You may have heard the story about Hunter S. Thompson: how he sat down and retyped the whole of The Great Gatsby on a borrowed typewriter, hoping that it would unlock the secret of Fitzgerald’s style.
I scoffed when I first heard this – the methods people come up with to waste time! Someone give the man some filing to do! – but actually I’m in no position to judge. When I was seventeen, I read Beloved four times and made detailed notes in a special book – bought for the purpose – on Toni Morrison’s stylistic quirks. I was hoping to absorb enough to be able to write as well as she did. This wasn’t a total waste of time (though it was an unusual activity to engage in, and I have judiciously opted to keep it to myself until now). If nothing else, it helps to be aware of what some writers can make words do, of the possibilities out there, whether or not you can pull them off yourself. It fosters ambition. So hats off to you, Hunter S. Thompson, you total weirdo.
I’ve never been on a creative writing course, and I sometimes think it might have been helpful. But there’s a peculiar kind of fun in attempting to work it all out on your own. I decided when I was fairly young that the only way you can learn to write is by copying other people. That, coupled with some kind of weird intuition that tells you how the sentences should sound. Even putting aside the Toni Morrison debacle, I have spent a lot of time trying to crack the code of good writing through a careful process of theft and emulation. This has led to some strange phases in the past (not least among them my Hunter S. Thompson phase, which I was in no way equipped for; when others were out experimenting with drugs, I was making colour-coded notes in my special Toni Morrison notebook).
Another odd phase: I briefly took to carrying around with me a ‘writing handbook’ (I can’t remember what it was called, but it had a white cover and red and gold lettering; my mum picked it up for 99p in a discount store, which should have been a tip-off). I slogged through about half of it, telling myself I was learning the tools of the trade, before finally acknowledging that my new awareness of the importance of ‘The Quest’, ‘The Twist’ and ‘The Resolution’ was not actually helping.
I chucked the handbook away and returned to real books. Better to read other writers – good writers – and study what they do well. I was especially drawn to what I thought of as ‘cold’ writers, by which I mainly mean ‘restrained’: sparse sentences and laconic dialogue. Damon Galgut was a particular revelation, as was J.G. Ballard. I thought I could learn to write like them, but, as it turned out, I couldn’t. They did teach me, however, the importance of holding back, that what’s going on under the surface is more potent than what’s made explicit.
Reading English at university was probably useful, too. As with my painstaking study of Beloved, reading as widely as you can gives you an idea of what’s possible. Which is everything.
Beyond that, I still have no idea what I’m doing. Emulation only gets you so far. The bad news is that however much you try to imitate Damon Galgut, you can only ever write like yourself.
 Some people may say this is also the good news. But those people are probably Damon Galgut.