Feeling self-conscious, struggling to translate your thoughts into words, or just not being able to write consistently. If you’re a writer, you’ll be familiar with all of these issues.
The craft of writing is something we shape and hone over a long period of time. Often, the enormity of this task causes us to shudder. “How can I get to that level?” is what we often ask ourselves when reading the work of greats such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.
While it’s incredibly difficult to hit such heights, striving to reach them is a noble task and gives us the potential to create great things.
Taking inspiration from the work of master thinkers can provide writing help to take us to the next level. Often, their musings can be applied to our writing in order to make it more thoughtful, more challenging, or simply better-written.
Take Bertrand Russell, for example: a British philosopher with an unconventional outlook on life. Growing up in Victorian England in the late 19th century, society was firmly entrenched in old-fashioned ideas of class and religion.
But the young Russell rebelled against such notions.
Like a plant turning toward the sun, he aspired for the light of knowledge and understanding the world around him, free from the societal norms of the time. It led him to a lifetime of learning and to a mind like a treasure trove of wisdom.
This fantastic mind is still with us today in the form of more than 60 books (and over 2,000 articles) in which he covers a wide range of topics, from Western philosophy to mathematics to modern languages. In this wealth of material, there is an abundance of knowledge which we can make use of to become better writers.
So, if you’re looking for that jolt of inspiration to resolve your writing issues, take heed of Russell’s pearls of wisdom to help you climb the literary ladder.
“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.’’— The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell(1951)
Most of what we think and write comes from the society we’re part of. Societal constraints lie heavy on our words, pushing us into pigeon-holes and repressing our true feelings. As writers, we often struggle to express radical or even taboo ideas for fear of being ridiculed.
Bertrand Russell was a true eccentric of his time. Imagine being a pacifist when Europe was fighting two world wars (he was even imprisoned for it); being an anti-imperialist at the height of the British Empire; or openly supporting gay rights 40 years before the UK repealed its ban on homosexuality.
By saying these words, Russell wants us to recognise that holding unconventional views is fine; it might just mean you’re the first person to come up with a certain idea. However, it could upset people who are not prepared to accept it into their own worldview.
Russell often cited the words of his friend Albert Einstein, which support this point.
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
Einstein himself was famously unconventional in his thinking and often clashed with powerful figures of his day. These two great minds had strong views and were not afraid to voice them out loud, even if there were dangers attached.
The bottom line: Writers are often considered great because they were visionaries; they saw things long before the average person did. Strive to be one of those writers. Challenge the status quo.
“The fundamental cause of all trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”— Mortals and Others (1996)
The loudest voices are often the ones that get heard. But arrogance isn’t a sign of wisdom, as several modern-day examples prove.
The same fact was true in Russell’s time. The rise of facism in Europe was a consequence of people following the bold claims of authoritarian strongmen—flamboyant speakers with evil ideas, who had the audacity to take center stage and lead the world down a dark path.
In contrast, the very essence of intelligent debate is the awareness that any idea can be challenged and proved wrong. Nobody can or should claim to know the answer to everything; we’re just trying to find the best solution for the time being.
The thing is, an intellectual “umming and ahhing” over an idea doesn’t inspire people in the same way as a brash ringleader promising false visions of a golden future.
But us writers shouldn’t be discouraged, according to Russell. If you have doubts about your work, that’s fine—it means you have the intellect to self-criticize and question what you’ve written.
The danger is that we keep progressive thoughts hidden, and give way to the ill-informed, “cocksure” contributors who dominate the conversation.
The bottom line: Reflect on your work and edit it accordingly, but don’t let doubt stop you from sharing your content. You might be letting fools take your place.
“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”— 1964 interview with the New York Post
Bertrand Russell grew up in a Britain that valued pride above most things. To “keep up appearances” was a big thing in society; people often went to great lengths to look immaculate in public, such as wearing their “Sunday best” even when struggling in poverty.
The great novel of the 19th century, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), shines a light on this world of honor and social status, and points out that an excess of ego can hold a person back, such as in the case of Darcy, whose pride nearly costs him the love of Elizabeth.
