It has been very nasty writing a review of an exhibition I went to recently.

The show was good, and there was lots I wanted to say about it – but after day after day after day of writing, and cutting, and pasting, and deleting, and printing out and correcting, and starting again on a fresh page, and googling artists, and writing lists with arrows, and reading other reviews – it was just getting more and more formless and unwieldy. I’ve been watching this floundering of mine with interest, and wondering how I can make it not happen again. I think these things would help next time:

  • Cross most of it out, and remember that I often do cross out most of what I’m writing, and start again and again and again, and that my most crossed-out texts are usually my best ones.
  • Actually turn my laptop Airport off so I can’t access the internet even if I want to. (I google stupid things as a prize when I’ve written a good sentence and to commiserate myself when I can only write bad sentences.) My attention span is just so twenty-first century.
  • Remember that about a week before a deadline I tend to want to scrap the past six months’ work and start again with some spurious new idea. Remember that this is a bad thing to do.
  • Cut out good bits if they don’t fit. There’s no point clinging on to good bits if it interrupts the flow of the rest of my writing. I think this is what they mean when they say “kill your darlings”.
  • Procrastinate if I must. If it’s the only way I’ll get it done. Ideally though, procrastinate by doing useful things like reading books so difficult and necessary that they seem bearable only compared to the writing I’m avoiding.
  • If in desperation, read carefully chosen texts that have some of the qualities I’m trying to muster in what I’m writing. It’s often the tone I struggle with in commissioned reviews, I seem to want to come over all chatty and use too many apostrophes. But don’t read the wrong things. Don’t read a whole book of Hélène Cixous and then try to write tight sentences.
  • I seem to have to befriend a subject before I can write about it. I may have nothing kind to say about, say, the exhibition I’m reviewing, but as long as I’ve befriended my own ideas about it, then the writing comes more easily. Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say I have to befriend the writing before I can write it.

This last point makes me wonder whether I should be writing anything on commission at all. Because it’s hard work making friends with ideas, and it’s not easily done in a hurry, to a deadline, or when the interests of other people creep in and make it all muddy. Nothing worse than faking affection, and if there’s one thing that can spot a fake, it’s writing.

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