When I'm reading memoirs by writers they'll often say at what point in their life they knew they wanted to be a writer. Sometimes this revelation happens at an early age, sometimes it doesn't register until the person is 60+.
In some cases, it seems this is a profound revelation, there is no doubt, it's a feeling within, one of surety. Sometimes it's a shocking decision. As the wonderful Ms Maya Angelou says, her decision to write was '...like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.' However it happens, writing is the path, the destiny, no matter how ill-considered, difficult or daunting it may appear at the time.
Did this happen for you?
As a little girl, I was painfully shy. I clung to my Mom's skirts, hiding, and I hated to be out of her sight or away from her at all. I was a blue-eyed, blonde pig-tailed little mutt who cried if the check out operator smiled at me and said, 'Hello' as she rang up Mom's groceries. That shyness clung to me for years.
I couldn't say what I felt because I was too shy, so I wrote it down. I read a lot from a very young age. Books featured highly in our house, and my sister and I both spent hours losing ourselves in their pages. Reading encouraged me to write. The more I wrote, the better I became at expressing my thoughts, feelings, and observations through words, and when I received a pat on the back by a teacher for my 'creative work' , and it was read out in front of the class, well, that was like fuel to my growing rocket boosters.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that yeah, heck yeah, I love the praise that comes from completed work that 'goes public' and people congratulate you and say that your work changed their life, they enjoyed it, or the writing helped them in some way. My very first book launch for Welcome to the Amazon Club was a pinnacle of achievement like none other in my life, and I doubt there's nothing quite like that first celebration, watching people line up to buy your book and then ask you to sign it.
Now that's something.
So if I am asked when did I know I was a writer, I'd have to say, 'I've always done it, it's just what I do. Writing has always been a part of my life. It was my first real and honest form of communication'. I disappoint people when I say I never made a conscious sit-down-at-the-table-and-think-seriously decision about becoming a writer.
Sure, I dreamed about that kind of life, how it would be to write full time and be famous.
When I was working cutting up salad vegetables in a restaurant kitchen, or at the telephone company (what was then Pacific Northwest Bell in Seattle) listening to people complain about their broken phones and exorbitant bills, or driving around as a courier in Atlanta on a mind-blowingly energy-sapping typical Georgia hot summer's day, I did dream of doing what I imagined a writer would do: get up whenever, work for a few hours in a fabulous place with a view, walk in the park after lunch and then enjoy an early dinner and drink with other fabulous artists like myself, and of course fit in book launches, signings and author talks all over the place ... oh yes, I sure did. I just never believed that person could be me, and my present-day reality of the writing life has turned out to be somewhat different. Not a lot of glamour!
But I do have the time and space to give to my writing now, a gift I've denied myself for years because my writing always took second place to earning a living cutting up vegetables, dodging guard dogs while trying to deliver courier packages, or listening to Dr. Tordekon who would call me from his spaceship (actually a telephone both on a Seattle street corner) to regale me with stories of his outer space adventures.
The writing was always there. You could say it has toughed it out, through thick and thin, insistent, wanting and waiting to be heard, and maybe that's how you know you're a writer - you need to be, the feeling never goes away, no matter what you do.
Eventually, you have to pay attention.
American novelist E.L. Doctorow said that writing is ..."like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
It’s OK to begin writing a story or novel and not know where it's going.
After reading a jolly good book, I'll often think to myself, "I bet they had a really strong idea of that story and where it would begin and end."
On second thought, a safer bet might be that the writer didn't have had a clue when they started the story that Mrs. Smith next door would end up dumping her house, car, cat and goldfish on her husband and taking off to the south of France with the pool guy.
Having said that, you may be writing a who-dunnit, or some other work that requires a carefully thought out plot, so that you know where you're going and can get from A to Z without losing your way.
I have a terrible time with plot, mainly because my characters never do what I want them to do. It's a dead certainty that they take on lives of their own and make decisions independent of their creator (i.e. me).
Many years ago I tried my hand at writing a thriller. I wasn't good at the genre. I gave it a go, clumsily plodding along, a bit like that game Cluedo where Colonel Mustard murdered Mrs. Peacock in the library with a candlestick. Eventually, my characters got so fed up with this bumbling and plodding that placed them in boring and stupid situations, that one of them walked out, slammed the door in disgust and went off to join the French Foreign Legion.
