“If you wish to be a good writer, write.” – Epictetus
There hasn’t been a lot of movement along Thunder Road in the past year and I apologise for that. New role at work, tight timetable, too much travelling… I can make excuses aplenty. Will they really be honest though?
I confess to a severe loss of writerly confidence but missing mojo isn’t really a good reason to put down my pen and not pick it up again. Most guides to writing, and the quote above, cut to the truth. Yep, I get it. I haven’t been making myself right because I haven’t been making myself write.
So 2018 has begun differently. I’ve changed my routine. I’ve begun writing again. I don’t know if the words are worthwhile but I know they’re better than anything I produced last year.
One of the things I did do in 2017 was send off a sample of my DNA to check for ancestral connections. I’ve long joked with my kids that my cultural interests and palate must mean I’m a blend of Japanese, Indian, Scandinavian, Brit and indigenous Australian. When the results arrived they were focused across the United Kingdom, western Europe and Scandinavia. It turns out I’m one-fifth Viking after all.
I’ve read Norse mythology as long as I can remember. That interest was understandably rekindled last year.
Watching: Vikings; The Handmaid’s Tale, 13 Reasons Why; Stranger Things; Luke Cage
Reading: One Would Think the Deep – Claire Zorn; The Stars at Oktober Bend – Glenda Millard; The Other Side of Summer – Emily Gale; Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen; When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi; Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman and others.
Listening: Ironbark -The Waifs; Go Farther in Lightness – Gang of Youths; Greetings from Asbury Park – Bruce Springsteen, Midnight Oil back catalogue. And podcasts! Check out Phoebe’s Fall, The Music Dissectors (with a guest appearance from yours truly) and Myths and Legends.
Dear Mr Peg, 11 year-old A is forever filling up notebooks with stories she has written. Are there any tools or apps we can use to encourage tweens to keep on writing? Thanks, Risky Business.
Dear Risky Business,
Thanks for your question. It’s excellent that Miss A is shaping as a spinner of yarns. As you know well, storytelling is a skill for life. I can’t think of any job where the ability to connect with people and communicate clearly isn’t a massive advantage. From where I’m sitting, (oddly enough, in a parked car, in a narrow, one-way street near a hockey ground, where someone just called me a strange man… OK, maybe a tale for another day…) these are vital skills to encourage.
Like Miss A, I was an early bloomer as a writer. I have exercise books filled with primary school tales of superheroes, explorers and magic. Then there are the excruciating, angst-ridden adolescent-era diaries, and the gnarled notebooks containing tertiary level crimes against poetry. Decades later, the ideas are captured in electronic notes and, hopefully, the maturity is honed, but the ideas still flow freely.
So what can you do to keep Miss A writing?
#1 Read, read, read
I know you’re already onto this but aim to read with/to Miss A daily. Every book is a lesson in writing and an invitation to imitate and improve. I’m grateful to my parents for giving me this advantage.
When Miss A finishes a piece of writing, encourage her to read it aloud. This is one of the best ways for her to learn about punctuation, language and dialogue. We want to train her ears to hear what works and what needs work. Even if you don’t like everything she’s written, pick something you did enjoy (an image, a character, a sentence…) and praise it.
#2 Train the storytelling muscles
Just as you might throw random times tables questions at the kids to improve their multiplication skills, toss questions at Miss A to feed her imagination. ‘What are those people doing over here? Why? What might they do next?’
Take a line from a song and ask Miss A to build a story around it. For example, there’s a Paul Kelly song that says, “I’ve done all the dumb things’. What dumb things did the person do and why?
If you can’t keep up with Miss A’s appetite for ideas, search the Apple AppStore for ‘prompts’. There are plenty of options, including some tailored for young writers. You could also try this website with child-friendly jump-starts.
#3 Go for gold
Google writing competitions for Miss A’s age bracket. They’re not easy to find but they’re out there and they offer cash prizes, opportunities to be published (sometimes) and, best of all, a chance to build confidence and writing fitness. Try libraries, local councils, schools and writing groups. Even supermarket competitions that call for an answer in 25 words or less can be exercises in disciplined creativity.
#4 Find her tribe
As Miss A gets older, there are writing communities to explore. Apps like Wattpad and Tablo are for people who write and want to link with willing readers who consume and comment on their material. I’ve been researching these options since I received your question and I wouldn’t want my 11-year-old hanging out here yet. Not unless she’s into erotic fan fiction about boy band members…
But if she’s willing to travel south for a school holiday workshop, I would highly recommend the 100 Story Building.
And when she’s a little older, you could check out these options:
#5 Be boring parents
It’s easier said than done in a busy household but try to create opportunities for Miss A to find time and space to listen to her imagination. Actively seek silence or give her a nook to retreat to. Boredom can be beneficial. It gives an active mind a reason to go solo and find its own adventures.
Help her to be resilient, too. I’m sure you’re already on to this but she’s going to need this quality to survive as a creative soul. Because writing is a matter of taste and tastebuds differ from reader to reader. Everyone is a potential critic and the WWW and social media are overpopulated with cowardly trolls.
