And I don't mean gun triggers.
I mean those everyday things that can trigger a memory, a sensation, an emotion. These triggers can be the true stuff of life writing.
Take this morning. I brew up the coffee and put some bread in the toaster. The toast pops out and as I am buttering it, I remember my secondary school English teacher.
I didn't like English when I was at school. Even though this teacher was one of the best I've ever had the good fortune to know, I didn't really like going to her classroom. It wasn't her, it was the subject.
However I've always considered her to be one of my mentors, someone who had a keen interest in my writing and took the time to actively support and encourage me. Indeed her interest in my writing continued after I left school, and goes on to this day along with a firm friendship we have enjoyed for so many years.
So what does all this have to do with a piece of toast?
Many years ago now, my teacher and her husband were packing up their house to move away. In a case of bad timing, she broke her arm or wrist, I can't remember which, was in a cast and so couldn't do a whole lot of packing. I came over one day to help. When it was time for lunch, we downed tools and prepared some soup and toast.
As I was buttering her pieces of toast, she said, watching me closely, 'Butter it right to the very edges.'
Every morning, I butter the toast to the very edges so even the crusts are included.
I could write a whole lot more about this very special teacher who invested so much of her kindness, patience, and energy into my writing at a time when it was so needed - and all it takes is a piece of toast and a spread of butter to get me thinking about those memories.
Have a look around you right now. Are there some objects that trigger a memory for you? Perhaps it's the scent from a vase of flowers on the dining table that takes you back to a soft, shimmering summer day, or an expensive writing pen that your Dad gave you when you were 21 (remember how special that was because he so rarely gave you anything?), or something as simple as the way sunlight glints off a wave in the bay, reminding you of a sailing adventure on a small boat with someone you really didn't like too much.
Be open to triggers, be watchful, be observant, jot the thoughts down in your notebook for later when you're looking for something to write about.
Writing can be joyous, momentous, creatively satisfying when it's going well ... but when it isn't, finding words can be impossible and the blank computer screen can be a vision from hell and the stuff of nightmares.
There is of course the old 'writer's block' where you just can't get to first base with anything; it's like a creative constipation. Nothing is moving and you need some kind of 'laxative for creative people' - hey, there's an idea! I can see that on the retail shelves already.
Then there are the times when I'm doing OK with my creative work but then 'life gets in the way' and something major happens. Maybe old Miss Betsy-cat gets worryingly sick, the plumbing goes bung or I'm unwell, then I develop a one-track focus. I give all of my attention to the problem and I cannot do any writing. I've always been like that. I don't multi-task too well.
When this happens, I have to take time out. I take my lead from Betsy. She just lies down in the sun.
With a 'writer's block situation' I have some tools I use to get started again but when there's a life issue, I have learned to ease up on the laxatives and just stop.
It took me a long time to convince myself that this was OK because I always believed I should be able to write, no matter what else was going on in my life. That is still mostly true because if we let life overtake us we would never write a word. But when there is a life event that requires my focus to really be there, right with it, then I stop and that is OK.
When the going gets tough, the tough sack out.
It's OK to to take time out. If you can't write because your emotions and concern are elsewhere, do whatever you need to do to take it easy ... and give yourself permission.
I am jolly lucky because I can sit out on the deck and look at the sea or the trees and the birds and I feel surrounded by friends and comfort. And always remember that tomorrow is another day.
You can try again.
Do you remember the first time you rode a bike?
I was about ten. Mom had a bike that she'd brought over from the USA when we immigrated to New Zealand. It was black with two large wire baskets hooked onto the back of the frame, deep enough for all your shopping.
Dad was building a sailboat in the garage at the time. He'd done that before in the garage of our house in Seattle. That sailboat was about 23 feet long and it was called Nameless. Unfortunately the New Zealand version was never completed but I used it's skeleton to help me learn to ride.
The wooden ribs of the boat were laid out in the garage. I'd get on the bike and propel myself from rib to rib, trying to balance in between. Eventually I could ride past two ribs, then three, and finally I could truck along without having to prop myself up.
I had my fair share of tragedies on that bicycle, including a very notable occasion when I was showing off, as one does, had to brake suddenly, and the bike came right out from under me and I ended up on my bottom holding the bike up in front of me.
Mom always said, 'Once you learn to ride, you never forget' and that's true. I still have a bike and can hop on and off and ride around quite happily. It's a lifetime skill.
Writing is a bit like learning to ride. You start off small, trying to get your balance, learn the nuts and bolts of staying on and staying upright, using props and whatever else you need to make headway. You acquire the skill and of course, practice is the key - keep going until you find your momentum.
