Alex Bell on Writing as a Teenager Transcript
So the question that I get asked fairly regularly is something along the lines of, either ‘how old do you need to be to be a writer?’ or ‘do you need some kind of special degree or qualification or a fancy office or something along those lines?’
This always strikes a chord with me because I got some pretty terrible writing advice when I was fifteen. I decided to email one of my favourite authors and tell her about how much I liked her books, and at the end I said to her ‘when I leave school I would like to be a writer as well’. And she very kindly replied to my email, and it was really nice, and very thoughtful, kind of took some time with it, but at the end she decided to offer me a little bit of writing advice. And her advice to me, as a fifteen year old, was ‘it’s great that you want to be a writer, but you need to try and wait until you’re at least forty years old’. And she said ‘I know that sounds hard, but you’ve got have stuff to write about.’ Those were her actual words.
I think this is complete nonsense. At the time I was a bit disheartened by it, I’m not going to lie. I sort of thought ‘well this is somebody who is doing it, so she should know’. In the end I decided to completely disregard what she’d said, because as a fifteen year old I didn’t want to have to wait twenty-five years until I could write a book.
The suggestion is that as a fifteen year old, you’ve got nothing worth saying. I’d had that kind of response or comment a little bit from other people, like teachers or a parent’s friend or something. You’d tell them your writing ambitions and they’d be very patronising about it but the difference here was, it was an actual published writer saying this, so you do give it a lot more weight.
Looking back on it, if I had paid more attention to this, it could have been a really negative experience. Luckily I just ignored it.
What advice would you give teenage writers?
My advice to teenage writers would always be that you just have to get started straight away. There’s a Charlie Chaplin quote that goes something along the lines of ‘we’re all amateurs. Because none of us live long enough to become anything else.’ And I think, especially when it comes to writing, there is definitely an element of truth in that. If none of us can ever reach expert level, then it pays to get started with our learnings as quickly as possible.
What do you need to be a writer?
When I was younger I thought you couldn’t really be a writer until you had an office. I haven’t got an office. I’ve got some bookshelves, but this is not an office. Maybe one day! But you don’t need an office to write in, although lovely as I’m sure it is, it’s not neccessary. You don’t have to be a certain age to write, you don’t have to – one girl asked me once whether she needed to go to university and do English or something. I didn’t do English! You don’t have to have any qualifications at all. And that is completely true I think. And if you want to be a writer, and you tell people this, which inevitably it’s going to come up – it can’t be a secret forever – then you will get sometimes a certain amount of perhaps scorn or people will feel very keen to tell you how hard it’s going to be, things along those lines. So really you have to learn how to disregard all of that stuff.
You also have to learn how to write badly, and how to push through bad writing days, and there certainly is no set age for that. You learn by doing. I think with a lot of things that’s true, but with writing in particular you learn by doing, and none of us really know, as writers, because each book is different. So each time you sit down to write a new book, you’re a beginner all over again.
Any other advice?
If you’re a teenage writer, and you’re wanting to write a book, and you want to become a novelist then please just start doing it. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission, don’t wait for a qualification, or some magic age. Just get on with it! Just get on with learning.
And there will be teenage kids in schools and things right now who are going to become the next generation of novelists. So please don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you have to be forty before you can write a book. It’s not true. If I’ve proved one thing let it be that. Most of the writers I know got published before they were forty. And my first published novel, I wrote it when I was nineteen. And I know other novelists who’ve written their debuts younger than that even. So there’s no sense in waiting.