“Have you got any tips for aspiring writers?”

“How do I go about writing a book?”

“Can anyone learn how to write?”

OK. Deep breath. Here is what my mind says when I’m asked these questions:

Would you ask an Olympic sprinter for tips? Would you ask them how to run, or if anyone can learn how to run as fast as them? No, because you know that such an athlete has trained for years and years to get where they are in their career. So why should it be any different for a writer?

Of course, if you and I met at a party, say, and you asked me one of the questions above, I would not answer so rudely. I would probably still take a deep breath. And then I’d quote another writer, such as Neil Gaiman who said that, “The person who is most likely to succeed as a writer is the one who gets up and polishes a chair with their bottom for hours every day”. Or – my favourite – Margaret Atwood, who said, “Show up, show up, show up, and the Muse will too.” Perhaps the best tip of all could be shared with the Olympic sprinter, who might quote Nike’s “Just do it!” If it were that easy though, we would all be beating Dina Asher-Smith or Christian Coleman or writing that novel that everyone allegedly has in them. Wouldn’t we?

For me, writing is a fight. A fight for space, for time, for peace, for energy. A fight against the negative voices that tell me, “You are useless and you’ll never write another book, and in any case, why would you want to? There are enough of them out there already.” It’s a fight to get the words out, even when they don’t want to come. It’s a fight to hold on to that fleeting idea I had yesterday which I know will come good if only I can chase it down.

It’s a fight because writing is hard work. It requires days, weeks, months, years of training. You are always learning, always putting in the mileage, always trying to beat your personal best. You could spend those days and weeks and months and years in dreaming about writing, sure. You could dream of creating the perfect writing environment, of saving for the perfect desk, the perfect writer’s shed. You could dream for that moment when all the stars are finally aligned and you’ll be ready to sit down and write. You could do all these things, but if you never “show up”, don’t expect the Muse to either.

Say you do show up. And say that days and weeks and months – even years – go by and nothing happens. The words still fall flat, the sentences don’t land true. Should you give up? It depends. How much do you want this?

All I know is that after a while – and this “while” is no defined amount of time – if I’m lucky, if I’ve put in enough hours and enough dedication, if I’ve proved to the Muse that I am dedicated and loyal, there will come a time when she does show up. She will arrive, unexpectedly and unannounced, in all her golden glory, and time will lose its normal rhythm and hours will flee by as minutes and I’ll forget to eat or drink or go to the loo or change my clothes. My family will cease to exist for me, the dog will not get walked and the laundry and washing up will sit in piles. And I won’t care! Because I will have hit “flow”.

When you’re in flow it doesn’t matter that you haven’t got a writer’s room or a writer’s chair or a writer’s pen or notebook or special coffee mug. You could be sitting on a rock in a howling gale wearing your pyjamas and you’d keep going. When you’re in flow, the words pour out of you like liquid silver and you are euphoric: you have hit the sweet spot! This is it! Nothing else matters!

You write anywhere and everywhere and all the time when you are in flow. You write on the train, in the bath, standing up, lying down, on a bench, on a beach, in the park – hell, even on the loo. Being in flow is like being in love when you can’t get enough of one another, and being together is like drinking long and deep from the most delicious, most intoxicating wine you’ve ever tasted. It’s free-wheeling downhill on your bike when you were ten. It’s flying through the air on a zip wire. It’s the most exhilarating funfair ride of your life. And you’re not going to stop, oh no. You’ve got it now. This is what you have trained for. THIS is what it feels like to Be A Writer. This is The Writing Life, and you are never going to let it go.

What can I tell you? You will let it go. Because, just like that love affair or that bike ride or that rollercoaster, flow doesn’t last. If it did last, we wouldn’t survive it. No one can sustain that amount of adrenaline for ever. If we stayed in flow, we’d be sitting on that rock in a gale until we were washed away. We’d be caught up in a relationship that turns toxic, cuts us off from our friends and family and interferes with our thoughts so much that we become absent-minded and forget to sleep.

But when flow goes, as go it must, we mustn’t forget what it felt like. For it’s the promise of flow that keeps us going on the dark days when the words are refusing to budge. When you are chipping away at a lump of granite, despairing at ever getting to the perfectly sculptured image you just know lies within. When you are grinding out the sentences and they are not joining up, not making sense. Not. Going. Anywhere.

Sometimes, when things get really bad, you need to give yourself a break. It’s all very well saying “write every day” but that writing doesn’t have to be another chapter. Sometimes just showing up for your journal is enough to keep the writing muscle from atrophying. Some days an athlete needs to go for a walk instead of a 10-mile run.

If you can’t write, if the words won’t come at all, if you’re angry and crying with frustration, then read instead. Reading is a form of writing for the writer’s brain – it is the equivalent of stretching for the sprinter. As long as you come to the book or poem or essay with grace; as long as you dive in as though taking a plunge into some calm, flat, mirror-smooth lake, you’ll be fine. Sink into someone else’s words for a while. Be grateful for them. Let them roll over you, let them buoy you up. Turn your face to the sky and smile as the words spool through you. Let them feed you.

And then, once you’ve had enough of your reading holiday and you feel your own words stirring in you again, turn back to the blank page and spill them out. Just a little, every day. Go gently. Go quietly. Show up, show up, show up. And the Muse will too.