Write without thinking, I tell my students.

I am giving a small writing workshop. I love doing this, and dread it; find it thrilling and draining. It’s oddly hard work, and I have to go and sit very still afterwards, but it is also intensely rewarding, because I watch people gradually let go of their terrors and start to believe in themselves.

Write without thinking sounds idiotic, even impossible. But it can nearly be done. It’s about vanquishing the dark destructive voices, the ones that say you are no good; the ones that stop the fingers moving over the keyboard. Write without thinking is all about getting the stalled mind moving: don’t edit, don’t pause, don’t ponder – just trust your instinct and go.

I got this from the great Dorothea Brande, who wrote possibly the best book on writing of them all. Becoming a Writer was published in 1934 and is still as fresh as ten fields full of daisies. Her idea was that in order to shut off those ghastly, shouty, you’re-no-damn-good voices, to bash through cultural hesitations and imposed politesse, you should roll out of bed each morning and, before you were half awake, write for twenty minutes without stopping. Her contention was that in this way you could tap the gold within. It was a sort of automatic writing, and was supposed to build up the habit of allowing the real creative to rip, without those wagging fingers getting in the way.

I did this faithfully all the way through my twenties, when I wanted only to be a writer and had no idea how to do it. I came out of racing; I knew no poets or playwrights. I could tell you how to muck out a box or clean a double bridle, but I knew nothing of narrative structure. So I bought all the books. How to write, How to be a Writer, How to Write and Get Paid for It, The Art of Fiction, On Writing Well; I still have them now, their dear old heads drooping on the shelf, their spines yellow and cracked from use.

The funny thing is that now I am passing on that accumulated wisdom to my students. I can tell them about writing partly because I have done it for twenty years. I have been round the block. But it turns out it is my special subject because I read all those books, over and over, as the eighties gave way to the nineties, when I was making it up as I went along. There’s some kind of pleasing symmetry in that.

The kind, wise people who walked beside me when I was callow and ignorant now inform a new set of questioners. So I tell my students of Brande, and Anne Lamott (‘bird by bird, buddy; bird by bird’) and William Goldman (‘nobody knows anything’) and Ray Bradbury and Stephen King and William Zinsser. I don’t tell them about Strunk and White, because everyone should read Strunk and White, even if they are just writing a letter, and I don’t like stating the obvious.

They are my old friends, these writing books, my faithful compadres who kept me going when I couldn’t remember how to do it. Stephen King is perhaps the most surprising. I never read his fiction because I’m too much of a wimp for horror, but he wrote one of the best books about how to write I ever found, in the days when I was digging around in bookshops looking for salvation. It is tender and stern and very, very true. And I pass it on, all this accumulated wisdom, which is not really my own, and my students smile and nod and take notes, and one day one of them may write something remarkable.