Thursday, May 31, 2012

Throwing Imagination Out With The Bath Water

Imagination is a muscle.  I know this because when I didn’t use it for years, in a storytelling way, it shrunk.  For a long time, I couldn’t conceive a story idea even if it hit me in the head and wrote itself.  And that lasted twenty plus years.
Later, when I did throw myself into storytelling, it took months of writing, (the only story my mind possessed for  the past ten years), before other small ethereal ideas began alighting upon me.  My imagination was slowly awakening, and with that awakening began a trickle and then a flood of story concepts. 
            They were everywhere and so abundant that I have now given up writing them down.  No longer do I worry if I will run out of ideas.  Instead, I worry if there is enough time left  in my life to write all the good ones.
This post isn’t about imagination or story ideas, though.  It’s about a worrying trend—and it could be just me worrying—but did you know that narrative creative writing makes up less than fifteen per cent of the Australian English curriculum?  Check in your own country, I imagine its' similar.
Several teachers have recently  informed me that the emphasis for literary education was in the writing skills needed in everyday life—persuasive writing, reporting, and letter writing.  They told me that narrative writing would definitely be important for a writer to study, but that very few children were going to grow up to be writers.  (They really should check Twitter. There seems to be millions on there).
These reports and persuasive argument skills are the more important literary tools in the  automated programming  necessary for their University years, work and everyday life, they tell me.  They are teaching them to write letters too.  Even though, I don’t know anyone who writes personal letters, except my seventy-eight year old Aunty—and she doesn’t own a computer.
I wonder though, if you have an encouraged, resilient imagination through creative writing wouldn't that  translate into more interesting letters and reports?  It worked for me.  In a misguided attempt at an MBA, I received a distinction for an essay for which I had hardly researched—I had two babies at the time.  The tutor commented, ‘I have given you this distinction not for the content because I’m not sure if you really nailed it.  You score is for how much I enjoyed the read.’
In the sixties and seventies, during my school years, narrative writing was all we did, interspersed with the occasional review of a book or poem.  Of course, as you would expect of a writer, English was my favourite subject and the only reason I wanted to attend school.  All the other subjects bored me and once I achieved a reasonable understanding of math I thought, well that will do me for life and I no longer listened. 
I flunked history and geography because, frankly, I couldn’t see the point.  My cocky, fifteen-year-old self advised the poor cooking and sewing teachers that I did not need to learn to cook and sew because I would be rich and have servants. What an imagination. right?  In German, I cut a deal with the teacher that as long as I passed then I did not have to attend class.  Subsequently, I spent those lessons down by a creek near the school reading and writing.  Had I attended school now, with this lack of emphasis on narrative expression, would I have seen writing as my future?
Whether a child’s destiny is to become a writer or not, is not the point of narrative writing as a child.  One of the most valuable tools a person needs, writer or not, is not  mastery of the English language but imagination. And, for me, imagintion trumps all skills and education.
My imagination, encouraged throughout my school years by creative writing exercises, has taken me further than being a writer.  It helped me imagine distant lands I wanted to visit, which from age twenty I did and continue to do.  It helped me see a business opportunity in my late twenties that became an exciting multi-million dollar success.  Everything created within that business opportunity came, not from my education, but from my greatest asset, my imagination—an imagination fertilized most fervently whilst writing stories at schools. 

I am saddened to hear that our children will lose precious opportunities to utilise their imagination.  This is particularly poignant in an era where the gift of imagining, and maybe not education, have delivered us Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college after six months and spent the next 18 months dropping in on creative classes.  Then we have another imagination major, Steven Spielberg, who in 2002, after a thirty-five year intermission, finished his degree via independent projects at CSULB, receiving a B.A. in Film Production and Electronic Arts with an option in Film/Video Production.  Hardly something he needed to do to continue his success.
Since the emergence of man, stories have told our history and encouraged our future.  Whilst we are preparing our children for their adult lives, could the educator’s also find a way to encourage their student’s dreaming lives? 
These young people will all too soon spend a long time, as adults, writing their pragmatic reports and persuasive texts.  Could we just allow them a few short years with their unicorns, wizards, pirates and fairies?  Let us encourage their imaginations to flex and grow whilst they are young, so that one day they may not become a robot in a system, but a person who remembers imagining they were a robot and dreaming of saving the world.
I leave you with Yeats…
People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.  ~William Butler Yeats

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Whos afraid of a little blank page?