So how do I write? I have a terrible time with beginnings and endings, so I just start somewhere - maybe with a character, or a snippet I heard or have been thinking about that I like the sound of, something that will lead me into my story. It's a haphazard and risky way to start , certainly not with any structure in mind, but it is this not knowing, this sense of discovery, that gives the work momentum and pace, keeps me trucking along, because I want to know, 'what is going to happen next?'
Such a writing process requires faith, and that's grown within me over many years, faith I have now to 'wind her up and let her go ...'. Easier said than done sometimes because I get anxious, apprehensive, doubt my ability to put even one sentence together. But, as my Mom always used to say, 'The show must go on'.
Let your first draft go where it needs and wants to. There is ample time for the editing, shaping and plotting and structuring later on.
Let your imagination lead the way.
I love horror movies. I'm reassured in this because I know I'm not alone. Lots of people love them - just not many of my friends who look at me funny when I confess.
I was raised on them. I get it from my Mom. She was a hard-core veteran, scared to death as a child by the old black and whites, like Dracula with Bela Lugosi and The Mummy with Boris Karloff and The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. She and her friends used to get so traumatised they'd hide under the seats on the wooden floor. The usher would come along and tell them they either had to sit in the seats or leave.
As youngsters growing up in Seattle, my sister and I were often bundled up in bathrobes, pyjamas and slippers, loaded into the car and taken to the drive-in movies. I guess it was one way that my parents could have a night out without all the hassle of getting babysitters. Mom's passion for horror meant the movies we went to were double features in brilliant, ghastly Technicolor, bright red blood everywhere. My sister and I took all of this in as we chugged down hotdogs and Coke, and then, satiated with salt and sugar and fat, nodded off to sleep in the midst of the gore and screams emanating through the drive-in. All these years later, I can still remember the title of a film we saw at the drive-in, The Atom Age Vampire, a film produced in 1960. You can see it on YouTube. Of course!
These days though, I am continually disappointed. I haven't seen a really good horror in ages, and I see plenty. I have a friend, a stalwart horror fan, who watches even more horrible movies than I, and it take something pretty special to impress her. She's tougher, a real critic. It takes a mega-horror/slasher/blood-spattered mess to shake her foundations. However, in saying that, there have been a few memorable times when we've been watching something hideous together, and take terrified glimpses through fingers-over-eyes. I'm not ashamed to admit it.
So what makes for great horror? If you're going to write in this genre, whether it's for film or written word, I reckon you need to do some homework because it's an art form, a talent, and it takes study and diligence. Watch lots and read lots.
Stephen King is one of the best horror writers in my book because he has this unerring talent to turn the everyday - the routines, the surroundings, the actions we live with - into horror. He understands our fears and turns them into stories.
For example, take his novel It, set in a small American town. It features average, kind of normal families and kids doing kid-like stuff, and begins with a little boy chasing his paper sailboat down a roadside gutter in a rainstorm; the little boat sails down a drain, the kid is upset, peering down the culvert, and then there's a clown down in the drain who says hi and asks the kid if he wants his boat back. Of course he does. Every kid likes clowns, and they're fun and trustworthy right? Maybe a bit cheeky but OK, yeah?
And then the horror comes.
You have to love ghosts and goblins, ghouls and gremlins, and the evil and horror that lies within all of us.
Have a go. Write that scary thing.
As Stephen King says, "... as a writer, one of the things that I've always been interested in doing is actually invading your comfort space. Because that's what we're supposed to do. Get under your skin, and make you react."
When I was a kid, the first thing I did when I came home from school was to eat a big bowl of Skippy cornflakes. Then I'd go out down the bush out the back of the house, make huts from tree limbs and play war with the boys in our neighbourhood.
This was back in the day when milk came in bottles, and the ones with the silver tin foil tops had cream sitting at the top. If I was lucky, I could open a new bottle, pour the cream over my cornflakes, toss some sugar on top, and get into it. Of course Mom hated that because the cream should have been shaken up so that the whole bottle of milk could benefit from the creaminess.
Remembering more about the milk in bottles, it was my job to put the empties into a little plastic carrier, pop the milk tokens into one of the bottles (these were purchased from the Murray's Bay dairy down the road and came in little white bags stapled at the top - this was how we paid for the milk) and carry the lot out to the letterbox each evening.