Sometimes it's tough, like riding up a steep hill when the going is slow (even with gears), the exertion intense, until you get to the top and you can take a deep breath and appreciate your accomplishment. And then there are the times when you fall off, have a 'crash up' as we used to say when we were 10-year olds wheeling around; the wheels well and truly come off the writing caravan.
But writing can be a delight, an enjoyment right up there with cycling along on a balmy spring day with the scent of new flowers and the warmth of sunshine on your arms. Writing is a journey, an excursion, a time of discovery.
And of course, as my Mom used to say about so many things, 'It's just like riding a bike - you never forget how' - writing is like that. It can be a lifelong companion, a solace, a joy, a way to communicate your vision and what life is like in your world.
I've written before about how much I enjoy horror movies - I was raised on them. My sister and I were loaded into the back of the car in our pyjamas and driven by our parents to the drive in movies where, more often than not, there was a double-horror-something.
And, as you can see in the ad opposite, my parents were probably attracted by the $1/carload 'family night'. Nothing better for us kids than a night on 'Hell's Island' and getting to know the 'Creature with the Atom Brain.'
If you're wanting to write in the genre, 'read lots of it' and get a feel for how these stories are put together and what makes a good one great. And there are so many classics you can read, apart from Stephen King - take the tales of H.P. Lovecraft, Joyce Carol Oates, and 'The Monkey's Paw' an 18th century gem from William Wymark Jacobs (I saw an old black and white movie of this as a child and it scared me so badly I still remember it).
How do you come up with ideas?
Make a list of what scares you. Objects? Animals? Places? And remember, we are hard-wired to fear the dark, an instinct that goes back to our caveman days when a campfire at night was light and safety. Anything outside of the realm of firelight was too dangerous and frightening to contemplate.
So what scares me? Crickets. Not the little ones but those large black shiny ones that can leap and scuttle and seem to be able to fly. So, OK, if I was locked into a dark room full of black crickets, that to me is a horror show. This is a very simplistic example but it's taking an ordinary person (me), confronted with her worst fear (crickets) in a situation where every instinct is on high alert (darkness).
Then throw in a 'what if?' What if, while I'm battling crickets in the dark, I sense that there is something else in there with me .... what if I hear shuffling in the corner of the dark room, a hissing or heavy breathing ...
OK - you get the picture. Have a go. Scare me.
What is it about horror?
We kinda know that monsters aren't real (although walking up the stairs to my house late at night, through the bush, I am absolutely 100% certain there is 'something' lurking just beyond the weak illumination my flashlight provides and I think that by walking with purpose, head down, straight ahead, I will deter it from attacking me) and yet after reading a cracking good horror or ghost story, or watching something spooky on TV, we find ourselves double checking the locks and looking under the bed before we hop in.
It's Halloween month and so thoughts naturally turn towards the genre. Writing something that is really scary is not easy and this common advice applies to all who wish to write it: read lots in the genre and learn from the greats like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Anne Rice but more than that, write stories that have meaning for you, think about the things that scare you - tap into your fears because by golly, what scares you probably scares the bejesus out of someone else too.
Stephen King says there are three types of terror:
"The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
"The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
"And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
My personal favourite is the last one, the terror, where the ordinary everyday suddenly becomes the bizzarre, the terrifying, the absolute unknown-stalker-thing-in-the-dark. To me that's the worst and I think King is a real pro at this - turning clowns into monsters, populating a seemingly normal town with vampires, trapping a woman in a car at the mercy of a nutty dog ... and using ordinary people going about their normal daily business adds to the terror of it because we begin to see that the line between everyday life and the unmentionable horror is very fine indeed.
And remember, a little gem from Neil Gaiman - and this applies to whatever you are writing. Read lots and learn from others but remember to "... start telling stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you ... but you are the only you."
So you may think there is nothing new you can do in the horror genre ... of course there is. You're unique .. your monsters will be too.
A friend of mine had a stressful job for years and said she could only relax by setting up a lounge chair in her back yard on a sunny day and watching the laundry flapping and waving on the line.
I asked her if she had a gin and tonic alongside and she said no, she didn't, it was something about the movement of the clothes drying on the line, the sunshine on her face, and being on a patch of green (a small patch as she lived in the city) that did the trick for her.
My friend added that watching the washing inspired her with ideas for her job at the time, but when she retired, she carried on the laundry- watching to gain inspiration for her romance novels.
How do you get your inspiration for writing? Where does it come from?
Some writers have a 'muse' - a person, animal, object that inspires them. My cat Betsy would like to think she is my muse but unfortunately not. Author Tom Robbins does have one and he says, "I show up in my writing room at approximately 10 A.M. every morning without fail. Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn't, but she always knows where I'll be. She doesn't need to go hunting in the taverns or on the beach or drag the boulevard looking for me."
