The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

A Day in the Life

alarmAlarm vibrates. Sensation before first thought. Cold. Am I coming down with the flu? No. Um, possibly. I need to be strong, fight through. Check phone. New emails. Refresh podcasts. Work emails? No. I’ll be there soon enough. Will I write today? Yes, when I get home. What will I have for dinner? How long will it take to prepare and cook? How much time will that suck out of my evening?

Wash. Get dressed. Pack my bag. Will I bring my book today? Yes. Don’t waste time sleeping on the train. Pack notebook. My battered and scribble-filled notebook. Damn, I forgot to read those research articles I printed out at work yesterday. I’ll get to them another time.

Driving to train station. I wonder about my main character. How will he react when demands are made of him? Where will the drama come from? What is his truth? Can I write it well? A reminder to write something down when I get on the train: Rylin Webster wants to tell his story, his way, on his terms. A scene forms fast in my head. I watch the odometer. I check the clock. Train leaves in five minutes. I’m two minutes away from station car park. Trying to hang onto a thread of thought. The scene gets vivid and intense. I speak a line of dialogue out loud.

“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”

Who says this?

trainPark car. Hustle to platform. Train comes. Find seat. Flip open notebook. Scrawl and scribble. Thoughts come quicker than I can write. Words are illegible. Will I be able to read this later? Will it make sense or will I lose the gist? PA announcement. Thoughts exhausted. The distraction of landscape speeding by at 100kmph.

Read my book. Can’t focus for more than a page or two at a time. Thoughts beget thoughts. Ideas form but have no place. Context is elusive. Open notebook. Scribble. Empty my brain. Close notebook. Take a few deep breaths. Read some more but don’t absorb what I’m reading.

WTFTrain reaches its destination. Earphone in. Podcasts at the ready. Maybe NBA’s The Starters. Maybe Marc Maron’s WTF. Maybe TOFOP. Twenty minute walk. My mind remains active. Plot lines weave in and out of the audio flowing into my head. Traffic noise on Broadway coming from Harris St drowns out everything.

At work. Put all thoughts of writing and being a writer to one side. Really? Good luck with thtrafficat. Do my job. Earn my keep. Read occasional online articles of interest. Send quotes, links and ideas to myself via email throughout the day. Making a cup of tea, wonder about Rylin Webster’s marriage. Why did his supermodel wife fall in love with him in the first place? Make small talk with a colleague about the upcoming weekend. Day’s end is getting closer.

inceptionWalk back to train station. New thoughts emerge. Links connect. Links miss their mark. Kill the podcast feed. Need music instead. The National? The Shins? No. This story feeds off the energy from movie soundtracks. Hans Zimmer. Interstellar? I know, Inception. Traffic noise. The roar of a motorcycle. The pang of hunger and the yawn of mental, if not physical, tiredness.

Make train ten minutes early. Open notebook. Scribble quickly, furiously, illegibly. Smile to myself that the adverbs I’m using in my notes will not make my manuscript. Why do I care what Stephen King thinks? Bret Easton Ellis, a writer I love, embraces adverbs. Look at Glamorama?Glamorama

As the train pulls out of the station, close notebook. Take out earphones. No music. No novel. No writing. Sydney’s inner-west suburbs slip by. Macdonaldtown. Newtown. Stanmore. Petersham. Lewisham. My eyes start to get heavy. I sit up, get out my book. Red or Dead by David Peace. Read a page. Battle tiredness. Read half-a-page more before my head drops. Strathfield, Epping, Hornsby don’t register.  I wake up with my finger between pages like a bookmark. Read another page. Then jack into another podcast. Pete Holmes laughs then gets deep, questions our understanding of the universe, then asks his guest whether success can come too soon?You-Made-It-Weird

Its six’o’clock. Hunger has full sway over me. That means I won’t be writing until at least seven, maybe eight. I already know what scene I want to write, need to write, if I’m to drive the story forward.

Walk in the front door. Hello to my wife, bear-tackle my son. Get changed and play dinosaurs for half-an-hour. Hunger lingers, distracts me. The desire to write lingers, distracts me. Cook dinner alone. Use the process of flouring a chicken breast, dipping it in egg and covering it in breadcrumbs, to untether my mind from now, from the day that’s been, from myself.

Too full afterdeadmau5-Superliminal-300x300 dinner, I shower and shave. Wash the day away. Start preparing for the day to come. Clothes laid out. Shoes polished. Top up Opal Card. Check work emails. Flick a few away. Exclaim in frustration over a client who is beyond demanding. Turn off phone’s WiFi. Mac on. iTunes is a ‘Go!’ Deadmau5 – Superliminal. Google Docs open. Here it comes. The manuscript loads up. I scroll down to the last page and read the notes I left from the previous day.Timmy-Mallet-with-Malletts-Mallet

I’m writing. Dialogue flows. Too much dialogue. Go back. Insert thoughts, description. Maintain tone. Not enough tension. Too much conflict? Where’s this scene going? Oh, wow. Yes, that works. I could never have planned that. There’s a knock on the door. My son comes in, jumps on my bed. ‘Let’s play Mallet’s Mallett?’