Mailboxes in those days had a special built-in compartment for the bottle rack. Early in the morning, I heard the milkman come in his truck, listened to the clank of the bottles, the rattle of the milk tokens, and voila! Fresh milk with foil tops was left behind for breakfast. Fabulous.
There was none of this plastic bottle stuff, lined with lightproof whatever, screw tops and sealed tabs that you can't get off, and the milk often when bung after a few days because it was fresh and that's what fresh milk did, unlike today where milk exists happily, cuddled within it's plastic container, for days.
There's so much more I could write here, about my early days living on Auckland's North Shore, playing with plastic tommy guns in the bush, setting vicious booby traps for each other. It's a wonder we all made it to our teenage years without missing arms, legs, and eyes.
Something as simple as the memory of those cornflakes set my thoughts in motion.
What was the first thing you did when you came in from school back in the day when you were ten or eleven years old?
When I gave up dope and alcohol, my immediate feeling was 'I've saved my life but there'll be a price because I'll have nothing that buzzes me any more.' But I enjoyed my kids. My wife loved me and I loved her. And eventually the writing came back and I discovered that the writing was enough. Stupid thing is that probably it always had been.
- Stephen King
Stephen King would not be the first writer to declare that writing saved him.
What's with this? Can it be true?
Yes, it absolutely is true. Writing can help us deal with health challenges, life crises, change, dope, and alcoholism, just to name a few. And there is clinical evidence to prove that writing is good for you.
A study at our very own University of Auckland (2017) found that people who wrote emotionally about past stressful events two weeks before having a biopsy had their wound heal faster than people who write about factual day to day activities. The trial authors said that the writing had greatest effect when done prior to an acute wound, so the timing of the writing was important.
As with most treatments, you can feel worse before you feel better, and that's how it can be with writing. I know in my journals, when I'm tackling something that is painful and emotional, I write it down and feel lousy for maybe a day afterwards, but then I feel so much better, a weight has been lifted, life is worth living again.
Writing can help a wound to heal, physically and emotionally.
Writing for healing is a bit more specific than daily journaling because it encourages you to tackle troubling events in your life head-on, with stark truth and honesty, letting it all hang out. Trying this technique for 3-5 days, for about 20 minutes per day, can alter the path of your journaling, especially if you're accustomed to simply writing about how you feel and what you experience on any given day, and tend to avoid those memories that are traumatic, too difficult to deal with in your writing. Let's face it, alot of us do this. I'm no exception. It was only when I started writing about my first breast cancer diagnosis that I really began to feel the benefits of 'writing to heal'.
Sometimes writing about those difficult times - perhaps painful memories from early childhood - can bring closure, reconciliation, and forgiveness for ourselves and for others. We can gain a more positive perspective, be more understanding of our 'adult mistakes', move beyond the turmoil.
So yes, writing can offer you a lifeline. It can help you heal in so many ways. Give it a go. Well known American writer Judy Blume says, 'Writing saved my life. It saved me, it gave me everything, it took away all my illnesses.'
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
— Mark Twain
Mark Twain gave us lots of great quotes and in this one we can take some lessons for our writing:
I've never been a great risk taker in life and this is also true of my writing - I'm being honest here. I stick to genres that I am comfortable with and tend to write about stuff I know; and according to some writers, that's a fatal mistake. Take author Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) who famously said: “What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, 'Write what you know.' It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given."
Annie goes on to say that if we just write about what we know, we don't grow - and there's truth to that. If we keep rolling down the same well-worn track, and we don't digress onto another pathway that looks bright and interesting, or dark yet irresistibly intriguing, we can become tunnel-visioned.
I'm all for writing about what you know but within that, take your risks, don't get too comfortable, let the wind fill your sails and rather than pull in the ropes, let them out to allow full flight so you are on that pathway to discovery and imagining. Take what you know and apply it to a new genre: I can take the first fabulous flush of true love I experienced at 16 (well, at least I thought it was true) and translate that into romance fiction; I can take my life with my cat and create a child's picture book; the facts I have about my Mom growing up in Florida during the war I can apply to a local history of that time and place.
The main message here is to take chances, enjoy your writing, let it take you to places you never thought you would go - and don't be afraid. Fear is one of the greatest roadblocks to our writing: it manifests as self doubt (I can't possibly do this, I'm not good enough), what-will-people-think-of-me (people will hate my work), and who could possibly be interested in anything I have to say?
I say, 'who cares?' Write what you want, take risks, and never stop learning. Every time you write, you learn - about yourself, and your craft.
Go on. Explore. Dream. Discover.
When I think about life writing, I sometimes wonder what my old cat Betsy would write about. She's had quite the adventurous life.
I first met her at the pet shop up the road. She was in a large enclosure with several other tabby kittens and I was in the market for a new feline companion.
Her cage mates were dozing and lethargic. She was jumping around, playing with things, looking very lively. I thought, "I'll have her."
The first evening at my place she disappeared. I was beside myself, thinking she must have gotten out and was lost in the bush - but how could she escape? Doors and windows within reach were closed, she was so tiny, there was no way she could get out. I searched and called, all the while knowing that this kitten wouldn't yet know it's name and was probably terrified of me anyway.
I sat down in despair to watch Shortland Street and heard a high pitched wail from the laundry room. Little Miss Betsy had managed to get up under the washing machine, no mean feat, and was under there crying with a desperation that broke my heart. I managed to get her out, and we began working on our relationship.
Her life story might begin this way: "Some lady took me from my brothers and sisters, put me in a cage, let me out into a huge place I didn't know that smelled funky. I sought the only safety I could, under this large white appliance. I squeezed under it and there I stayed, trembling and cold."
Our relationship was always twitchy. Betsy was highly strung. Some days she was an angel, but on others she would hiss, spit, claw and hated visitors. No wonder. Maybe it was due to the washing machine. An early memory of trauma. There were days when I wished I'd picked one of those lethargic kittens instead of this lively, somewhat neurotic gal but I loved her and we both hung in there.
Betsy could also show absolute and unshakable devotion. I have often written about her constant presence when I was having chemotherapy for breast cancer, with me night and day, bringing me the sustenance of large leaves from the puka tree, only leaving my side to attend to business outside and to eat.
She's a clever cat, intuitive, quick, street-smart, savvy.
Betsy's life timeline would probably show a period of prolonged difficulty when I adopted a stray male cat, Little Boy. He took over the household and Betsy took to the bush and to the roof. I rarely saw her except at feeding times. What would she say about this? "Jane took in a stray. He was a serial abuser. I learned to survive."
Little Boy died over a year ago and Betsy has come into her own again. She's almost 18 years old now and still looking very good, sleek-furred, bright eyed (she would say, "I always kept myself up well.") and very companionable.
We sit in the evening and watch Shortland Street together. She can't fit under the washing machine any more, nor would she want to. I do everything I can, and then some, to make her happy and comfortable, because she's earned it, by golly, and, quite frankly, I adore her.
We've been together for longer than any relationship I've ever had in my life.
What would she write now, I wonder. "Life is OK. I lie in the sun. I have soft pillows to sleep on at night and I get good food. I watch clouds, birds, grass growing. I haven't the energy to bite and scratch. I am content."
What more could a cat need?
Most of us feel lonely from time to time. For writers, loneliness can come with the territory.
There's this image in our heads of the solitary writer, head bowed over the desk, the space illuminated by a lamp, working through the dark hours of the night ...
They're probably doing that because the late hours are the ones where there are no distractions. Everyone's gone to bed, the house is quiet, the phone isn't ringing and the river of emails has dried up until tomorrow.
If we're full on and in the middle of a piece of work, we cut ourselves off even more. We go out of our way to avoid people, declining invitations, shopping in the half hour before a grocery store closes at night, taking our daily exercise by the light of the moon.
Carolyn Murnick, a senior editor at New York Magazine, said, "I've always had a sense that it's not the healthiest to stay inside for three days writing, because then when you go out into the world, you feel a little out of sorts. In the same way it takes some time to get into the writing headspace, it'll take you a while to get back into the space of being with people."
I understand that. If I've been on a writing bender, then go out into the world to buy cat food and run into someone I know at the shop, I get tongue-tied, often can't remember their name, have little to talk about, feel the flush of embarrassment rising and hastily make my exit.
Solitude seems to come with the writing life but ask a writer how she or he feels about this and they may well reply, "I love it. It's great. I've never been happier."
Hmm. What's with that?
I look at my own writing life and I am content. It is a lonely occupation. I spend the greater part of every working day here, alone, with Betsy the cat. I may not speak to another living person all day but I don't mind it because the solitude gives me the space I need to write. It's hard to do that with a lot of people around.
And yeah, I get lonely sometimes, the deep-seated sad type that moves in like a grey, dampening mist and settles in for the long haul, and then I wish I had a more sociable job. Being too much on one's own isn't the best, even for writers, and finding a balance requires pushing out of the creative cocoon, making sure you do see your mates, go for walks, see movies, drink in bars and have trips away.
It was about ten years or so ago that I finally understood, and accepted, that writing would become my life. It was almost like going into a convent, giving up social interaction, sacrificing a great party for a night before the computer, and other things I had to give up, not the least of which was a good income.
I knew the loneliness that lay ahead, the unique disconnect from the world that, in the strange way of creating, enables me to write about it and communicate my thoughts and so involve myself in the passing parade and the flowing river.
Was it worth it? Yes. Of course.
People often begin conversations by talking about the weather.
In fact, writing about the weather is a prompt I often use to get myself started, especially in my journal. I put the date, then start cracking on about the weather - hot, cold, wet, windy, whatever.
And because the weather has been so extraordinary, and, in some cases, quite dangerous this season, it's a really good way to kick-start your writing, and it may even lead you to write about another time in your life when weather played a memorable role.
Some of the wild wind we've been having here reminded me of a summer stay up at Whananaki, in Northland, many years ago. A friend and I were lucky enough to have use of an old caravan parked on some beautiful land near the beach. There was an outdoor long-drop dunny, anchored to the rock, with splintered and salt-burned wooden walls and a creaky door on well rusted hinges. The toilet seat was also made of wood, worn smooth by countless bottoms. The cracks in the seat pinched your bum when you sat down, and of course the long, dark hole below was excessively threatening to all five senses.
One night a storm came in. We had no electricity, only wavering candles and flash lights. We hunkered down in the caravan with our storm provisions: lukewarm beer and cold baked beans on stale bread. The brave little caravan shook and rattled. The wind hissed, whined, and pummeled the frail structure while we recited drunken poetry and sang songs to ourselves, white-knuckled.
Inevitably, after beer, one must venture to the dunny. I put it off for as along as I could.
Out I went into the tempest in my foul weather gear, little flashlight beam piercing through the raging wind and horizontal rain. I made it to the dunny for what would be a speedy wee.
It seemed as if the wind was blowing up through the longdrop hole, wailing and moaning carrying with it the overpowering scents of decomposing matter mixed with the salt of the sea, while the entire dunny vibrated with the fierceness of the gale. Rain shot through the splinters and cracks in the walls, stinging my face and exposed bottom. I knew then with the certainty that can accompany inebriation, that the dunny would blow over, fly down the hill, onto the beach and into the raging, boiling, surf, with me trapped inside, flailing madly about with my foul weather pants around my ankles. The indignity of it.
So certain was I of my impending doom that I flung myself out of that dunny and straight into a sodden, solid, soaking wet, smelly lump of animal that had taken shelter outside. I shrieked, it snorted and galloped away. In the flashlight beam I caught the tail-end of a sheep, bounding off into the dark night.
Does writing about the weather take you back to memories of dunnies and storms and soaking wet sheep?
Taking time to relax over summer is what we do.
After a year of hard work this 'down time' is vital to our health and wellbeing.
So far this summer I've spent a lot of time hanging out on the deck, watching the birds hop around the front yard and frolic in their bird bath, reading, visiting with friends ...
But I haven't done any writing.
Well, not on paper on or the computer, apart from Blogs and work related items.
I'm writing in my head at the moment.
Writers do tend to sit and stare at things for long periods of time. Other people think we're slacking off but in actual fact, we're working, thinking about our writing, formulating plots, characters, turning points, dialogue, thinking of just the right words to express what we want to say.
Right now, I'm doing a lot of thinking about the memoir I'm writing about my Mom. This process is enhanced by my rediscovery of forgotten family artifacts. I've been unpacking boxes places in storage years ago. Each box is a treasure trove of photos, scrapbooks, pieces of art work, and little things Mom displayed on shelves and walls.
Each item provokes memory, which inspires the writerly thoughts: where does this fit into my book? Does it belong in there at all? What story is attached to this thing? Who touched this item long ago? How did it come into our family in the first place?
Before we begin to write, there is thought. A lot of it, in my case. I have to think it through, ponder it all, sift it gently in my mind, filter out the essential elements, the 'maybes' and the 'absolutely nots'.