Sometimes inspiration to write comes from the simplest of things - perhaps a whiff of perfume as you pass someone on the street, the way the light shimmers on ripples of water at the lake, the taste of chocolate cake and whipped cream ...
Or watching the laundry flap in the breeze.
And there are those days when the muse, or the inspiration, doesn't appear for us. Then it's just a hard slog to get your words done for the day. But as Tom says, at least the muse, or the inspirational beings, know where you are. They don't need to go looking.
They'll find you.
Writing can be opportunistic.
If we're short of time, we grab an opportunity to write when we can - on the bus to work, at the kitchen table after the kids have been dropped at school.
Sometimes we submit a piece of writing to a magazine editor and they say, 'Great, I'll take it!'
We've made our approach at the right time, taking advantage of a window of opportunity before it closes.
And if you're a self employed writer, you're always looking for opportunities to get your writing out there, ways to make some money, become better known, get famous etc etc. You know.
And that can be difficult, a challenge, it goes against the grain because a lot of us writers aren't very entrepreneurial, we haven't worked in the field of PR so we don't know the ropes, and promoting ourselves just doesn't come easily. We'd rather be writing.
If you're well established, you can leave all that promotion stuff to someone else, like an agent or manager. Sigh .... maybe someday.
My attention has been caught recently by a real opportunist, a little creature that sees a chance, and takes it without care for the repercussions, mindful only of what this opportunity can provide for her.
Every time I open the garage door to get the car out, a little black cat rushes in. She goes straight to the woodpile stacked under the workbench and squeezes in way down the back where I cannot reach her. It's cozy back there, snug and dark. When I tell her she shouldn't be in my garage, she just looks at me with those bright, yellow eyes. That's all I see because she's black, and it's dark on top of the woodpile under the bench.
I open the roller door at different times each day and yet there she is, a little black ninja, prowling in the shadows, watching and waiting for the opportunity to make her mad dash for the security and comfort of her hiding place. I don't know where she comes from, or where she lives, but she is an opportunist, a stealthy, secretive watcher. She is sleek, well fed and beautiful, so she belongs to someone.
Before I knew what her deal was, I inadvertently locked her in overnight, twice. She didn't seem in the least bothered, in fact I think she enjoyed the chance for some uninterrupted hibernation. I can only imagine what her owners are thinking. Perhaps she is well known for such antics, and if she's missing a day or two, they think, 'Oh , she's shacked up again in someone's garage.'
Of course she lay up on the hood of the car, the heat from the engine making it a very comfortable perch indeed. Plenty of muddy paw prints to wash off.
So can we learn a lesson from this ninja cat?
Yes - stay vigilant, every day ... and when the door opens, rush in, look for your niche, get in there, hang out in it, even if you get stuck in there for a while, don't panic. Stay sleek and beautiful, and then leave your paw prints on the world for all to see.
It seems there is software for just about anything these days to help you write, punctuate, spell ... it can almost compose a book for you.
Where's the fun in that?
Actually, it's very fun. Yesterday I installed a voice recognition programme called Dragon. Ah, you've heard of it ? I also got a good headset with a very astute microphone that can pick up all the subtle nuances of my extraordinary speech and fabulous words.
Actually my speech and words pale in comparison to the Dragon. What a wonder of tehcnology it is and what jolly good fun! It's like having a little companion inside your computer, one that does what you tell it (I do like giving orders, I admit), comes up with quirky mis-spellings when it doesn't hear you properly, and best of all, you can train it to better recognise what you are saying.
There are very few things that I can boss around, even Betsy the cat makes a point of ignoring everything I ask her to do ("get down off the clean bedspread", "go outside", "eat your dinner"), so it's quite nice to have a silent subservient that does what I tell it, mostly.
It is a work in progress. Dragon and I are shaking each other down. It's learning my way of speaking, and I'm learning its techno approach to dictation and editing. It takes a while but we're going OK.
Why did I get this software? I usually resist these sorts of things, having been brought up in the old writing school of scribbling by hand or onto the computer and then editing and re-writing that way. Anything that might help me with that has usually been met with a scoff and a nose-in-the-air comment like 'There is absolutely no way I'd ever pay good money for any writing software!'
I'm getting old and therefore more practical. Typing for hours excites my arthritis so I have surrendered, given in to technological advancement, and I've done it quietly so that my friends don't now turn to me and say, 'But hey you said you'd never ever ...'
So shhh, don't tell them, we'll never hear the end of it - but I'll tell you on the quiet here, think about getting yourself a Dragon of your own. It's a worthy investment. It's fun having a little dragon-pet in the computer. It works really well, and does not breathe fire and bellow.
Maybe that's what will come next - a Dragon that will belch flames at you if you don't complete your word count target for the day.
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.