‘Ten minutes, Buddy.’

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Lots of dialogue to finish. Lots of red squiggly lines under misspelt words. Rylin Webster is angry but doesn’t know it. He’s pushing everyone around him away. He thinks this is normal. A lightbulb moment. A new scene. Not the next scene. File it away. The door opens. My wife brings a glass of wine. ‘House of Cards is starting.’

The manuscript automatically savhouse-of-cardses. I shut down the computer. Frank Underwood, my wife and a glass of wine awaits.

Later, sleep beckons. I hold on through a nothing episode of Game of Thrones. I wonder about tomorrow? What will happen? What will I achieve? How long will it be until I get to write again? In bed, before sleep fully takes over, I imagine Rylin Webster on the basketball court. He’s hurting his defender. He’s hurting his team. He’s hurting himself. An idea teases, never fully settles and then, nothing.

Being a writer: what do you need to make it happen?

I once heard someone say, ‘We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves.’ As writers our self-talk can be highly critical and extremely biting:tumblr_mbffz2ntyg1rtheg4o1_400-323x450

‘This is terrible.’

‘I’ve written nothing today.’

‘I’ll never finish this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

While we’re not always gentle with ourselves, sometimes the gloves need to come off. There’s a state of agitation that exists between satisfaction and dissatisfaction where creativity and motivation are born: the constant arm wrestle between low and high pressure weather systems that vomit thunder and spit lightning.

In these moments we can be at our very best and at our very worst – the line can be very thin. It’s not easy to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop to the vulnerable and sometimes insecure writer inside of us. As I battled, knee-deep, through the detritus of rejection and seeming failure during the latter part of last year I found my only companion was Bad Cop. It wasn’t long before his tired cynicism began to sound like Truth.

And just as I felt the vestiges of one novel and eighteen-months of work slip through my fingers, I experienced a moment of quiet calm. Soon though, whispers of doubt grew louder and seeds of undoing sprouted stems. It was as I resisted this return to negativity that a question emerged from the ether of my subconscious: What do I need to write?

A challenge and carrot. A push and a pull. In the tug-of-war between Good Cop and Bad Cop, the little agitated atoms within me were shaken into a state of heated friction and proposed a way forward.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the three core things I needed to enable me to write and remain committed to my practice of writing on a regular basis:pencil-writing-ftr

 

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Energy

 

  1. Space

Need:    Somewhere I can go where it’s conducive to be a writer and to write.

Action:  I converted the spare room in my house into a writer’s den. I moved in my book cases and stacks of CDs. My notes and plot structures adorn the walls. I’m cocooned in my craft and my stories and my characters.

Result:  I’m writing more regularly, more spontaneously and I’m really enjoying how and what I’m creating.

 

  1. Time

Need:    To carve out thirty, sixty or more minutes per day (or at least five days a week) to write.

Action:  I’m eating more lasagne. I’ve found the 40 minutes while the dish is on the oven a great time to work on some new scenes. On the nights where I’m not eating lasagne it’s either the second I get home from work (thirty minutes of power writing leaves me free to relax for the rest of the evening) or just after a scalding hot shower (the ideas I have in the shower never cease to amaze me).

Result:  Slowly but surely the first draft of my new project is coming together. I’m making steady progress which is very satisfying and keeps Bad Cop at bay.

 

  1. Energy

Need:    To not be fatigued, hungry or tired when I sit down to write. To have the reserves to bring passion and intensity and clarity to my writing.

Action:  Eat better throughout the day. A better breakfast. A good lunch. Some fruit. Something in the afternoon before I leave work. A good dinner when I get home. Exercise – basketball mid-week, football on the weekends. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when I’m not writing, don’t attack myself for not writing. If I’m going to chill out and watch a movie or spend time with a loved one or friend, enjoy that as much as I can. No guilt. No regrets.

Result:  I’m able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. My writing desk is at a height where I can comfortably stand and type – so I do. And this allows me to bring a lot of movement and dynamism to how write. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing.

 

This is the prescription that’s helping me stay on the edge and be sharp in my practice. It’s going to be different for everyone. Each of us will have different elements we’ll need to bring to the table to make our writing work for us. So there’s no one size fits all approach here.

But by starting with one simple and direct question, you’ll be amazed, given application, patience and dedication, where it will lead you. Here’s the challenge:

What do you need to write?

 

Ken Ward

 

Body Image credit: morethanflesh / http://www.lydiamccall.com/heal-negative-body-image/

Sam Simon: A Writer’s Life (Taxi, The Simpsons and so much more)

Up until last week, thesimpsons credits reference Sam Simon was nothing more to me than a name on the credits rolls of The Simpsons. I knew nothing of the man, his life, his achievements, and his role as co-creator on one of the greatest animated series ever. Without The Simpsons, I never would have met my wife and my life would be unimaginably different (not for the better).

sam simon

Sam Simon died on 8th March after a battle with cancer, aged 49. It was only seeing his name alongside The Simpsons in online headlines made me stop and take notice. And having taken notice, his story, his life as a writer and producer offers a lot to inspire.