Fear, as defined by  the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”  Nobody needs to research the word to understand its meaning.  We’re born with the understanding of it, as a necessity for our very survival.  If not for fear, we would no doubt place ourselves in harm’s way often with serious consequences.
So it was with interest I viewed recently on a current affairs programme, an interview with a fellow they nicknamed the Bird-Man.  He jumps off mountains with flimsy looking, parachute-type wings, skims across the hillside at 200km per hour, and then lands in the valley thousands of metres below.  As if that wasn’t dangerous enough, he, and his other crazy mate, place helium balloons a metre above the edge of cliffs, then aim and fly into them for that little extra thrill.
In the documentary, one of the balloons had snagged on a stone and then only floated inches above the ground.  So, of course, Bird-Brain-Man still needed to attempt bursting the precariusly low balloon.  And in this case, he failed, skimming into the rock and hurtling off unconscious down the hillside.
Miraculously, he did live to fly another day but endured series injuries but he has the full intention of recovering and doing it again.  According to him, he suffers from a disorder called counterphobia, a pathological phobia to confront things that scare him. 
Now as much as I don’t want to hurl myself off a mountain—in fact, I get nervous walking down steps—I would like to get me some of that counterphobia for each time I experience the biggest thing that stands between me and writing.
For twenty-three years, fear was a seemingly impenetrable wall, preventing me from embarking on a writing career.  And even now, despite short story competition wins, and a building volume of published work, it is still there—large and looming.

An Exercise in Control

Thomas Keneally is clearly an accomplished author.  He is the winner of the Man-Booker, Miles Franklin Awards, along with many others.  He also enjoys the notable claim of having his book, “Schindler’s Ark”, adapted into an Oscar winning film by none other than Steven Spielberg.  Certainly he should feel some confidence in his literary abilities.
Recently, in a fascinating interview, he was asked that, considering his fairly early success, did writing come easily and did he worry was there any time that the writing might not come?
He began to comment, ‘Writing is an exercise in control,’ and then he paused.  I thought this incredible author, with such a legacy of prose, was about to extol the virtue of controlling yourself to sit at a desk day after day.  That is the toughest part of the job right?
After a long breath, though, he said something that truly surprised me.  Award winning, Thomas Keneally said, ‘Writing is an exercise in controlling your fear.  Above all the fear that you are not a writer.  And that doubt is always there.  But we are addicted to writing.  Writing is like dope.  It’s like alcohol to the alcoholic.  You can’t do without it and alcohol makes alcoholics miserable and writing makes writers sometimes miserable but writing delivers a sort of transcendence sometimes.’

Devil in my Ear

In my first year of taking writing seriously, that same fear sat next to me, whispering in my ear for every page I wrote.  Sometimes it was so loud it drowned out all common sense and reassurances by my best first reader, Hubby.  Even the wins in competitions and enjoying publication of my stories still managed to garner negative comment from my inner critic—he’s really quite malicious.
'Surely, there weren’t many other stories in the competition,’ he would say, or ‘The quality for this particular competition must be very low for you to win a place.’  I wouldn't even hang the award certificates on my wall. He actually made me feel ashamed. As confident as I would feel at times, it was seemingly his job to bring me down, crash me on that mountain I dared to skim.
Then there was that week, two years ago, where I didn’t dare read what I had written in a section of my novel.  The memory of the writing, so punctuated with the thoughts that it wasn’t just trash but embarrassingly unfixable trash, paralysed me.  That was the week I cried myself to sleep, couldn’t read, couldn’t write and decided I was never going back to it again.
But the addiction called and at the back of my mind was the feeble, lonely thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.  I thought if I just read one page and then put it away, then at least I would forever still the mad thought that I could be a good writer.

