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You Can’t Rely on Inspiration: Essential Writing Advice from J.G. Ballard

“Self-discipline is enormously important.”

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J.G. Ballard was an extraordinarily prolific writer, and for the majority of his career he managed this while also being a single father of three—his wife died in 1964, and Ballard never remarried (though he did meet a woman a few years later who would become his longterm partner). This in itself is a good lesson to those of us who cite the stresses and responsibilities of our lives for never finishing that novel. But of course, Ballard didn’t just write a lot—he wrote a lot of genre-bending, philosophical, often prescient works that have had a massive influence on literary and pop culture. This is all to say that there are worse people to take writing advice from, and few better. I collected some of Ballard’s best wisdom below—may our writing all be a bit more Ballardian as a result.

Start with a synopsis.

“With short stories I do a brief synopsis of about a page, and only if I feel the story works as a story, as a dramatic narrative with the right shape and balance to grip the reader’s imagination, do I begin to write it . . . In the case of the novels, the synopsis is much longer . . .

I think that the use of the synopsis reflects, for me, a strong belief in the importance of the story, of the objective nature of the invented world I describe, of the complete separation of that world from my own mind. It’s an old-fashioned standpoint (or seems to be, though I would argue vigorously that it isn’t) and one that obviously separates me from the whole postmodernist notion of a reflexive, self-conscious fiction that explicitly acknowledges the inseparability of author and text. I regard that whole postmodernist notion as a tiresome cul-de-sac, from which any writer with a strong imagination, or any sense of moral urgency towards his subject matter, would burst forth with immense relief. Of course, I accept that an imaginative writer, like a figurative painter, takes for granted perspective, illusionist space, the unlimited depth of the picture plane, and that with the more extreme types of imagination, such as the surrealists (or myself), a double piece of illusionism is called for—one is asked to accept not only the illusionist space of the picture plane or the narrative text, but the strange events going on within that illusory space. Curious to say, the human mind seems to have not the slightest difficulty in doing this, and even seems designed to work that way, at least, if dreams, myths, and legends are any guide. The notion put about by deconstructionist critics—who I hear are all the rage in the States—that there is no difference between a bus ticket and, say, Mr. Micawber, that both equally are fictions, seems to me to miss the point that we can’t think about Mr. Micawber at all without making just that old-fashioned imaginative leap that the deconstructionists are working so hard to dismantle.”

–in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Discipline is essential.

“I try to write about 1,000 words a day in longhand and then edit it very carefully later before I type if out. I have been known to stop in the middle of a sentence sometimes when I’ve reached my limit. But self-discipline is enormously important—you can’t rely on inspiration or a novel would take ten years.”

–as told to The Times in 2000

Rebel against yourself.

“Most artists and writers in the past have been middle-class, the surrealists to a man, with backgrounds similar to those of the Baader-Meinhof gang. However, the middle-class world against which they rebelled was vast and self-confident. Who today would bother to rebel against the Guardian or Observer-reading, sushi-nibbling, liberal, tolerant middle-class? I think the main target the young writer/artist should rebel against is himself or herself. Treat oneself as the enemy who needs to be provoked and subverted.”

–from a 2005 interview in Hard Mag

Start with short stories, not novels.

“Like many science fiction authors, I began by writing short stories, which isn’t the norm any more, at least not among British authors today. Today young authors would rather write novels straight off—and that’s precisely why these novels are mostly so poor. In every job you need a certain amount of practice, whether you’re a violinist or a joiner, and short stories offer writers a wonderful chance to acquire the necessary tools. The Mona Lisa, was, after all, not exactly Leonardo da Vinci’s first painting. In any case I learned what it meant to be a writer by writing short stories; what my weaknesses and strengths are.”

–in a 2007 interview with Werner Fuchs and Sascha Mamczak, translated by Dan O’Hara

Use your own reality.

