I had a writing mentor when I was younger, Mrs. M. She used to say, "Don't just write about the nice stuff; take on the yukky bits too."
We all have times in our lives when we've done something we're not proud of.
Perhaps we've really hurt another person through our actions or words.
Maybe we broke Aunt May's precious china poodle, worth a million dollars, when we were staying over one weekend, tried to glue it back together, failed, stuck it in the garbage and never fessed up.
And then there are those deep secrets we have that we hold close, never wanting them to see the light of day. It would be too humiliating, too devastating, to write about them, just too difficult. We might hurt someone else, too, if we let them out of their box.
Natalie Goldberg offers some good advice in her book Old Friend From Far Away:
Go for the jugular, for what makes you nervous. Otherwise, you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. It's that large animal that makes your living room unique and interesting.
When we write about those things that are personally difficult, Natalie goes on to say that we're actually building up a tolerance for what we cannot bear. If you start out by writing down frightening things and then tearing up the paper, that's OK. Keep going and keep tearing it up if you want to until you arrive at a point where Natalie says 'chew it up and swallow.' It's good practice.
The more you challenge yourself to 'go for the jugular' in your writing, the more willing - and able - you will be to go to those dark, secret places, and the richer your writing will become.
Here's an exercise suggested by our Natalie: Make a list of the things you should not write about - then systematically go down the list, take ten minutes on each one, and 'let it rip.'
Sometimes we want to write about people we have lost who were close to us.
Author Jonas Hassen Khemiri says in a recent interview with The New Yorker: "What kind of memories do we cling on to? ... Whenever I have lost someone, my first impulse has been to try to collect all my memories of that person and write them down. Almost as if in a naïve attempt to render them immortal."
Khemiri's words make me think of the need we have to remember that person in our words, the feverish impulse we experience to write everything down, to capture the person and keep them alive in our memories.
I have been working on a book about my Mom who passed away in 2010. I have to say that the words have not come in an impulsive rush. They have been slow to arrive, and it is not easy writing, but it is something I need to do.
The last thing I bought Mom before she passed away was a bottle of L'air de Temps fragrance. It was a strange request from her, as she'd always been a Chanel No. 5 kind of gal. I sometimes think it was the fancy bottle that had attracted her in the past as I know she had worn this fragrance from time to time.
My mother had always stressed the importance of perfume. "I'd spend my last dime on a bottle of good perfume," she'd say, "so that I could at least smell expensive."
We were clearing her room at the hospital after she had passed away and I saw the L'air du Temps on the table. I took it home with me and I still have it. The perfume is rather stale now, but it does still have that delightful, flowery lightness that uplifted my Mom and made her feel good. Whenever I take off the top and smell it, I think of her.
There are so many ways we can remember people in our writing - we can describe them, how they looked, what they said and believed; or, like magpies, we can collect things, objects that when seen, can evoke memories of the person to whom they belonged.
Expect the unexpected. Be ready to let memories flow, triggered by the most extraordinary circumstances, events, chance meetings, 'blasts from the past.' Write the stories that come to your mind. Here's one.
Back in the late 70's I worked at McFarlane's Fisheries, packing oceans of schnapper for export and earning money for university. McFarlane's was located across the road from Auckland's Victoria Park on the corner of Fanshawe and Halsey Sts.
I did it for a couple of summers, and occasionally on weekends during the year. The pay was pretty good for the time, but the work wasn't that nice. Every morning we'd put on a white smock, a funny hairnet hat thing, white gumboots, ankle-length plastic apron, and rubber gloves, then tromp out onto the floor to begin work for the day.
Trucks would bring fresh fish up from the wharves and dump their loads out on the concrete floor. The fish lay there in their own slime amidst a sludge of brown, melting ice. We had to bend down, grab them by their tails, and fling them, according to size, into the appropriate plastic bin.
Slime flew as the fish sailed through the air. Our arms become puckered with their scales. We also had wooden picks (just a piece of wood with a sharp nail point protruding from the end) to snag the fish with. We were told never to puncture the eyes, as this was part of the fish's allure for the Asian market. The fish were then placed into steel trays, loaded onto trolleys, and carted down to a huge blast freezer where they were frozen solid. Then these blocks of whole fish would be packed into boxes and shipped off to Japan.
