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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Practical Navigation of Hardship

I can make a total of seven different dishes based on these.
None of them are nice, but that's not the point.

There's quite a bit of advice out there on how to 'make it' as a writer, but a lot of it seems to exist in a fantasy world of aphorism and affirmation. This strikes me as profoundly unhelpful. Sure, a few encouraging words can serve the purpose of making one feel briefly better about things, but once that's taken care of, what does one actually do?

I've been plugging away at this writing nonsense for a while now, and years of effort are beginning to manifest themselves in incremental gains. This being the case, I thought I might just jot down a few of the (sometimes very hard) lessons learned in this time, for the general betterment of humankind. And also because the vague hippie crap I've encountered along the way really annoys me.


This looks bad, sure, but I can't actually afford a wallet.
If you're going to drop everything and 'chase your dreams', you're going to need a plan. And your head examined. Of the two, though, the plan's probably the most important, and by 'plan' I mean one that exists in the real world. The kind of aspirational maths used by small time drug dealers and Amway Ambassadors isn't going to work here. The inescapable consequence of exchanging security for creative endeavour is going to be financial hardship. Any plan needs to account for this and it's a far, far better thing to choose what you give up than to have it wrenched unexpectedly from you.

In my case I dropped eating out, buying clothing, buying technology of any kind, any and every kind of monthly subscription, drinking in any kind of bar with appealing decor or patrons, and practically any and every occasion involving going outside with other people and frittering away money (otherwise known as socialising). What I kept was food, tobacco and some of the cheaper ways of getting drunk, seeing these as bare minimum for the maintenance of physical and mental health. Of course, these lists are going to be different for each person, but I think their relative proportions are about right for this kind of thing. If you think this all looks a bit bleak, you're right, but it's really just a question of attitude. It's worse than useless to give way to anger or frustration, and the benefit of adapting to a lifestyle like this is the discovery of untapped reserves of discipline, which is always handy.

Apart from sacrifice and various other hair shirts, there's also a positive side to extreme penury if you're able to stay open to it. It's important to inculcate a willingness to do just about anything for work, and with the right attitude this can be a treasure trove of experience and material. I've worked construction sites as a labourer, done highly uncovenanted shifts in various kitchens, taught English and music (just like my Victorian spiritual ancestors), private investigated and written godawful hack pieces for everything from technical manuals to genre mags to international tabloids. If writing's about exploring new worlds, it's not possible to ask for better than this, and it's mainly accessible through developing a tendency to say 'yes' a lot, and some skill at pretending to know what you're doing.

But most importantly, it's time to brace. There's a reason there's a picture of Mi Goreng at the top of this piece. In a country as rich as ours, poverty can easily be bearable but it's rarely ever fun.


Awwww... Nobody cares.
Nobody is going to understand what the hell it is you're doing. 

Okay, that's not a hundred percent true - it's pretty likely that other creatives will, but it's best to assume you're not going to meet any. While the world is full of people who claim to be writers, very few actually are. I've been unreasonably fortunate in this regard, having met a bunch, but fortune isn't something to be relied upon overly much.

So, back to nobody understanding. There's a few key disadvantages to writing as a profession. A big one is that nobody can tell the difference between a person who is writing and a person who is sitting around doing nothing. This can cause serious problems. I remember a long series of friends and relatives who more or less immediately lost faith in the idea that I was doing anything at all. The result of this is resentment and gratuitous advice. The solution is to strike out alone. I'm not, of course, talking about some libertarian bootstrap mission, but rather a willingness to be morally and spiritually lonely. Of all the things that have got me through, the support of friends and family have been important, certainly, but the primary thing has been mental independence. 

Like everything else worth doing, writing requires a lot of time alone and in silence, working very hard indeed without the slightest prospect of reward. This is difficult at the best of times, and it's next to impossible if you care about what other people think of you. 


Insert Affirmation Here
When Anthony Burgess was incorrectly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, he was given twelve months to live. Being married and penniless at the time, he set to work on publishing enough material to provide a financial basis for his widow. It's difficult to imagine a greater sense of urgency, but even he found the occasional roadblock he couldn't immediately surmount.

He set himself a target of two thousand words of 'fair copy' per day, and then went on to attack this target in an admirably realistic way. By his own account some of the things which got in his way were rather petty. Hangovers. Arguments with his wife. Brief periods of despair. What this shows is that regardless of how driven and single-minded a person is, there are still going to be occasions where they fail and that this just isn't important. What is important is to just keep going.