The Demons

In the end, the writing wasn’t terrible and, of course, it was fixable, and I learnt a valuable lesson.  Writing harboured its demons.  Battling those demons was as much a part of the process as coming up with plots, inventing characters, and editing my drafts.  Writing was a conscious and subconscious mind game.
Ah, so now I knew the rules, I thought.  That nasty critic voice will not catch me, the oh-so-wise writer, again. 
I was wrong.
Two weeks ago, I began a short story with all the bravado with which my experience has endowed me.  It was an exciting idea and the first few pages captured the concept perfectly.  I read them enthusiastically over the phone to Hubby, who cooed and ahhed at my brilliance.  That night I handed over the remaining pages eager to hear his thoughts on my work so far.
‘It doesn’t work,’ he said bluntly.  ‘The sentences are choppy and the whole opening scene drags.  I’d scrub that beginning.’
‘Oh, the whole beginning, doesn’t work.  Are you sure?’  I said, puffs of ego escaping from every pore.
‘Yep,’ he says, ‘See, you always accuse me of bias but when it’s not good I tell you.  So now you can trust me.’ 
And that was all it took to keep me from writing for two weeks; to even spin me into a little sadness that permeated my life.  In the night, that critic voice crept back in hissing like a snake, ‘You really aren’t much of a writer.  Whatever muse you had has gone and found a better writer.  Give up.  You’ll amount to nothing.’
For over two weeks it went on—critical voices, sadness, and no writing.  But I’m a confirmed writerholic, and I couldn’t stay away.  I opened the story file and stared at the screen as I took a deep breath.  I didn’t dare read what I had already written.  The literary critic had amped it up a notch and was screaming that the well was dry and best forget about it.  'You will never write another good sentence,' was his final shot.
And I almost turned away. 

Barely Hanging On

One thought kept me there, hanging by my creative fingernails.  If I didn’t write that day, then I may not write tomorrow or the day after, and the longer the gap the more fear would fill it.  Then one day might the gap stretch wider than I could reach.  And the thought that I would never experience that ‘transcendence’ again, was just enough to tip my hands towards the keyboard. 
By now the critic was hysterical—I think I heard, terrible, disaster and horrific in the same utterance—as the first sentences left my mind and appeared upon the screen.  Then, like magic, he was gone.  And it was just the words and me again and I was back safe in my home.
Later as I read the passages to my hubby, he exclaimed, ‘Brilliant, truly brilliant,’ and I was once again wearing my coat of many bravadoes.  I thought, why, oh why, did the thought of writing scare me for two weeks? 
And I’ve thought a lot about it since, too, because this shouldn’t have happened to me again.  I knew it would happen but like all writers, I’m counterphobic when it comes to writing.  Sometimes, I even like the fear.  It makes me feel all-conquering.  So why did I lose my faith?

Why, why, why?

Because it’s magic, you know. 
Writing is pure magic and we are magicians who instinctively weave with all our tools.  And because it’s magic, there is no true formula.  It doesn’t come from knowing that if you add one plus one you will always get two.  It comes, and it doesn’t come; and it works, and it doesn’t work. 
Writers are even braver than the Bird Man.  Even that Bird Man wouldn’t jump off a cliff if he thought there was a chance that his wings wouldn’t work.  Sometimes, our wings don’t open.  We don’t know what’s waiting for us counterphobic writerholics each day but we take our chances. 
We face our demons.  We write to fight another day because there is only one thing worse than bad writing and that is no writing at all.  And a life without writing scares me more than jumping off a cliff with only flimsy parachute wings.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012


‘Get Published’.  That is what we writers say when asked what is the single hope for our words our stories, our books.  Why else would you do it?  Why would you sit there day in, day out, coming back to something that taunts you as much as it uplifts?
But the chance of publication is remote.  Just attend any publishing workshop.  The speakers love to quote the figures of failed would-be writers.  We need to face the reality of the publishing industry they tell us.  After, we return to our blank pages, a little more hunched, and brushing off the echo of those figures like dust on a lapel.  We hope they don’t apply to us.