At the time McFarlane's was also researching the health benefits of the green-lipped mussel, producing a product called Seatone which is still widely available. I seem to remember it had particular benefits for arthritic joints. McFarlane's had an old boat called the Shenandoah, taking researchers and employees out to the mussel farm in the Hauraki Gulf and one day, two of us were asked to go along and paint the inside of the cabin while under way. Stuck below with diesel fumes and no ventilation, we cared little about the suffering because it was extra pay and out of the packing shed for the day.
John Croft, one of the scientist/researchers, was on board that day. He was a young Englishman, very exuberant and so friendly and cheerful, good looking too. We all liked him very much because he was such fun. I saw him a few times after that until my time at McFarlane's ended.
Flash forward to the Dairy Flat Blues Club jam night, 2016. An older gentleman comes to play his guitar and sing old favourites like 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown'. I admit I can rarely remember names, but I do have a good memory for faces and this guy looked familiar. It was like those crime shows on TV, where they enter the photo of a criminal, and watch while the system flips through thousands of faces until it hits upon a match. Eventually, my mind locked it in.
"Are you John Croft?" I asked. "Yes," he replied. "Did you work at McFarlane's Fisheries back in the 70's?" "Yes I did." "I did too," I said, and I told him about my time in the shed flinging fish, painting the Shenandoah, and the Seatone.
John passed away a week or so ago. He hadn't been to jam night for a while, and we'd heard that he was unwell and in hospice. I will miss John. He still had all of those lovely aspects to his personality that I remember from that diesel-fumed day on the Shenandoah when I first met him: kindness, generosity of spirit, sense of humour, fun, good looks (yes indeed!) and a vigour and zest for life that never let up, not once.
And isn't it funny, that life should turn us both up again, in the same place, at the same time, so many years later, where we could have a laugh about that fish place, the old boat, the mussels and the McFarlanes themselves (both father and son were real characters). I can't say I knew John well, but he was a person I never forgot.
Yeah I know - I can hear you already. "There she is again, going on again about keeping a daily journal." Sigh ....
As you may have guessed, I advocate for daily journal writing as a valuable tool for writers, because I believe this practice will make you a better writer. Yes. Honest.
Why do I say this? Here are five reasons:
1. Part of writing is collecting inspiration, being a magpie, gathering sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings, and writing about them in our journal, thus honing our ability to bring situations to life for our readers through observation and sensory description.
2. We meet people most days - some we know well, others we don't - writing down these encounters in our journal can give us ideas for characters in our writing. Maybe the encounter is joyous, sad, tense, ridiculous, unexpected ... all good grist for the writing mill.
3. Newspaper articles, magazine snippets and photos included in the journal can provide story ideas and help get us through the dreaded 'writer's block.'
4. Drawing in your journal can be good therapy. It can help to ease our creativity out when the muse is hiding. You don't have to be an artist. Just the act of drawing can suffice.
5. Sometimes when we're out and about, we might hear bits of conversation ... one time in Seattle Washington, many years ago, walking in Pioneer Square, my friend and I overheard two women talking about something peculiar that had happened to one of them and the other said, "Well, that was nothing but a fig on your imagination." Did she mean to say 'a figment of your imagination'? Little phrases that catch in our minds can be used when creating dialogue.
And another thing. Keeping a journal can help you learn more about you, the writer, and the more you understand what makes you tick, the better your writing will become.
Have a go. Find something you like writing in/on (notebook, tablet) and a comfortable place to write, make a time each day to sit down - even if it's only for a few minutes because it's the habit, the regularity, that counts - and begin. Write about anything you like. You'll be surprised by what might come out.
"In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it." --Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
So said American novelist Ernest Hemingway.
And writing can be like that. It flows effortlessly one day, but the next our creativity is encased in solid rock that needs to be drilled and blasted to let our brave words and phrases be free.