I realise as I write this that it's very similar to the kind of nonsense you get on writing websites, usually broken down into a faux-aphorism and set against a nature photograph. This doesn't stop it from being true. It's vitally important to just keep going. Bloody-minded doggedness has achieved a great deal more than sensitive inspiration in just about every possible field of endeavour.

What's worked for me is to make a clinical assessment, at the end of each day, of what I've actually achieved and how I'm currently feeling (yes, gasp in shock). Then I plan the next day according to these factors. Do I need to push some stuff back? Recalibrate my short term goals? Spend a day in the gym or at the bottom of a bottle? Fine. Disappointing, sure, but fine. Just so long as I maintain an absolute faith that I'll stand back up tomorrow or the next day, it's absolutely fine to burn the day just gone. A lot of people will tell you not to beat yourself up, but I disagree. A minor, and above all brief, assault is both necessary and beneficial. And then you just carry on.

I've had a lot of advice from a lot of people over the years, ranging from, "Be willing to set your enemies on fire in a public square,"  to, "The only way to peace is to place a flower on their head in your mind." It all boils down to the same thing, though, as far as I can tell. Our greatest weakness is also our greatest strength - the appalling loneliness of our inner selves can be turned from a wasteland into a fortress, so long as we're willing to pursue a purpose we set for ourselves. I know this because I once wrote something like it for a fortune cookie.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Writing Out the False Value of Self

One thing I'm very sick of hearing is how 'personal' and 'unique' the writing experience is. Apparently, the whole art of writing is a simple matter of aligning your chakras, embracing the woo, and communing with the universe until literary brilliance pours out onto the page as a direct result of personal inspiration and divine intervention. I would humbly suggest that this is utter bullshit.

In Donna Tartt's excellent book, The Secret History, one of her characters says something along the lines of, "The greater the amiability, the greater the coldness." The contention here is that being amiable is a process which involves manipulating and managing the feelings of others, and that those who are best at it are necessarily those who possess the objectivity of indifference.What is writing, if it is not the manipulation and management of the reader's feelings and experience? It follows, then, that writing must, on some level at least, be a somewhat cold-blooded experience.

Due to some very poor early life decisions, I often find myself reading the works of new authors and being asked to provide comments and advice. In the real world, this translates to telling them what's wrong with their stuff. In almost every case these works share a common flaw, and I strongly suspect it arises from the neo-Romantic hippie bullshit that gets circulated in schools, creative writing courses and smoke-filled coffee houses. Almost every single one of these works falls down badly in the area of "getting over oneself". One of the biggest tells which reveals the rookie author is a kind of adolescent insistence on their own 'unique' and 'personal' vision. Narrative, description and atmosphere get shoved aside so that the author can stand on a soapbox and descant on their pure and individual perceptions, their deeply held convictions or, in extreme cases, their delusional belief that they have some kind of unique facility with language.

No writing, from airport garbage to towering works of literary greatness, is about the author. Whether we're asking fundamental questions about the nature of truth, or assembling cracking tales of mystery and suspense, the prime and most important thing is to get out of our own damn way. One of my favourite (apocryphal) stories about Alexander the Great concerns his study of the Iliad under Aristotle. "Of all the characters in the Iliad," Aristotle is said to have asked the young Alexander and his companions, "who would you most like to be?" The cleverest answered, "Homer, because he's the only survivor." But Alexander disagreed. "If you were in the Olympic games," he said, "would you want to be the Pan-Hellenic athletics champion, or the little fat kid who calls out the scores?" As authors, whether we like it or not, we're the little fat kids calling out the scores. Just as the Iliad isn't about Homer, but Achilles, so too our writing has to be about something we're interested in which isn't ourselves.

There is a wealth of writing advice kicking around in the ether written by masters from various points of the literary spectrum, from the decidedly commercial but technically brilliant James Patterson, all the way through to the rarefied intellectual uplands of W Somerset Maugham. Form, construction, aesthetics and other vital aspects are patiently explained, but all of this advice boils down to one simple statement: remove, as far as is possible, any trace of yourself. Do I have a unique way of using adverbs? Delete. Do I write long passages tenderly painting the special unique specialness of the sights and sounds of my childhood? Delete. Am I relying on my own idiosyncratic manipulation of language to generate sympathetic resonances within the audience? Delete! Delete! Delete!

