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  • Writer's pictureMenna van Praag

Writerly Wisdom Wednesdays: Take 1

Updated: Sep 10, 2022

The Best Advice I’ve Received as a Writer

While I was researching the writings of Virginia Woolf for my debut novel, The House at the End of Hope Street, in which her ghost gives advice to current residents of the house, I found these words attributed to her: “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.” When I read this my shoulders dropped and I gave a great sigh of relief. Let’s take it one sentence at a time.

No need to hurry. This is excellent advice to balance with that of another writer I admire, Dorothy Parker, who said: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” Now, that's very good advice and I’m a great believer in taking action. But sometimes I do too much; pushing and striving to finish a story when what’s really needed is a little rest and relaxation, time to let thoughts percolate, to let the fruit of ideas ripen before being picked. The advice of not hurrying is particularly important now that I have kids and thus far less time to sit in my study and write. When I was younger, overly ambitious and obsessive, I had no balance in my life – I could write my stories (or think about them) for fifteen hours a day and it didn’t matter. But now I find it important to slow down, to focus on my kids, or my husband, or my friends, when I’m with them and not be itching to get back to the page. It is important too to take the time for other things that make me happy: walks in the woods, baking a cake, or simply sitting and staring out of a window at the rain. Woolf’s words remind me that I'm not rushing to the finish line; the page can wait – it’s not going anywhere.

No need to sparkle. Starting out as I writer in my twenties, I didn’t trust my words. I thought they weren’t good enough, weren’t lyrical enough, weren’t literary. I spent weeks, months, years re-writing the same passages over and again. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far when it came to finishing anything. It look me a long time - the best part of a decade - to understand that I didn’t need to be fancy, I simply needed to learn how to express what was in my heart. That was when, on the cusp of my 30th birthday, I sat down to write Men, Money & Chocolate, a little novella I wrote in two weeks, pouring my heart onto the page without editing - or worrying if the language was lyrical or the story compelling. It has since been published into 26 languages. That experience taught me that I don’t need to add ribbons and bows to my writing because I fear it isn’t good enough. I only need to be real and true. I don't need to dress up my heart.

No need to be anybody but yourself. Oh, how wish I’d read these words when I was in my early twenties! While I was busy judging myself mercilessly against the bar of the writers I most admired – Virginia Woolf among them. I suffered from long, debilitating bouts of writer’s block then, because I didn’t think my work was good enough. It took me a long while to learn that I didn’t need to strive to be as good as those writers – or a poor echo of them – but simply the best version of myself. Now, finally, in my forties, I fully understand that it doesn’t matter that I’m not Virginia Woolf or, indeed, anyone else. My style is my own. It is what it is. And my only job is to express myself as best as I can. This is all I can do. It is all you can do. Trust that it is enough.

Menna van Praag

31st August, 2022.

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