Find a room of your own: top 10 tips for women who want to write

The Guardian Lifestyle 2 months ago

How does a woman write? This woman is writing on her laptop in bed wearing her lipstick. She looks quite ridiculous. She is wishing the teenagers downstairs would make less noise and will go down periodically to shout at them and to get some biscuits, maybe some cheese, a small snack that she needs to sustain herself every other paragraph or so.

This woman wishes she was like the young people she sees writing in cafés or on the bus, who seem to be able to write anywhere. She wishes she wasn’t so precious about peace and quiet and remembers she didn’t used to be. In fact, she used to sit next to a man in a newspaper office who was covered in nicotine patches, chewing nicotine gum and drinking double espressos until he vibrated. Still, she always met the deadline. He didn’t, so was in a constant state of torture.

Things changed, journalism changed and she no longer had to go to the office. Indeed, when working for a rightwing newspaper she told the editor that doing so was making her depressed as they were all fascists. She was vaguely hoping to be fired. Instead she was sent flowers and told she never had to come in any more. She had been managed successfully, she realised later, which was an entirely new experience for her.

Obviously this woman is me and the lipstick thing is just weird. What can I say? It’s something to do with my mum and putting on a brave face. No one sees it. I am alone, but it is a sign I am moving between the inner and the outer world. That is what writing is, an oscillation between the internal and the external. (Tip 1: find your own equivalent of the lipstick. It’s the beginning.)

When we ask, “What are the conditions necessary for women to write in?” we are really asking, “What are the conditions necessary for women to think in?” It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated. We are asking if what we think may ever be taken seriously or even valued. “Writing is really a way of thinking – not just feeling, but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet”: Toni Morrison. (Tip 2: take inspiration from the greats, but don’t compare yourself to them. Compare yourself to the mediocre men who flourish everywhere.)

I am a journalist, I don’t write fiction, but what Morrison advises is also what good journalism can do. It is about listening and thinking through all the information that is thrown at us, finding a voice somehow in the cacophony. No wonder I need quiet.

(Tip 3: I often give aspiring writers this tip if I am teaching a journalism class and it’s the one thing they don’t want to hear – take off your headphones. If you want to report the world, be in it.) I know more about how people think by listening to the chat on the bus than I ever do going to Westminster. I knew who would win the election, because I heard the mums in the school playground wavering. I informed a notorious spin doctor of this. “The mums in the school playground?” he sneered at me, seemingly unaware that such women even had the vote. His side lost. Labour, actually.

Listening, instinct, these skills develop, but how can one make a living while they do? This, of course, is what is so terrific about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, published 90 years ago this year, and an essay in checking her own privilege, a brilliant linking of material conditions to actual thought. “Woman have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.” She could write as she did because she had an inheritance. (Tip 4: have a private income. Not really… but have another skill that can support you besides writing. These skills may feed into the work, not take from it.)

I can’t lie about the current state of my industry. Newspapers are in decline. We give it all away for free online. It’s not easy now to make a career as a hack.

This is the point at which I should say I have been extremely lucky… (Tip 5: no one from my background is that lucky. You have to be good. And you are only as good as the last piece you wrote. Women need to front it out. Panic inside? Impostor syndrome? Trust me, it never goes, so live with it.)

If you come from a place where the top ambition for you was to work in Boots, then don’t expect anyone to understand. When I started writing for the Guardian, my mother’s reaction was: “We don’t have that in Ipswich.” When I used to go across the road from my council flat to get paper – as in those days everything was faxed – the blokes in the shop would say, “Just doing a bit of typing then love?” Even now a neighbour will say, “Can I come round for a coffee? I fancy being a columnist.” Everyone has an opinion so they think they can do what I do. As with novels – everyone has one inside them and that’s where they should stay – everyone may have a couple of columns. The skill is to sustain it. (Tip 6: this is what I mean by front. Develop it. And fast.)

More and more, I see that what holds women back – besides money and social class, which of course remain the biggest factor within a media dominated by privately educated men – is something we can do something about. And that is this dreadful need to be liked. I wouldn’t advise anyone who wants to be liked to write for a living. Some may love you, but a woman with an opinion is deemed unlikable. And, bizarrely, a whore.

I have always had hate mail and even death threats. In the bad old days at least people had to get a postage stamp before they could threaten to kill you. One of my favourite things ever was a floral notelet – remember them? – sent to me at the Mail on Sunday. It read CUNT.

Nowadays, of course, the hate and the bile is public as it’s on social media and in reader comments. Often I find myself comforting young, talented women who are devastated by it. Look at Twitter any time of the day and any “outspoken” woman will be being mauled. Outspoken now simply means a woman who speaks. What we are asking of young writers is impossible – both to be so thick-skinned that all the abuse can wash over you and yet remain attuned and sensitive. It’s a balancing act to which I have no answer but friendship and gin. (Tip 7: you need to develop some way of navigating social media and finding support there. It is there, trust me.)

By now, you have become nomadic – have laptop, will travel – and will be reading every goddamned thing you can get hold of, connecting left, right and centre. You get a piece published and the editor likes it. This is a gift. (Tip 8: it’s become ever more rare, but a good editor is a mentor. Listen to them. They will slice and dice your best sentences and cut out your jokes and you will one day learn that a good editor is everything.)

Just as it’s going swimmingly there is that other issue, so let’s face it head on. Children. Is it possible to write and have children? Yes, of course it is. Is it possible to write as much as you would like and have children? I don’t know. I had a child long before I became a journalist. Writing can wrap around childcare. Or, circumstances mean it doesn’t happen, or that writing is more important than reproduction. All I would ask is, can mothers think? As well as fathers is all I know. (Tip 9: there is no right way to do this. We are all different.)

I may yearn for peace and quiet, but I have often written out of personal chaos. Why? Because anyone who writes wants to change the world. Word by word. Sometimes I feel I am fighting the old battles still and we are going backwards. Everywhere, I see guys analysing politics and young women writing confessionals: the old “men think/women feel” dichotomy chunters on. That must change. The world described to us by cloned men centring on old party politics is imploding, the old systems are breaking down.

(Tip 10: love what you do. If you don’t love it and find it all rather lonely because it is, find something else.) Most of all, use what is already there. You cannot reinvent the conditions you are in, but these conditions are your fuel – anger, frustration, despair, revenge, love, silliness, need… and writing is your way to clarity, to understanding what is important. That is its power.

Know this in your heart. No one gives you power freely. You have to take it. Then own it. And whatever fee they offer you, ask for more.


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