V. S. Naipaul’s
Advice on Writing

18 March 2024

Writer on a Boat Jeremy Bassetti via Dall-E
A Writer on a Boat

The second chapter of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival is called “The Journey,” and in it we begin to get a sense of what the book is all about. Like the title suggests, the chapter is an account of Naipaul’s journey from his homeland of Trinidad to England, where an Oxford education awaited him. But the chapter doesn’t just chart his travels from one place to another. It is also a thinly-veiled autobiographical journey in his pursuit of becoming a writer, one in which Naipaul offers advice to young authors by challenging that old chestnut of writerly wisdom, to “write what you know,” calling on us instead to write who we are.

When the young Naipaul went to England, he knew he wanted to be a writer. And yet, like many a budding writer, he embraced a writerly persona and tried to fit into a mold of what he believed a cosmopolitan writer should be. He called this early persona his “writing personality,” which in his case involved covering “metropolitan material” and topics “a worldly writer should write about.”

This might be a rite of passage among young writers: the temptation to adopt voices and personas that ultimately belie our origins, truths, and identities. Or, perhaps it is the temptation to think about ourselves as writers above all else, leaning into a writerly facade too heavily and away from our true selves. How many of us (men, mostly) have had a Hemingway or Kerouac phase? How many of us imagined ourselves as a modern-day Keats?

Unfortunately for Naipaul, this mask covered his real identity and created a tension, a dissonance within. It was, in Naipaul’s words, a “disturbance” and a “distortion” of the self, one that he described as “a gap between the man and the writer.” He later referred to this as “fraudulent,” “falsifying things.”

“I had to pretend to be other than I was, other than what a man of my background could be,” Naipaul confessed.

Then Naipaul had an epiphany.

After five years of posturing in England, five years of “hiding myself from my true experience, hiding my experience from myself,” Naipaul abandoned his manufactured persona and embraced his true self. “Concealing this colonial-Hindu self below the writing personality,” Naipaul wrote, “I did both my material and myself much damage.” His subject shifted from some idea of “metropolitan material” to “the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in.” This is when “man and writer came together again.”

I see Naipaul here offering a kind of advice to the young and struggling writer. “Don’t think of yourself as a writer,” I imagine him saying. “Instead, think of yourself as a person, an individual with a complicated set of experiences and contexts.” When we embrace who we are, we can write from an authentic place. And that, ultimately, is a place that helps us “write what you know.” This process is not about simplifying the self to fit a narrative, ideal, or persona. Rather, it is about allowing the fullness of our identity to inform and enrich our work.

“A writer’s greatest discovery,” Naipaul said, is when we realize “man and writer were the same person.”

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