Even away from these toxic influences, confidence dips, soars and disappears for long stints. She’ll need lots of love to help her find her way back to trusting her storytelling instincts. But when she gets back there, it will feel sensational.
Keen-eyed observers will quite rightly point out there’s been little movement on Thunder Road. Less progress than along the South Eastern Freeway during peak hour. Fewer words shared than during a silent meditation retreat.
I don’t want this blog too become a moan. Far too many past posts already focus on my frustrations with work-life imbalance or my inability of late to quarantine enough hours for clear-headed creativity.
But it’s something I wrestle with. Often. As a father/husband/allegedly mature adult, can I really allow myself an author life when the financial rewards are generally paltry?
I know other writer friends face the same dilemma. Some are reluctantly choosing to walk away from their vocation. To pay bills rather than pay attention to the stories shimmering in their consciousness. Tales that require countless hours to chart.
For my part, I am massively relieved mooted changes to the terms of copyright have apparently been abandoned. As a journalist and author I’m not the most practical or handy bloke. I’ve never built a house or factory that I can leave to my children. The novels I’ve had published may be the only things I’ve constructed that I can pass to my family – so the threat I’d lose ownership of my work, possibly after a fleeting 15 years, was devastating.
So where am I at? I’m working full-time, carefully choosing words that may appear in an app inside a mobile device, somewhere beside you, some time soon.
I’ve been learning about Viking culture, via a Danish exchange student staying at our home and now hosting my son.
And I’m following the fortunes of the North Melbourne Football Club, filing occasional match reports for The Footy Almanac.
Meanwhile the manuscript leading the pack of several pieces I have in progress is languishing but, hopefully, mentally marinading until the time is right to heat and serve.
I was lucky enough to visit Japan again recently and my research there will bolster the speculative fiction story I’m so keen to complete. We spent an afternoon at a sumo tournament and, as I type this, my epiphany has taken the shape of a mighty wrestler.
When a rikishi (contestant) enters the ring, there’s much tradition to be honored (and posturing to be enjoyed) before a bout begins. Salt is tossed liberally to purify the arena. The brow is mopped. Sake is slurped. Chests, bellies, buttocks or thighs are slapped, thunderously. The wrestlers may drop into their pre-attack crouch and give their opponent a death-stare, only to rise and lope back to their corner. Then begin the rituals again.
The build-up lasts longer than the battle. The rikishi only wrestle when they’re good and ready or their opponent is utterly psyched out. Perhaps that’s where I’m at. I need to throw salt. Purify my arena. Get my mind clear. Lower myself into writing position. Charge forward like an enraged bull. And wrestle my manuscript into submission.
One of the writing exercises I sometimes ask of students is for them to pen me a six-word novel. This is harder many people think. It’s an exercise in synthesis, in communicating an idea or emotion without wasting a word. Keeping it raw and visceral.
Over the years I’ve been speaking in schools, I’ve read six-word novels that tore at my heart, tickled my funny bone and silenced classrooms. One standout, to paraphrase, read something like, ‘Mum in psych ward. Social stigma.’ Tell me you couldn’t find an entire YA novel in that effort.
I’m reminded of this exercise today because the book that gave me the idea for the six-word novel activity features another powerful story. I don’t have it with me today but it is similar to: ‘Not quite what I had expected.’ And that’s sort of my story of 2015.
Or, ‘Took full time job. Manuscript stalled.’
Perhaps that’s doing myself an injustice. While working two jobs this year, and speaking in schools now and again, I did manage another draft of my long-term project.
A friend recently read the manuscript and had good things to say. But the clincher was that I could do specific parts of the story better. The friend even named an author (way out of my league) and challenged me to aim higher. That’s the task for me for 2016; take the best parts of my manuscript and make every other part reach just as high.
I’m already on a third or fourth draft but I’m going to define, delete and cull big time on on the next one. That’s writing. A story can always be improved.
Speaking of which, every year brings stories of pain, hope and resilience but 2015 delivered several that still echo inside me. My Christmas prayers go to families dealing with mental illness, addiction, chronic illness, grief and disharmony. Good news stories are out there, people. We do overcome all sorts of challenges. Racism, hate and sickness can be defeated.
Enough sermonising. I usually throw in a list or two to my end of year post, partly to remind myself of highlights from page, stage & screen. Here’s what I’ve been up to:
Listening: Meet the Eels – Essential Eels (1996-2006); The Decemberists’ What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Coldplay – A Head Full of Dreams; Oz by Missy Higgins; Tame Impala – Currents; the Blade Runner soundtrack; Gon’ Boogaloo by CW Stoneking.
Reading (highlights): American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Summers of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell; Born to Run by Christopher McDougall; The Walking Dead graphic novels.*
Watching: The Walking Dead; X-Files reruns! (Very excited Scully and Mulder are coming back!)
Lastly, I was very chuffed to have a football story included in The Footy Almanac 2015 and *I’m loving reading the work of other authors within. The Almanac would make a great Christmas present – perfect for beach reading. You can whack in an order here: http://www.footyalmanac.com.au/
To all the readers who have stuck with me, thank you. I hope your 2016 brings good health and good times.