Russell sang from a similar hymn sheet to Austen’s. He saw pride, and its cousin stubbornness, as twin dangers. In fact, in A History of Western Philosophy (1945), he went as far as to say that “the intoxication of power” that they both bring is “the greatest danger of our time,” clearly referring to the thinking behind the conflict that had just scarred the world.
By saying this, Russell is stressing the need to be humble. None of us likes to be wrong, of course; it’s human nature. But digging our heels in and refusing to accept reason stops us from progressing, and our writing suffers as a result. Like Darcy in the novel, swallowing our pride can lead to better things.
The bottom line: On the flip side of boldly making yourself heard (Pearl 2), don’t go too far in this direction. We should always look to improve, and to do this we need to accept when we’re wrong. Pride comes before a fall, after all.
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”— The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
The “stream of consciousness” method, used by greats such as Jack Kerouac and Virginia Wolff, is a powerful idea. To directly translate your thoughts onto paper or screen as you write is something of a miracle.
It might seem impossible, but every one of us can try it. Place yourself in front of a blank page, think of a topic, and write everything you can think of for one minute, without stopping.
OK, finished? That’s your very own stream at work. Maybe you’re surprised by how good it is—a lot of people are.
The above is an example of what we can do if we just allow ourselves to write. It should be said that even the likes of Kerouac and Wolff would have scrutinised and edited their work afterward, but to obsess over it lessens its effect. It takes the power away from our original thoughts.
Russell knew that to obsess was dangerous. By saying the words above, he is promoting the idea of thinking intensely, but not letting the activity consume us.
In his book The Conquest of Happiness (1930), he believed the best way to deal with a difficult topic was to think about it intensely for a certain period of time—similar to the creative outburst we experience in the stream of consciousness method—and then to leave it for a while. After some months he would then “return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.”
Here, the philosopher is stressing the importance of devoting time to our work, but that it should be put on the back burner if it becomes too much. Rather than continue to obsess over it, we’ll often come up with fresh ideas after taking a break.
The bottom line: What we write is important to us, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it, but obsessing will cause more harm than good. Take care when researching your work, ensure grammar and punctuation are correct, and proofread it multiple times, but don’t let it consume you.
“Anything you’re good at contributes to happiness.’’—Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind (1969)
Being skilled at something feels good. And if it’s something you love doing, then you’ve found the holy grail.
However, a surprising number of us don’t use our skills in the right way, if at all. Most of us have taken on a dead-end job at one time or another. It pays the bills and puts food on the table. Sometimes we have no other option.
Despite this, Russell believed that we should all devote time to our talents. He often promoted the virtues of hobbies. “A friendly interest in things,’’ he said in The Conquest of Happiness, “is an important way to create the conditions in which happiness can grow.” Russell himself was a keen mathematician who considered Euclidean geometry a pastime from the age of 11, according to his autobiography. Each to their own.
It’s something we should take on board as writers, of course. Even if you’re not a keen Euclidean geometrist, but you’re able to remember the script of Love Actually word-for-word, then write about that. If you’re an expert on Guatemalan geography, then put pen to paper. Often, a topic close to your heart is enough to infuse your fingertips with energy and an unstoppable flow of words.
The bottom line: Engaging with this inner flair, however obscure it may be, is a surefire path to a contented soul. And contented souls are often the ones that go on to produce great things. Write about something you’re good at; it’ll make you and your readers happy.
While our creative process may seem like a minefield of confused thoughts and inconsistent writing at times, these issues can be overcome.
Words of wisdom from the finest minds in history can help us immensely, and Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for knowledge and truth marks him out as a great source of inspiration.
Putting his advice into practice will help you to become a more thoughtful, considered writer.
Be bold enough to do what makes you happy, even if it means you stand out from the crowd. But bear in mind that your work isn’t so important that you need to lose sleep over it—learning and writing are continuous processes; what we believe today, we may not tomorrow.
Daniel Marriott graduated from Birmingham City University, UK, with a degree in Accounting and Management. After deciding balance sheets weren’t for him, he trained to become an English teacher in Spain and later a content writer. Now living in Galicia, northern Spain, he is fluent in Spanish, cooks a mean tortilla española and dreams of owning a roof terrace. Find him on Medium to read more of his work.