The cheapest art

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I said in an interview with another author that the greatest lesson I’ve learned in life is that the best way to get better at something is to do it, and do it, and do it again, and keep doing it until you actually are better.

The problem – apart from the frustration of not being better yet – is that doing something over and over can get expensive. Lessons, kit, entrance fees, instruments. Most arts require equipment, tools, raw materials. Canvas, paints, fabric, metal, yarn, thread, chisels, saw blades, goodness knows what.

And if you’re doing something over and over again, you use up more and more of the raw materials, and the chances are you’ll ruin quite a bit of it.

Then – generally speaking – the better you get, the more sophisticated your tools need to be, and you start wanting to work with raw materials of higher quality. Of course, a skilled artist can make something wonderful out of indifferent ingredients, but they will make something better out of better ingredients.

I started out making jewellery with an ordinary sewing needle and some seed beads that had been reclaimed (I assume; I didn’t do the reclaiming) from some evening dress. Proper beading needles were a revelation: they would actually fit through the hole in the bead. The first specialist equipment I bought was a set of three pairs of miniature pliers, which probably cost about a fiver. They were all very well in 2009, but as I got better I started wanting to do more, and I needed more in order to do that. These days I have another, decently sized, set of pliers, and a jig. I use silver wire as well as silver-coloured, and I throw in lapis lazuli alongside blue glass. I’d like to have sheet silver and a pendant drill and a blowtorch or three, and mandrels and a supply of saw blades that will last out until I learn how not to snap them.

Getting good at things takes time. It is also very likely to take space, and money.

But that doesn’t have to happen with writing. Well, the ‘time’ part does, but not so much the ‘space’ or the ‘money’. I’m still ambitious and I still enjoy experimenting – but writing looks pretty much the same. When I was eleven I wrote in a spiral bound notebook with a fountain pen. I’m still using a spiral bound notebook and a fountain pen. These days I also use word processing software, I’ll admit, but it’s not what makes the difference between good writing and bad.

Because words are words. If I write, for example,

‘It’s weird, isn’t it?’ Lydia said. ‘Waiting. Waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy and justice to finish grinding so that we can get on with our lives.’

you can’t tell whether I wrote that on the back of an envelope or on an expensive Mac. And I can’t excuse bad writing by telling you that the kit I wrote it on cost a lot of money.

The wonderful thing is that words are free. I can throw them in willy-nilly and pull them out again without having to worry about waste. I can make a long string of adjectives and delete it without a second thought. I can pick words up in the street just because I like the sound of them, and use them over and over again. I don’t have to save them for a special piece, the way I would a particularly lovely piece of jasper.

Oh, there are things that have made it easier. An English Literature degree, for example, has really helped in understanding how to take texts apart, and, by extension, how to put my own ones together. A childhood in a house filled to the gunwales with books, swimming in words and meeting them as equals, claiming them as my inheritance. Friends who write and who talk about writing.

But there’s nothing particularly special about what I do. I put in the time, that’s all. I use the words that are hanging around, and I don’t worry about where the next ones are coming from. And I write and write and write until I get better.

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