Like all arts, there is a strong requirement for competent craft. Until the basic technical skills are in place, nothing of any worth can be adequately depicted. The implication, then, is that a great deal of cold, mathematical exercise needs to be undertaken. It's a supreme irony of writing that prose which sounds natural and easy is necessarily the product of careful calculation and painstaking labour. I think most authors will agree with me when I say that building that nebulous thing we call 'voice' is always, in the beginning, an exercise in stripping and burning away every single thing we think of, initially, as unique to ourselves. Once this is done, we can then trust to the idea that our individuality - our uniqueness, if you like - will take care of itself. If it actually exists it will necessarily do so, leaving us free to focus on how to dissect, translate and then reassemble an experience which feels real and true to the reader.

This might sound a bit extreme, but it isn't. The fact is that we're always going to present in anything we write. Whether it's a short story, a novel, or a sales report, we can't help but leave our psychic fingerprints all over it. But as a story-teller or explorer of the human condition, it's our sacred duty to deliver the content, and this has to involve putting ourselves aside. As a writer, one has to work under the assumption that, for a while at least, we will be writing for people who don't know us. And a universal truth about strangers is that they do not give a crap whether we live or die. This means that in order to capture their attention and convince them to keep giving it, whatever we write really does have to be about something that isn't ourselves.

I don't care what anyone says - writing does not primarily exist as a form of therapy for the author. Writing exists to be read by people who are not the author. This means that no writer can ever really produce anything worth reading until they can climb over the detritus of individual identity and access that part of their existence which is universal.

Friday, 4 November 2016

A Fearsome Anthology

As a writer, one must make a conscious effort to avoid being stuck in a dark room swearing at the television in one's underpants. As a part of this effort, I joined a writers' group - the Northern Beaches Writers' Group, to be specific. I did this for several reasons, not least of which was the fact that spending my time exclusively with fictional people was sending me a bit strange. Okay, stranger.

What I expected was the usual mix of cheer squad and ersatz group therapy session, which I fully intended to ameliorate with decidedly irresponsible drinking. What I got was a serious, dedicated and talented group of authors with whom I was able to participate in multiple, rewarding and award-winning collaborative projects. All of which I ameliorated with decidedly irresponsible drinking.

The most recent of these projects has been the creation of an NBWG anthology of short stories for (hallelujah!) adults. The unifying theme was to be the interface between humanity and technology. Special focus was to be given to the question: To what extent do the machines that we make, actually make us?

What I was expecting was a mix of sci-fi and cyberpunk - cool, dark and gory and all decidedly genre. What I actually got was a delightful surprise.

Okay, the task of managing the editing of twenty plus stories ranging in length from two to six thousand words was neither delightful nor surprising. Nor was the cat-herding element of remote logistics as applied to a disparate rag-tag of self-directed, pre-occupied creatives. Being the person I am, I created what I thought to be a simple, centralised system for markups, corrections, version control and uniform product creation. What I discovered was that practically nobody knows how to use the internet, follow simple instructions or format a document. For quite a few weeks, there was a picture of me, tearing my hair out, next to the word 'frustration' in any dictionary you care to name.

As I said, though, this wasn't really a surprise. But the content and quality of the submissions really was. There were stories about bereavement and love, tales of ordinary people in far-flung universes, complex and subtle accounts of the minor but deeply impactful effect of our enhanced connectivity and, most surprisingly, a decent amount of sex.

What we've turned out here is a multi-layered, diverse exploration of an important theme. Which is nice, considering that all I was trying to put together was a more or less thin pretext for vanity publishing a bunch of our own stuff.

So, with the help of some absolute rockstars and award-winning authors too numerous to name here, we've finally got the anthology to the point where we can launch it onto an unsuspecting public. We'll be doing this at the Sunkissed Bar and Grill in Manly on Friday the 18th of November at 1830. I'd be very happy to see you there. In fact, I'd be overjoyed. Do come down - it's going to be absolutely epic.

Here is a list of people who have been a great help in making this anthology happen. They're in no particular order, but I mention them because you should do yourself a favour and check out their stuff.

Kylie Pfeiffer
Tony McFadden
Zena Shapter
Alex Cain
Harriet Cunningham
Amy Spurling
Zoya Nojin