 

Simon wamighty mouses always a skilled and inventive when it came to drawing. Aged 24, after years of sketching comic strips for the San Francisco Chronicle, he got his first writing credit on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse soon followed by Heckle & Jeckle and Fat Albert. ‘What I learned, honestly, that was so valuable was…they made me a writer. They said we want you to write scripts.’

Over the next couple of years he worked on a number of shows that were either going nowhere or seemed to be leading him nowhere. The measure of the man came in 1982 when he submitted a script on spec to the TV show Taxi (starring Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufmann).

taxi

‘I wrote a script and I mailed it in…I decided as long as I’m writing TV I should write something I’m not embarrassed about.’

How Simon forged a path for himself based on talent, desire and integrity, reminded me of @elise_janes recent post on The Cringe where she got real about shoulda, coulda, woulda and how bullshit that all is – we need to go after what we want.

These lessons and examples are all around us: people who achieve through a willingness to work hard with no guarantee of a return, no guarantee of acknowledgement or success. Those who commit themselves to following through on their creative endeavour, because it matters. Maybe you know someone like this. Maybe this is who are working hard to become. I know I am.

Sam Simon left us writers and creators with three tips. In his own words, this is ‘the best advice ever’:

  1. Story above all
  2. Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments
  3. Love your characters

I’ll give the last word to The Simpsons themselves. On the most recent show, which aired in the US on Sunday 15th March, they ended the episode with a simple and touching tribute:

thank you

 

Ken Ward

 

(Quotes sourced from Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, ‘Episode 389 – Sam Simon’, May 16, 2013)

Writing is Work (and other things you need to get over)

The-joy-of-writing-1

Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since you read your first book/poem/play (probably a book, not many infants learn their ABC’s with Samuel Beckett).

Actually, revise that. You’ve probably wanted to be a writer since you experienced your first really good story, you know, the moment when all the hairs on your arms stood up, and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.

And chances are that this feeling never left you. In fact as you chose your subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.

Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.

  1. Yourself

The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. And this is something you will have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.

The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.

  1. Other people

Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “So busy, I wrote 10 000 words, stayed up all night, so exhausted.” Not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their 8yo to three different birthday parties, their 5yo to soccer, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.

They don’t give a shit and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try and do something creative. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in your close friends and family, because many of them will just not get it. And that’s the way it is.

  1. Time

Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe 1 hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, frequent slow periods, and some moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.

The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You will have to miss birthdays, dinners, events, holidays, usually to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because the deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a self-directed deadline. But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.

  1. Where you came from

Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some people are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most people aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people aren’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.

  1. IMG_0512Conventions

The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.

Thing is, you don’t.

Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.

Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.

  1. Work

Most writers will actually have to work for money for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If you need to get a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.

Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.

  1. Expectations

If you write always worrying about what other people will think about this or that then you will never put a word on paper.

In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.

Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. Hey, everyone watches Game of Thrones. Even if they say they don’t.

  1. Security

There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there. In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.

  1. Genre

So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that all you wanted to write about was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer? HELL. NO.

Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of ten award-winning lyrical masterpieces.

  1. Other writers

The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you will start to find some like-minded people. You will find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, literary fetsivals. You will find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you will also find people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.

In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and don’t care about anything else. They will resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.

  1. What you could have been

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a great music director. I could have been a great educator. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.

And you should too.

 

Elise Janes

Bubbles From the Bottom of the Seabed

At times last year I felt myself in the clouds.

As a writer I was soaring. I was above the world I inhabited looking down upon everything and everybody.
The air was thin and clean, rushing hard in my face and yet pliable, responsive to every thought, movement and action I perceived.
My novel Born Under Punches was becoming.
It was emerging from the malaise of unformed ideas into a burgeoning behemoth – the development of the novel paralleling the realisations of the story’s main character Roy Carle.
Myself as a writer becoming increasingly adept in the learning of my craft.

77795_solnce_voda_podvodnyj-mir_puzyrki_1920x1200_(www.GdeFon.ru)And then…
And then awareness.
Awareness that I wasn’t flying up on high, soaring above the world, looking down.
That I was in fact underneath it and what I had perceived was inverted, refracted at an odd angle.
I found myself lying on the seabed looking up, with it all above me.

Next to me, in a shattered heap, the wreckage of my novel, a rotting and crumbling hulk, its ability to be salvaged unknown.

Ahead of me, the challenge was clear: do I rise or do I tie myself to this deteriorating carcass in the grave?

And so I began the slow, slow ascent back to the surface, the middle; the place where ability, desire, expectation and hope all mesh together.

Each metre I climb from off the seabed is done so by application to a basic concept…

…That I want to write and that I will write.

Even if it’s only for my own benefit and enjoyment.

And that means a new slate, a new idea, a new opportunity to create a world and characters that will live their lives upon the stage I offer up for them.

Some days I even forget to look up to see the great distance between me and the surface; I get so lost in creation, the intricacies and complexities of fictional lives.

Some days I remember what it is to fly, and realise swimming is much the same.

Ken Ward