I have often wondered why this is. Sometimes I can attribute it to tiredness, general fatigue, either physical or with the world in general. Everything is just too hard. Life is impossible, the world is horrid, I want to crawl into a hole and pull blankets over my head.
On days like this, I will sit down with a truly gruesome murder mystery to read about people who are worse off than me (usually dead) and I don't get any writing done. I give up and say, as Scarlett O'Hara did in Gone With the Wind after shooting dead a Union soldier in the foyer of her war-wrecked, once grand plantation home Tara, and wondering what to do with the body: "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."
Other days the inspiration just won't come - but that's no excuse to pack it in for the day, no sir. I know that if I wait for the muse to visit, I won't write another thing as long as I live. I get around this one by walking about in the front yard (if the sun is out), or talking to the cat if she's inside, or I'll make a cup of tea. Distraction. Takes my mind off the no-inspiration problem for just long enough for me to return to the keyboard, mind refreshed.
And on those days when I sit down to write something and I can't think of a thing to write about, I use that old stand by, the weather. That has always been my kick-starter. A cloudy day can remind me of a walk on the beach with a friend on either side, supporting me during a time of recovery from illness; a day of sunshine brings back our maiden voyage in a small sailboat, my friend and I 11 years old, off the Murrays Bay beach, getting blown way out and then not knowing how to turn around ('come about'); thunder reminds me of a time in the north Georgia mountains (USA) working as a courier, delivering a package in the country store of a small rural town as the thunder rolled presaging a summer storm and the lady behind the counter saying, "Here it comes a-thunder boomin' again."
What works for you? Drills? Blasting powder? Murder books? Ice cream?
Or all of the above?
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
So said author Virginia Woolf in her book A Room of One's Own.
These days, most of us will probably have a room ... but the money can be a problem for any writer, let alone just women fiction writers.
Where do you write?
Jane Austen wrote at a spindly little table whose top was the size of a dinner plate. Virginia wrote at a simple desk in a converted tool shed in the garden that was so cold in winter she could barely hold her pen, and JK Rowling scribbled out the ideas for Harry Potter while delayed on a train.
The places where we write are as individual as we are. Above is a photo of my writing space with a desk we made out of an old door, tacked into a corner of my living room. I face the wall when working so as not to be tempted by the view of the Hauraki Gulf which is to my right. Betsy the cat likes to sit up on the top of my printer and watch me while I tap away. It suits me. Under the desk are files in red plastic storage things and behind me is a set of shelves with all manner of books. I like this space because it gets plenty of natural light and I can spread out. The only thing I don't like so much is it's in the middle of my living room. It would be better, I think, if I worked in a room I could walk out of and close the door on at the end of the day.
But that's a minor problem indeed.
Finding a comfortable working space is important for your writing. Not only is it a practical necessity (i.e. you really do need a table and a chair, bare minimum) but it's a place you can call your own, for your writing life. Feeling secure in your writing environment will in turn lead to good productivity, which will then turn into money.
Of course it will. Having a room of one's own is a good place to start.
Ever since Herman Melville began his novel Moby Dick with the words, "Call me Ishmael" authors have wrestled with that all-important first line.
Who can forget Charles Dickens beginning A Tale of Two Cities with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." or Orwell's quote from 1984.
Ah yes, that first line - how we agonise over it - and I wonder if Charles, Herman and George worried over theirs or if they just thought, "You know what? I'm going to start my book like this."
I enjoy browsing in bookstores and in Auckland we're blessed with some great ones like The Women's Bookshop in Ponsonby, Time Out in Mt Eden and the fabulous Unity Books in High St. I'm a magpie when it comes to book covers - I'm attracted to flashy ones. That's the first thing that catches my eye. The title is right up there too - it's a contest over which gets me first.
I'll pick up the book and the next thing I do is turn to the first page and read the first few sentences. If they don't grab me, down it goes and I'm foraging again.
