We’ve all got something that keeps our ego in check. Some of us have social media, others have mirrors or a mother. Me, I’ve got tennis.
I’d been feeling good about myself. Writing and work were going well and I was starting to believe I was somebody.
Then, on the weekend, the bubble burst.
It wasn’t a big event – just a dozen middle-aged boys vying for glory and some sports socks. Yet it was a tournament nonetheless.
And, for someone like me, someone who sub-consciously equates self-worth with success, competition is the best reality check of them all.
Reader, I lost to them.
Having performed poorly I now feel more like myself – like a nobody, that is.
Which is fine. The truth hurts but, as a masochist, I embrace the ache.
It’s a timely reminder of my rightful ranking – in tennis and in life.
Who do you wake up with in the morning? Someone you love or someone you loathe?
I don’t mean to pry but rather to posit a proposition: that the company you keep in your first waking hour sets your self for the rest of the day.
And I’m not talking about your bed buddy here – I’m referring to the version of yourself you choose to wake up with.
Stop looking at me like that!
Say you want to be a writer. Be your writing self in your first hour of wakefulness and you’ll feel like a writer for the rest of the day – that’s my assertion.
It’s nothing new. Back in 1886, the English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote: ‘Begin as you mean to go on.’
I’ve been doing so for weeks and it works.
So why not wake up to yourself and seize the hour?
A writer. I’ve always wanted to be one – and I’ve always berated and belittled myself for not being one. Well, enough is enough: I’ve decided to stop punishing myself. Not because I’ve suddenly had some success (I haven’t) but because I’ve had an epiphany: I’ve been doing the being all along.
Three decades have passed since I penned my first stories and poems. In that time I’ve spent countless hours scratching away at paper and screen, chiselling out words, some long, none lasting. Instructions for a long-lost game. A script for a sit-com. Stories and essays, experimental and conventional. Blank verse and worse. More unfinished novels than you can poke a pen at. Truly, my slush pile runneth over…
And what do I have to show for thirty years of scribbling? Not much, it seems. A thousand dollars (spent long ago) and the pleasure of seeing four stories in print. A poem pinned to a tree. A piece highly commended in a competition. A book I published myself. Blogs seen only by other bloggers fishing for followers. Not a lot to boast about, really, and yet part of me is proud – especially as I’ve rarely sought publication.
Success is overvalued anyway. Praise, I’d argue, is a prison in which we are condemned to repeat our performances until we come to despise them. As Malcolm Lowry wrote after his novel, Under the Volcano, was published: ‘Success is like some horrible disaster/Worse than your house burning’.
Failure brings freedom – a consoling thought.
Even so, I’ve given up writing dozens of times without ever kicking the habit. I still scribble almost every day, in my journal, on a blog or this year’s novel. I simply enjoy the act too much, despite (and perhaps because of) its difficulties. To me, writing is like a game of solitaire; I deal out characters and their quandaries from a deck of possibilities and see if I can put them in order. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. The result hardly matters; the play’s the thing, as Hamlet says.
Of course, it’s not all fun of a fleeting variety. Writing leaves me with something more lasting: a body of work that adds shape and substance to my physical self, that fleshes out my store of meagre memories. My writing is a record of my doings and beings; it’s my history. I am truly a man of my words.
‘One does what one is; one becomes what one does.’ So said Robert Musil, a writer remembered for his influential and yet unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities.
Unfinished? That’s good enough for me.
I’ve been writing – my signature not my novel.
Too many writers, I’m told, suffer from autograph-induced RSI, all because they didn’t simplify their signatures before stardom arrived.
At the start of the session my head spun and my arm ached; signing my name was like clinging to a roller-coaster. By its end, though – well, more of that in a minute.
Some novelists made the move early on. Hemingway’s autograph morphed into cross-hairs, while Jonathan Franzen flattened his out so he now signs with a stroke.
Here’s food for thought: we’re told to sign on the dotted line but what if one’s signature is a dotted line?
I’ve always wanted to write about a character who forges his own signature. Some kind of murder mystery?
My new autograph looks like an arrow. The only way is up now that I’ve streamlined my signature.
I have a vision. Like Nature in the poem by Burns, my ‘eye [is] intent on all the mazy plan’.
It wouldn’t be my first. I’ve had more five-year plans than the Soviet Union did under Stalin, one every few months.
But does a writer even need a plan?
It probably doesn’t hurt to have one. Planning helps you identify goals, set your direction and keep things in perspective – good practices for anyone, I guess.
