In the weeks after my grandfather died in 2019, I spent a few melancholy days sorting through the “Gramps” section of my binder, mainly the many letters he had sent me over the years. It was a way, I guess, to continue the 40-year-old conversation we had about books, to keep his voice strong in my mind. One letter, however, struck me with particular force – a page and a half in response to a piece of news I sent him when I was ten years old. scene showing something that I came to recognize as a gift – the fact that he took me seriously as a writer, that it was a comeback from one writer to another.
This is one of the central messages of Cathy Rentzenbrink’s wise and generous book on the life of the writer, Write everything down; this idea that one of the hardest things for a writer to do is take himself and his work seriously. There is, as she acknowledges early on here, a tremendous amount of snake oil sold in the creative writing industry: “Books that are too structure-focused make me want to cry,” she says. “Their writers seem to like discussing the classic three-act structure, protagonists and antagonists and all that, but it’s too cold a way of doing things for me, and I know it would never go anywhere good.” . ” Write everything down is not a book that gives you structure; rather, it helps the aspiring writer to fashion a vessel into which he could safely pour the contents of his heart.
In a series of short, chatty chapters, Rentzenbrink offers advice that conveys a central message: that by writing we become writers. This is not a book whose intended audience has had the privilege of an MA in Creative Writing (or a sternly encouraging grandfather); it’s for anyone who picks up a pen or sits in front of the eerily blank computer screen and wonders if they have anything to write on. Rentzenbrink’s career has been healthy: his father was a miner who could not read or write for most of his life. His youth was marked by tragedy, as evidenced by his devastating memories The last act of love. She is now a furiously productive author – since that memoir in 2015, she has written four more books, including a brilliantly caustic debut novel, Everyone is still alive.
Rentzenbrink teaches life writing lessons for Arvon and Kestle Barton in Cornwall, and reading Write everything down feels like a decent stopgap to be in class with her. She is disarmingly frank both about the limits of creative writing as an academic discipline – “I don’t have all the answers and I don’t believe anyone has them” – and about the challenges of. enter an industry that is perhaps the most competitive and the lowest paying of all. Not to mention the physical and mental challenges of putting anything on paper – “almost all writers exist in a continual vortex of despair and doubt”.
What Write everything down more than anything, however, is to make the reader – the writer! – feel part of a community. Rentzenbrink embellishes his work with thoughtful answers to questions that keep him from writing: “Should I work if I’m sick?” What about when you’re depressed? How do I know if I am doing it correctly? I get stuck… I’m so confused! At the end, there are messages of solidarity and inspiration from a host of other writers, from Lucy Mangan to Matt Haig to Maggie O’Farrell. They emphasize the book’s collaborative and trust-building ethic, which gives us an arm around the shoulder as we struggle against the most difficult thing: the “delicate and slippery trade” of writing.
Write everything down: How to put your life on the page by Cathy Rentzenbrink is published by Pan Macmillan (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy on guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply