You have to find something that you love enough to be able to take risks, jump over the hurdles and break through the brick walls that are always going to be placed in front of you. If you don’t have that kind of feeling for what it is you’re doing, you’ll stop at the first giant hurdle. George Lucas
I ask you - who would sign up for the writing life?
Most days it feels nuts and I often think I'm the only person in the world doing it. And there are hurdles, many many of them, and as Mr. Lucas says, if you don't love it enough to beat down the bricks and leap over like Superman, well, it's a tough road.
I often think one of the hardest things of all about writing is self belief. You have to keep bolstering yourself up every day, because writing is done alone - it's just you - and you don't have a cheer leading squad in the living room encouraging you to keep going, well done, rah rah! You have to find that inner grit, that fortitude to keep going in the midst of all the rejections (they are part of the territory), all of the self doubts (I'm no good at this), the lack of money (can I afford to feed the cat this week? Of course but it means no beer money), the confidence-shaking thoughts of not being able to write anything that anyone will ever want to read (I am going to hide this under a rock).
The list goes on and on.
Fiona Kidman nails it in her memoir Beside the Dark Pool, ‘So you want to be a writer. Well, you must learn to live with yourself, however difficult that might be at times, because you’re on your own in this job; you need to make space in your life, settle on your priorities. A writer’s life is not spent in an ivory tower. Learn to accept that life is full of interruptions. You have children? Yes, of course, many of us do. Write for fifteen minutes a day – it’s better than nothing at all. No, I agree, this is not about craft and style but it’s about how to survive, which is the best I can tell you right now. Can I guarantee this recipe for success? No, of course not. Nothing is certain.’
Writing requires tenacity, true grit, persistence, determination. Be all of these things. You'll get there.
Allowing yourself time and permission to write, and acknowledging that it takes courage to do so, is something we'll talk about in my 'Feel the fear' Workshop on 4 August.
In her fabulous book 'Writing Down the Bones' Natalie Goldberg says,
Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, "I am free to write the worst junk in the world." ... If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.
It took me a long time to understand this, years in fact. I could see no point in sitting down to write if: A. I was not going to produce something worthy of an award and
B. what I wrote would not be published.
I was also waiting for someone to say to me, 'You are A Writer! I give you permission to go forth and write!'
Those things didn't happen back then so, needless to say, I produced very little and was always disappointed. I beat myself up about what I believed to be a lack of talent and my inability to produce anything of note, and so eventually, I gave up and wrote nothing for about five years.
Phew. Thank heavens I got over that crap. In a way, I had to, because I was going ever-so-majorly-mad. I needed to write and create. I wasn't allowing myself to write and that wasn't good for me.
I was not giving myself permission.
I knew I could write but I didn't think it was worth it. It seemed fanciful, impractical, a waste of time because it would not earn me money. Besides, I didn't want to be alone at home, in my bathrobe and slippers, scribbling away in a notebook when everyone else was out doing stuff and having fun. Not that the cat was bad company, it's just that the writing life made me feel out of step with everyone and everything, and that was more important to me for a very long time.
Cue the crisis. It was bound to come, It was inevitable.
The advice I give to writers in my workshops is: 'Allow yourself to write and give yourself permission to write the worst rubbish in the world.'
And only you can do that. As author Dani Shapiro says, If you’re waiting for the green light, the go ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.
Warm up your creativity, come along to my 'Feel the fear and write it in anyway workshop' Saturday 4 August, Whangaparaoa Library, Auckland and you can bring your own dragon if you like. The Library doesn't mind.
Protect your writing time like a Hungarian Horntail protects its egg. Breathe fire, flap your wings, and bellow loudly.
You know how it is. When you sit down to write, people interrupt you. All you want is to take hold of that precious writing time, the hour that you have every other day to create, enjoy your wordsmithing, and get some work done on that writing project.
Other people in the house know that this is your time. You wrote on the whiteboard thing in the kitchen where everybody scribbles down what's needed at the grocery store and you used block letters in black: I WRITE TUES, FRI and SUN from 4pm - 530pm. DO NOT BOTHER ME.
And yet here they are, yapping at your door like tiny terriers. 'Mum, I need clean underwear.' 'Darling can I bother you for just one sec?' 'Hey flatmate, I need to get in there and grab a book off the shelf.'
You feel unsupported. People are not respecting the one or two hours that you have clearly established as your writing time, a part of your day where you don't want to be disturbed for anything except if the roof is falling in, and even then if you're deep into your work, you may not notice that calamity.
How do you protect your writing time from incursion by those distractors? These people, dogs, telephones, roof falling-ins are making it hard for you to write.
So what do you do?
Get ruthless, get mean, don't give in to those relentless knocks on the door requesting underwear, books, or can-I-bring-you-a-cup-of-tea-and-you-can-tell-me-what-you're-writing-abouts, the scratchings of the cat or dog, or inane requests for books that are really just feeble attempts to attract your attention.
As J.K. Rowling said, "Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
In my workshop, 'Feel the fear and write it anyway' we'll talk about those times when others don't recognise and respect our writing time, and we'll find ways to set the boundaries and guard our fledgling projects.
Join me for a real fire-breathing dragon workshop session. We'll make like Horntails.
Feel the Fear and Write it Anyway! (find out more)
Saturday 4 August 2018, 10.30am - 1.30pm
Whangaparaoa Library, Whangaparaoa, Auckland
In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway said, "You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless - there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing."
It's a kind of despair and melancholy that I can certainly relate to - being in the thick of a project, having made good, promising progress, and then boof! It all falls to pieces, I have a crisis of confidence, I hear my internal gremlin saying, 'Call yourself a writer? What tripe! This writing is terrible. You'll never finish this load of drivel and why would you?'
Oh and isn't that the worst thing a gremlin can say to you? 'You'll never finish ...'? I find beginnings and endings very challenging, and I agree with wise Ernest when he says you just have to plough on and get there somehow.
Good advice but how do we do that when our confidence takes a hit, we lose our writerly bravado, our ability to sit down and work industriously? When we shrink into our shells, cannot look in the mirror and call ourselves 'a writer' without laughing or crying, cannot sit down in front of our computer or pad of paper without wanting to scream, or get up and have another cup of coffee or wipe the condensation off the window with an old towel or just go and sit alone on a hard wooden chair and say to the universe, 'What's it all for?' in an anguished tone.
Come to the 'feel the fear and write it anyway workshop' and we'll sort this out once and for all.
We'll boost our self confidence, find ways to keep climbing the mountain when the end seems like a distant gorilla in the mist. We'll do better at treating ourselves gently when the despair hits and patting ourselves on the back when we achieve.
What's the difference between 'take' and 'make' when it comes to our writing time?
Take seems to suggest, 'I'm gonna rip off this time, take it away from the time I am supposed to spend fixing dinner.'
Make is more like, 'I'm gonna make time while I'm fixing dinner. When the potatoes are boiling, I will sit down at the kitchen table with my notepad and write.'
Whether you take or make time to write, actually doing the writing is a challenge.
This leads on to one of the most basic questions, one that we'll deal with in my upcoming 'Feel the fear and write it anyway' workshop (which, by the way, is on Saturday 4 August here at my local Whangaparaoa Library, 10.30am - 1.30pm and you can register on my site. Will you take time, or make time to come?!! Either way, I hope to see you there).
That question is: do I really want to become a writer? How committed am I?
This is where that 'take' or 'make' comes in. If you're still undecided about your writing, you might take some time here and there; if you're serious, you'll make time.
Ah, it sounds like a big step, and it can be a fearsome one, fraught with perceived difficulties. The pathway to dreams often is. We hang in there though, we stick with the programme, we march onwards to the goal.
You'll have to come along to the workshop to learn more about overcoming those fears and our inherent ability to procrastinate ('Hmmm ... I don't feel like writing today, I'd rather clean the bathroom...') but I can leave you with a couple of suggestions ...
1. Look in the mirror and say, 'I am a writer.' How does that feel? Start to think of yourself as a writer. When I was younger, I used to see myself in a multi-million dollar beach house, flouncing about, words fluttering around me like butterflies. The reality of my old door-turned-into-a-writing-desk covered with the cat's hair is somewhat different but there's nothing wrong with aiming high.
2. Have a look at your daily schedule and 'make some time' to write; when is it possible? Maybe it's when you're boiling the potatoes, or in bed just before lights out.
So ... call yourself a writer. Do it now. Make time to write.
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.'