Writers I Love
There was a time when I didn’t need to look for inspiration. In those days I thought it came out of the sky. I just churned out my writing. Back then my poems and stories brought me heaps of praise. I won competitions. I was regularly published in the Sunday papers. At one stage I had to decide between becoming an author or a tightrope walker. I even wrote my poems as I practised my circus routines. I didn’t actually have access to a tightrope so I had to make do with a rickety fence. Inevitably a nasty fall ended my circus career before it even started. That was when I was eight.
As I grew up, the praise eventually stopped, and with it the ‘inspiration’. I found another career. I married, had children. Boxes full of scribblings attest to my persistence, but inevitably the flow slowed to a trickle. Then in my early fifties I swallowed my pride and went looking for stimulus in a creative writing course. The most important thing I discovered was I was not on my own. Virtually everyone in my class had suffered a similar experience. The second and most important lesson was I must never sit around waiting for inspiration to arrive like a bolt out of the blue. My gut feeling should have already warned me lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
What I did discover was I had to do the hard yards first. I had to keep putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard no matter what. I had to accept that much of what I would write would be rubbish, but never to allow my humiliation to force me away from my desk. Eventually I found if I worked hard enough, in the end, inspiration did inevitably arrive. To my old self this would have seemed like a lightning bolt, but now I know better than that.
Maria Popova has just published a Daily Ritual: A Guided Tour of Writers’ and Artists’ Creative Habits on her Brainpickings website. Apparently Mark Twain would ‘go to the study in the morning after a hearty breakfast and stay there until dinner at about 5.00.’ He is said to have always skipped lunch. Now I find the thought of that quite scary.
However if you’re interested in productivity, and really want to scare yourself, then you should read Guardian writer, Oliver Burkman’s, article on How To Be Productive and Creative, The Karl Marx Way.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. - Jack London
I need your feedback!
As a life writing mentor I’m often asked who are my favourite memoir writers. So, I’m creating a list starting with five of my old favourites. I’ll eventually post the list on Skeletons & Dirty Linen
After a lifetime of reading it was quite hard to narrow down my choices, and it was only after I made my selection I realised every writer I had chosen has their own unique voice. This showed me where my heart really lies when it comes to reading. I’ve included some examples so you’ll see what I mean.
Let me know your favourites so I can add yours to the list. Tell me why if you have the time.
1. Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
“Greece is not a small country – it is impressively vast. No country I have visited has given me such sense of grandeur. Size is not created by mileage always… Greece could swallow both the United States and Europe. Greece is a little like China or India…”
2. Amos Oz
“The city, Jerusalem, where people schlepped along the streets: “If we picked up our foot someone else might come along and snatch our little strip of land. On the other hand, once you have lifted your foot, do not be in a hurry to put it down again… time and time again we have fallen into the hands of our enemies because we put our foot down without looking where we were putting them.”
3. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
4. Janet Frame, Angel at My Table
“From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.”
5. Austin Burroughs, Running with Scissors
“My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek. “Damn it,” she says, “something isn’t right.”
Last week I met with a former workshop participant to talk about the memoir she is writing. Her research has uncovered a cast of very interesting characters and stories. Her writing is also quite advanced, but she now finds herself struggling to integrate her story into a structure that works. Most memoir writers find themselves in this situation at some point in their writing journey. Life itself is incredibly complex, which means writing about life is likely to be just as complex, or even more so.
By coincidence the same day I went to a friend’s book launch. Kris Olsson is a beautiful writer. Her previous book The China Garden won the 2010 Barbara Jeffries award for the best novel written by an Australian author. Kris’s new book Boy, Lost, her long-lost brother’s story, is awash with complexity. Her brutal first husband snatched Peter from his mother’s arms, and it was 40 years before mother and son were reunited. This book is a brilliant depiction of individual grief and suffering, and of the fallout a terrible incident like this can have on generations of families. We are also left to ponder the wider ramifications of a system that still fails to protect the rights and needs of children who are stolen, abandoned or neglected.
