Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Author of Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day, and The Buried Giant, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature marked a pinnacle in Kazuo Ishiguro’s inspiring and prolific career. There’s much we can learn from his writing methods and philosophy, so let’s jump right in.
1. Write your story first, then your style
Ishiguro has an interesting solution for the writers’ quandary Anne Lamott dubbed ‘sh**ty first drafts’. Write them with pen and paper, in a script illegible to anyone else, and get the story out at all costs. Here are his words on the subject:
The rough draft is a big mess. I pay no attention to anything to do with style or coherence. I just need to get everything down on paper. If I’m suddenly struck by a new idea that doesn’t fit with what’s gone before, I’ll still put it in. I just make a note to go back and sort it all out later. Then I plan the whole thing out from that. I number sections and move them around. By the time I write my next draft, I have a clearer idea of where I’m going. This time round, I write much more carefully.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, interview with The Paris Review
This technique parallels what many authors have recommended: don’t self-edit as you write (at least not the first time through).Try to mix editing and writing and you make both jobs harder.Click To Tweet
In a lecture to a Creative Writing class at Pembroke, Ishiguro reportedly said that writing is ‘not a pleasure’ and goes on to describe his tools for persistence and self-discipline. It’s important for writers to push through valleys of discontent to achieve the summits of success and self-satisfaction.
In addition, Ishiguro recounts how the BBC rejected a radio play of his. He later used the script as part of his application to the same M.A. program that Ian McEwan had attended. His acceptance into this program essentially launched his writing career. There will be valleys of rejection – possibly long, arduous ones. Don’t take rejections as signals that you’re not going to succeed; use them as prompts to seek feedback and continue to improve.
3. Immerse yourself in the world you’re writing
This quote from Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go resonates with many of us writers:
Sometimes I get so immersed in my own company, if I unexpectedly run into someone I know, it’s a bit of a shock and takes me a while to adjust.
While this is the narrator’s voice, we can see the experience reflected in Ishiguro’s process for writing The Remains of the Day:
I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and… do nothing but write from 9am to 10:30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitatively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, interview with The Guardian
It may be coming from a character, but this is the process that works for Ishiguro, and it may work for you. Sometimes, it’s necessary to really submerge yourself in your work, whether that means a dedicated writing space, specialist software, or even a writers’ retreat.Sometimes, you have to submerge yourself in your work to make real progress.Click To Tweet
4. Take a break
At the same time, Ishiguro acknowledges the value of rest. Perhaps his counter-response to his own rigid writing schedule for The Remains of the Day is encapsulated in a passage from the book itself: ‘The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.’
For the writing of other books, he took an entirely different tack:
I don’t write every day; it depends on where I am in the project. For the rough draft it’s counterproductive if I do it for too long; if I write more than 5–6 pages a day my work afterwards is substandard.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, lecture at Pembroke
Moral of the story? Try different ways of writing. You might be surprised that your comfort zone isn’t the most effective. Or a change of pace might inject some energy into your go-to method.Finding the most effective way to write may mean leaving your comfort zone.Click To Tweet
5. Draw from everywhere (but beware)
As he told The Paris Review, Ishiguro was initially inspired by songwriters:
The Canadian that influenced me perhaps the most in my writing is probably Leonard Cohen, his songs… He had a profound influence on my growing up and my turning to writing… Leonard Cohen along with Bob Dylan were great influences on me and had a lot to do with my wanting to be a writer.
In another case, he recounts a joke that his wife told about him pretending to be a butler. The joke turned into Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
He also admits, ‘When I’m writing, I don’t like to read novels. I read nonfiction. I don’t like to read novels, because I do find it infectious.’ So be open to surprising sources of inspiration, but if you are drawing influence from fiction, be careful (and beware cryptomnesia).
6. Roll with the punches
There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, in Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro by Lewis Burke Frumkes
In reflecting on how life might have been different had he been raised in his native Japan rather than England, Ishiguro expresses this simple and action-driven (‘I am having’ rather than ‘I have’) attitude of acceptance. We see this reflected in his writing as well:
What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world. People’s opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?
– Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
Let go of rejections, frustrations, obstacles, writers’ block, bad reviews, bossy agents, critical friends, and failed projects. Breathe in, accept, move on. Make your contribution.
7. You don’t have to know everything (but you must add value)
People’s willingness to accept their perceptions as reality can be very useful when composing a book. It doesn’t absolve you of the need to research, particularly tech-heavy books and historical fiction, but it does enable you to take shortcuts. Here’s Ishiguro on taking advantage of cultural stereotypes:
So when writing a book like The Remains of the Day, it’s not that I have a thorough knowledge of what servants’ lives were like in the 1930s. What I do know is that there is kind of an international myth about the English butler and English country life that is one that has been fed all around the world, not through highbrow history books, but through popular culture. It’s the butler as stereotype from plays, books and movies, and it’s that stereotype, the myth that I’m able, then, to tap into and manipulate.
He adds that the novel must offer a deeper experience, one that ‘cannot be easily replicated sitting in front of a movie screen or a TV screen.’ His method is to offer character complexity that rises above the stereotype that a literary world might be built on, in order to comment on the human condition:
Even if they’re gangsters, they seem to want to tell themselves they’re good gangsters and they’re loyal gangsters, they’ve fulfilled their ‘gangstership’ well. We do seem to have this moral sense, however it’s applied, whatever we think. We don’t seem satisfied, unless we can tell ourselves by some criteria that we have done it well and we haven’t wasted it and we’ve contributed well.
While fascinated with this inherent moral drive, Ishiguro laments that ‘most of us are not equipped with any vast insight into the world around us.’ Poised to offer insights into the world, authors may benefit from Ishiguro’s advice to a) take advantage of stereotypes to build a world more efficiently and b) build something deeper into that world.Good authors rise above stereotypes and assumptions, but they also know how to use them.Click To Tweet
…if you are under the impression you have already perfected yourself, you will never rise to the heights you are no doubt capable of.
…if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations [make our small contribution count for something true and worthy], surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
I could keep discussing Kazuo Ishiguro’s potential influence for days, but I’ll end with his own reassurances, as captured in the poetic snippets above: be humble, never stop growing, act in hope, and keep on keeping on. Let me know your favorite piece of Ishiguro’s advice below, and for more great advice, check out 6 Ways Salman Rushdie Can Improve Your Writing and 5 Ways Maya Angelou Can Improve Your Writing.