Stephen King wrote a few paragraphs in his 1981 book “Danse Macabre”—an examination of the horror genre in writing and film—and they stuck with me for thirty-one years.  They are my shield against the fear that I, too, will be one of those crumpled writers lying rejected at the feet of the publishing houses.  I paraphrase his words—because the book is in a box in the garage under a mountain of other boxes.
He said, ‘Writing is like going to the gym.  If you go to the gym every day and workout, you are going to build big muscles.  If you write every day, then eventually you are going to build big writing muscles.'  He went on to say, ‘Then there is that thing called luck that plays a role.  But there is nothing to say you can’t write yourself, with your big writing muscles, into a place and wait for that luck.’ 
That is a comment to frame.  We chase this dream daily of publishing but I think we must remind ourselves first why we write.  Publishing and being paid is a smart goal because there are not a lot of free things in life.  And, of course, we want to be read.  We want payment to entertain, educate, enlighten people whilst sharing our opinion and telling our stories.
King also famously said that he must write every day because he loves it and it avoids him getting a headache.  It was also his salvation after the accident that nearly killed him.
What if we write to not only build our muscles and hopefully to be published, but we turn to our craft, also, for our salvation?  If you think about it like that, then the writing landscape looks very different as you write your way to the Lucky Spot of Publishing.

Many big name writers suffered rejection by the big publishing houses.  We have heard the legends and it heartens us.  Best sellers like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, A Wrinkle in Time, and authors J.K. Rowlings, Colleen McCulloch, Beatrice Potter—all required perseverance to arrive at their Lucky Spot. 
Those authors and their stories arrived on some Editor’s desk at the right time—most likely not at the time the Author thought was right—at the Lucky Spot time that is a combination of talent, work, perseverance and luck.
Does it matter if your Lucky Spot isn’t after the first novel, or the second, or the fifty-first rejection of your third novel, and comes at the tenth submission of the fifth novel?  It does if you are writing for the income, the recognition and all the things we imagine we want from our writing.  
But what if the Lucky Spot is where you are now?  If just writing is the luckiest thing in the world you could do.  And all you need from your writing is to turn up to it, to make you as happy and rewarded as if you were a best-seller novelist.  Who said there is a time-line on publishing work and building a career?
Only you—maybe. 
And if nobody wants your first book or first story, well that is okay.  Write the second one and fill your trash, rubbish bags or in-boxes with the rejections.  Heck, stick them on the wall.  Success is the best revenge.  If the second book doesn’t do the trick, well eventually will come the book that makes a mockery of those rejection slips.  At some point, if you have a modicum of natural writing ability, you must find the Lucky Spot, where your writing matches your ambition.

Do not get me wrong.  When I started out two years ago, the publication of my work was the be all and end all.  I would go to sleep imagining the acceptance letter as, simultaneously, the spectre of being an unpublished writer loomed large.  But something happened along the road.  Call it, perhaps, the wisdom of the accumulated words I have banked. 
I wrote a bunch of short stories because the ideas alighted upon me and I needed to get them down.  Then several larger stories invaded my brain that I knew would become books.  And I was off and racing towards that publishing deal.  But as I wrote towards that Lucky Spot, head down and ambition weighing on my shoulders, I paused and looked around.  Suddenly, I realised I wasn’t writing to be published but writing because I loved it.  Writing and I were partners and we enjoyed each other’s company.
Now, I begrudge the paperwork and emails that have become part of my day, thanks to my small publishing commitments.  The closer you get to the Lucky Spot, the more paperwork you will find.  And it takes you from your love, from the magic words and the world of storytelling.  The business of writing is the least fun part.  And I fear that publishing deals will bestow even more paperwork and non-writing committments upon an author.
Writing is not work.  When I flex my muscles, I am grateful for the calling of my stories and characters.  They chose me and I am honoured by that.  Fellow writer, you and I will never know at what point in our writing career we will hit the Lucky Spot.  So whether a publisher thinks one of our books is good enough for publishing has become irrelevant.  The destination is not the goal. 
I believe publishing is ahead for anyone with the patience and the love of what they do.  It will wait for you.  You just need the patience and the courage to wait for it.  The Lucky Spot has a whispering magic that makes the world feel good.  I think you will know when you’re there.  Give me a blank page and a keyboard and I feel like the happiest, luckiest girl in the world—published or not.

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