The other day in the library I picked up a book called Shelter In Place by Alexander Maksik. True to form, it was the cover that attracted me - a picture of misty pine trees in colours of grey and white. It reminded me of the Pacific Northwest where I was born and indeed lived for a number of years and sure enough, the blurb inside the cover said it was set there. Then I went to the opening line and here's what it was: "In the summer of 1991 my mother beat a man to death with a twenty-two ounce Estwing hammer and I fell in love with Tess Wolff."
Gotcha. Right away I wanted to know why his Mom killed some guy with a hammer and who is Tess Wolff.
First lines are even more important in shorter items, like magazine articles and essays. Each sentence must induce the reader to keep going: first sentence leads to second, second to third and so on. There's a bit more leeway in a novel but still that opening will hook the reader in ... or not.
And you must keep the promise to the reader that you make in the opening line. Mr. Maksik's book does, but it is a bit of a ramble and somewhat repetitive so I can't say hand on heart that he delivers to my satisfaction as a reader but he does deliver. There's nothing worse than reading through a book, feeling progressively disappointed and let down, and if you do make it to the end, thinking, "What a swizz! The writer never really told me who murdered who, or why."
So writing a good beginning can take skill, and time, crafting the all important hook that will interest your reader right from the start. We're all different in how we approach that first line; sometimes we'll write it after we've finished the book, maybe it comes first as the inspiration for the entire work.
However it comes, make it good, irresistible, kick-ass. Entice your reader to keep going, entertain him/her with the freshness of your words and the originality of your ideas, surprise us, engage us, make us think, and lead us by the nose into your book.
So said 19th century American novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Truer words have never been spoken. When you read writing that flows, words that engage you and you're in love with, I would say, hand on heart, that hours of meticulous and hard work went into creating it.
Because great writing doesn't happen by accident.
I first started writing stories when I was at high school, long, rambling tomes. I called them my 'Downfall Series'. There was The Downfall of Ferguson the Fiendish, The Downfall of Dawn the Dastardly, and The Downfall of Huntley the Heretic. The stories were populated with my school mates, teachers we didn't like (they were the villains), the fanciest cars imaginable (we all, magically, had our drivers' licences and roared about in Triumph Spitfires) and the most elegant and captivating locations my 13-year-old mind could imagine, like the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Container Terminal and the fancy wine bar on K Road.
I progressed to writing short stories and plays and by the time I was 16, I was getting serious about things. My best friend's Mum was a writer. She had written for newspapers too, had a journalist's eye for stories, and editing the writing down to extract those magic words that flow so effortlessly on the page was her forte. She took me under her wing.
Most Saturday afternoons I would sit at the dining table with her, show her my work, and she would set to with a red pen, slashing and burning just about every word.
I was devastated because I thought my creation was perfect in every way. How dare she presume to tell me otherwise? But I didn't protest. I took it on the chin but wow, I suffered inside, and my creative ego took a bruising.
Over time, I learned, saw what she was doing, what she was getting at, and the slashings became fewer. My mentoring with her went on for several years and into my adulthood. I would send her pieces of writing from wherever I was living (we did things by post back then!), she would do an edit and send it back.
So I learned early on that good writing is hard work.
Sure, when we're getting something down, in the full flush of creativity, we can't be too concerned with editing and how things sound or look. It's about capturing it on the page so we have that raw material to craft into those fine, fabulous words. And that's where the hard work, the real writing, begins.
I am grateful for the many Saturday afternoons that my friend's Mum spent with me, giving of her time and expertise to help me with my Downfalls, plays and other projects.
At that young age, I thought I knew everything, and no one was gonna tell me different.
Fortunately the wisdom of years has taught me otherwise.
When it comes to writing about yourself, you may wonder, why am I bothering? Who is going to be interested in my life and what I have to say?
You may be surprised.
Telling stories about ourselves is almost as old as time itself. We've been doing it since we dwelt in caves.
Back then, we drew pictures of our surroundings and activities - drawings of the animals we saw every day, the ones we killed for food, sketchings of our environment including aliens from space (or so some believe - and they could be right! Now there's a story).
As time went on, we perfected the art of verbal storytelling, and of course began writing stories, making history.
