in his honour today by eating two chocolate toffees I found in my drawers (obviously not the drawers I’m wearing but the ones in my desk) which are best before 2008. I am also still wearing my comic relief drawn on face, which should do.