Boy, Lost is also a perfect example of how to manage structure. I tread this path almost daily, so I am in awe of what Kris has achieved. She manages to switch back and forth from time-frame to time-frame, from character to character, and point-of-view to point-of-view without ever losing you. I understand the amount of work that must have gone into creating a structure so seamless it is the meaning, not the effort that finally shines through.
Story and Structure will be one of a series of one-day advanced Skeletons & Dirty Linen workshops I will be announcing shortly. Please let me know if you are interested in finding out more details.
I used to be a very poor time manager. Managing multiple tasks under pressure was a nightmare. I’d leap about so much from task to task I never seemed to get anything done properly. Then I discovered a secret weapon to deal with this ferocious enemy called time. This weapon is incredibly simple to implement, but produces really amazing results when it’s used consistently. It’s brilliance is it’s instant and ongoing effectiveness. Above all, I swear it makes self-discipline a piece of cake, and it’s free.
This weapon is called the POMODORO. The creators claim it eliminates the anxiety of time and, more importantly for me, enhances and focuses my concentration. By using the Pomodoro I am always able to create order out of any chaos. It’s a complete mystery to me how something so simple actually works every time. I find this mystery quite magical.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and will help you accomplish what you want to do by transforming time into a valuable ally. The Pomodoro Technique is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that was first used by Cirillo when he was a university student.
The Pomodoro is completely free, easy to use, and, most of all, it works! I have introduced it to students and writing friends who love it. Put simply, before you begin your task you set a timer for 25 minutes. During this period you focus only on that task. You don’t look at emails, go to the bathroom, or make a telephone call. You allow nothing to distract you. The timer on my mobile phone is switched on right now. If my husband comes into my office right this minute, I’ll say ‘Pomodoro’. He has learned that this means I won’t stop so he just slides away.
Because I believe that too much structure is an anathema to creativity, I implement the technique at its most basic level using these five basic steps:
1. Decide on the task to be done
2. Set the Pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
3. Work on the task until the timer rings
4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
5. Every four “Pomodoros” take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
If you run out of time you have to stop, even if you are in the middle of a sentence when the bell rings. There are so many times I have been really annoyed by this ‘interruption,’ but because I am now disciplined I really do stop instantly, then I can’t wait to get back and finish my sentence or task. So the 5-minute break actually creates a renewed impetus to get going again.
On the other hand if the task finishes before 25 minutes, you get the opportunity to go over what you have been doing instead of just getting up and walking away. The extra time can be used for polishing whether it’s editing or the furniture. This is also the time when really interesting ideas can pop up out of the blue.
I find the Pomodoro useful for the simple and onerous tasks, not just for writing. It’s amazing how quickly you can clean up the kitchen using this technique. This is such a great tool for time-management; I often plan a busy day by first assessing the number of Pomodoros each separate task will take, and then scheduling the tasks according to their priority. Because I work from home this is usually a mixture of writing as well as household chores. Generally I make sure I use the 4th Pomodoro to do a domestic task so I can give my head a break.
Another support tool you can use in tandem with the Pomodoro is an Internet blocker. I use a productivity application that shuts down your access to your email and locks you away for the Internet for selected periods of time up to eight hours. Freedom.
Every time I find myself falling back into my old chaotic methods I soon realise it’s because I have stopped using the Pomodoro. If you do decide to give this a go I’d really love to get your feedback.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Next time I’ll tell you about my own flying lessons.
I came across a fascinating interview with American writer Maya Angelou in my collected Paris Review Interviews. Angelou is the author of the bestselling memoir, The Caged Bird Sings. She has some serious things to say about the beauty of language, about melody and the extraordinary events of her life. However what stood out for me was the working environment she had created for herself. The excerpt below clearly demonstrates it doesn’t matter how and where we write as long as it helps us to keep writing.
If you are really interested in memoir writing you must read the rest of this inspiring interview Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119
You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible….
And is the bottle of sherry for the end of the day or to fuel the imagination?
I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.
When you are refreshed by the Bible and the sherry, how do you start a day’s work?
I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.
Whew! 2011 was a very hard grind, and with little reward. I’ve nearly finished my novel; the one I’ve been working on for far too long. However every time I reach the top of the draft hill I find there’s another peak, followed by another, and another…