We write because we have something to say that holds meaning for us. We want to share this with others. The telling helps us make sense of our world, who we are, and our place in the big scheme of things.
Being human, we embellish, invent, we make up stuff. We can't help it. We create story.
For example, say I took a walk on the beach. I could tell you that, and you might go, 'OK, so what?' But if I add a few little 'embellishments', I can engage your interest.
If on my walk I actually saw a little fish leap out of the shallows, I could tell you that I saw a much larger creature, possibly a big shark, I couldn't be 100% sure, thrashing about, perhaps chasing a stingray, and you would probably be more interested in what I have to say. I'm not exactly lying because I did see a fish, and I'm a bit vague about the identity of my larger fish - it may have been a shark and it might have been chasing a stingray - but hey, it's more interesting, and of course fishermen/women often enhance their stories about the catch of the day ...
But hey, I'm not suggesting you totally fictionalize life story writing, make up stuff about your life, nor invent people that never existed, or attribute actions to real people that they never actually did, or tell me about situations that you never found yourself in, ever (and some published 'memoirs' in recent years have indeed been largely fabrications, take James Frey's A Million Little Pieces ). I think there is some leeway to be creative, and there's a genre for this called 'creative non-fiction' that allows us to use a basis of truth in our story telling, but have the freedom to create around that.
Being creative, adding colour, clarity, vibrancy, and interest to our life writing can engage our readers. They will be interested in what we have to say, and what we tell them might just resonate profoundly in a life-changing way.
I explore much of this in my Life Writing Workshops - join me and other 'life writers'? Please do.
That anxiety of the blank page or laptop screen ... the feeling of paralysis that creeps into our fingers when we try to tap the keys or pick up a pen ... the building sensations in our gut caused by apprehension, confusion, guilt. We know the feeling.
That's WRITER'S BLOCK. Arrgh!
We've all had it. Even writers who are prodigious with their output suffer from it now and then. So how do we beat this block, shove it aside so that we can unleash our artistic energy and scribble away in a heat of creative passion?
Whether you're blocked from continuing a work in progress, or you've sat down to just do some writing but can't get to square one, here are some things that work for me and could help you too.
1. After I've been sitting there for a while, anguished, I get up and make a cup of tea. That 'breaks the spell', gets me up and walking about. And tea is good. But I only get up to make tea. I don't go off and wander about the garden, or wash clothes, or chase the cat. I only make tea.
2. I write on a computer so, with my tea, I sit down and start writing about the weather. I'll look outside and type, 'It's a nice day. The sun is shining' and I'll just tap away describing the day.
3. Often something about the weather will trigger a memory for me. It may not be anything to do with what I want to write about but that's OK. For example, I might look out the door and see the bloom of a pink hibiscus and I remember the day my friend gave it to me; we planted it together; it was the day after my first chemotherapy treatment for cancer. I might write more about that, or continue my focus on the weather.
4. You'll find that these writings about the day outside, in real time, will take you along a meandering pathway, but that's OK, because it's all heading in a direction and has a purpose. At this point there are two options. If you're:
A. looking for something to write about, jot down these little pathways and avenues as potential story ideas - see if something attracts you and go with that, make a story;
B. wanting to continue a work in progress, consider these little journeys as a warm-up, a flexing of the muscles before the Big Event
5. If you find nothing but dead ends with the weather, the day, the little side trips down memory avenues and you're still in creative despair, turn off the computer or put away your writing pad, and take a walk. But don't forget to take your notebook with you because ideas come when we're walking. Sometimes it helps to give your walk a purpose, a goal:
A. walk up the road for coffee
B. walk to the $2 shop (if you have one close) and buy yourself a little packet of plastic dinosaurs for your writing desk
C. walk to a favourite spot where you can sit, contemplate, dream, enjoy the scenery and relax
After all of this, if you're still blocked, maybe it's best to just hang up the tools for the day. Be sure to make a date with yourself for the next writing session, and honour it, otherwise you can end up feeling defeated and low about your writing.
Pssst .... your Mum probably told you there'd be days like this, and that it's OK to try again another time.