“What all writers are trying to do is find the minimum fiction threshold, reducing the volume of fiction within their narratives to a point where a threshold of credibility is reached. Too much fiction and the thing begins to look as unwieldy as a cardboard cake. One has to lower the elements of fiction and screen . . . find the techniques of dealing with one’s subject matter, whether cutting up scientific papers or anything else. Where one eliminates the fictional elements, the number of characters, the events—you try to screen out these elements so that one can make the narrative credible. . . . Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer’s role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.”

–from a 1970 interview with Robert Lightfoot and David Pendleton

Out-imagine everyone else.

“[T]he role of the writer today has totally changed—he is now merely one of a huge army of people filling the environment with fictions of every kind. To survive, he must become far more analytic, approaching his subject matter like a scientist or engineer. If he is to produce fiction at all, he must out-imagine everyone else, scream louder, whisper more quietly. For the first time in the history of narrative fiction, it will require more than talent to become a writer. What special skills, proved against those of their fellow members of society, have Muriel Spark or Edna O’Brien, Kingsley Amis or Cyril Connolly? Sliding gradients point the way to their exits.”

–from “Fictions of Every Kind,” published in a 1971 issue of Books & Bookmen

Consider alternative languages.

“Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.”

–from Ballard’s 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash

Cultivate ambiguity. 

“[O]ne’s become used to these overlong novels in which everything is explained and tidied up. At the heart of every good short story lies a certain ambiguity, a sort of ‘Yes, but.’ That’s very seldom found in novels. And yet this ambiguity is the very stuff of life.”

–in a 2007 interview with Werner Fuchs and Sascha Mamczak, translated by Dan O’Hara

Synchronize your style to your subject.

“For a long time I thought the opposite, but it’s evident that style is determined by the subject. When you take liberties nonetheless, the autobiographical form is constraining, above all if the action rests on autonomous historical events in relation to the characters. Your depiction must of necessity be synchronized with the great clock of History.”

–in a 1985 interview with Magazine Littéraire, translated by Dan O’Hara

Write about the present, even when writing about the future.

“I think the main task of the science fiction writer is to write about his own present; and when he does this, science fiction will at last come of age, and one will have a vital literature, for the first time, that is wholly concerned with the present—and will be that much more real for it.”

–from a speech given at a 1969 science fiction symposium in Rio de Janeiro

But don’t write about the past.

“The social novel is dead. Like all retrospective fiction, it is obsessed with the past, with the roots’ of behaviour and background, with sins of omission and commission long-past, with all the distant antecedents of the present. Most people, thank God, have declared a moratorium on the past, and are more concerned with the present and future, with all the possibilities of their lives. To begin with: the possibilities of musculature and posture, the time and space of our immediate physical environments.”

–from “Notes from Nowhere,” published in a 1966 issue of New Worlds

Keep your day job.

“[Don’t] regard yourself as being anyone special, as having any right to even a modest financial success, because you’re a writer. Also, I’d warn anyone beginning his career, that the days when a writer could have a career, and think of writing fiction as a main lifetime’s activity, are probably over. I think it’s going to be more and more difficult for the novelist and short story writer to make a living of any kind over the next 20 years. All the signs are that fiction sales are sliding downwards continuously. Be very wary about committing yourself entirely to being a writer. I think the writer’s role is very much in decline, at least for the time being.”

–in a 1973 interview published in The Writer

And actually, if you can help it, don’t be a writer at all.

“A lifetime’s experience urges me to utter a warning cry: do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player. Perhaps what’s wrong with being a writer is that one can’t even say ‘good luck’—luck plays no part in the writing of a novel. No happy accidents as with the paint pot or chisel. I don’t think you can say anything, really. I’ve always wanted to juggle and ride a unicycle, but I daresay if I ever asked the advice of an acrobat he would say, ‘All you do is get on and start pedaling . . .’”

–in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

No, really, don’t write.

“Writing a novel is one of those modern rites of passage, I think, that lead us from an innocent world of contentment, drunkenness, and good humor, to a state of chronic edginess and the perpetual scanning of bank statements. By the eighteenth book, one has a sense of having bricked oneself into a niche, a roosting place for other people’s pigeons. I wouldn’t recommend it.”

–in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published November 15, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.