And yet writing is a notoriously unpredictable endeavour. Markets evolve, opportunities arise unexpectedly, ideas come and go, and our likes and abilities change as we grow. Success can spring from a single manuscript and some luck.
Try planning that!
It’s nice to think that we shape our destinies, though, so I’ll go ahead and make my next plan. That way I can relax and wing it all the way.
Carmel Bird is holding a writing workshop here in Hobart next week. That’s good. Ms Bird is an Australian literary legend, something most tutors can’t claim to be.
What’s not so good, though, is my reluctance to attend.
So why won’t I be making a creative comeback with Carmel, having spent years hiding my literary lights – dim though they be – under a bushel?
Money, first of all. I’m on a ‘smash the mortgage’ kick at the moment so there ain’t much left over for luxuries, literary or otherwise.
Pride, too. I hate admitting to myself – less so to others – that I’m not king of this writing caper. Did I tell you that I’ve published three stories?
And anxiety, last of all. About writing to please others and not just myself. Therein lies the secret to my startling (lack of) success.
Carmel, here I come!
And so we reach that point in my story where I do my best Marlon Brando.
‘I could’ve been a contender,’ I snarl. ‘I could’ve been somebody.’
Yeah, right. Like Brando’s character, Terry, I was acting on orders from above when I threw the big fight. Orders from the ghost in my machine: Bipolar Disorder (Type II).
My mind made me do it.
For most of my life I’ve felt like I’m special, a success story just waiting to happen.
If you read this blog you’ll know what I mean. Him, a contender, you’ll say. He’s nothing but a shadow-boxer sparring with himself in a far-off corner of his head.
And you’d be right. My writing, marker of my worthiness, declares me unworthy. Delusions of grandeur are all part of the bipolar experience.
For what, then, should I strive?
A modest existence, I think, is within my reach. A little paid work, a dash of labour at home and hearth, and a smidgen of intellectual and artistic activity. It’s the kind of life many only dream of having.
As for my dreams, I’ll put them to bed.
These days, fans accost me in the street. Rick, they say, how did you do it? How did you get where you are today?
Waal, it wasn’t easy, I reply, adjusting my codpiece. The bus was late and I missed my stop. But I got here. Eventually.
The fans don’t think so, oddly enough. They look at each other and edge away, leaving me wondering why I can’t come clean about my sudden ascent.
You haven’t heard about that? Think about it, you nonce – what else could prevent me publishing a post here since mid-May last year? Illiteracy? Lumbago? Wild horses?
Nay, nay and nay. Nothing but success, pure and simple. For let’s face it: a bloke who hits the big time doesn’t need to blog. (Or beg for that matter, which is much the same thing.)
Now, as I bask in the glory from the isolation of my grandiose grotto, I feel a plectrum of guilt. One that picks at my nylon nerves. I mean, don’t my fans deserve better?
Yes, you do – you know you do. Well, here it is: a retracing of my path to prominence. Follow it, and you too might aspire to greyness. To greatness, I mean.
Milkman. If cheese is made from milk, big cheeses are made from milkmen. Delivering milk, midnight to dawn, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue swinging me along – such was my first job of work. A month or two on the dark side set me up for an enlightened life.
Trolley-boy. Nothing’s harder to handle than twenty shopping trolleys in a row, especially in the swirl of customers and cars. My short stint at a supermarket taught me that control is an illusion. Holding on is the best we can hope for.
Administrative Officer. After accidentally acing a public service exam, I wrote letters for the Minister of Police. Few of us are truly happy, it seems. In almost a year I discovered that, for many, life is a complaint for which there is no cure, judicial or otherwise.
Law Clerk. Speaking of the law, I was in it for a bit. Just long enough to learn that every firm – every group big or small – has its own unwritten rules. Which I broke. Stuck out the back with the stationery, I wrote satirical news stories until I earned the sack.
Assistant Resident Boarder. Living with fifty teenagers gave me a good gauge of my own mentality. The results weren’t pretty. Clearly, I’m no leader of boys, let alone men. Which is why it’s best to go it alone, all the way to the asylum.
Investment Relations Officer. God is not always the best guide, especially when it comes to gold. I discovered this while working for a posse of preaching prospectors. Tasked with placating doubting Thomases – irate investors seeking imminent earthly reward – I realised that the faith of others is never enough.
Medical Typist. To be a good listener, you need someone to talk to you. For months on end I had doctors whispering in my ear, dictating letters. After a while, I thought they were talking to me. But they weren’t. They were talking through me. Dodge the dictators – this became my motto.
Writer. Okay, so I wasn’t a real writer. For a time there, though, my words did earn me some dough. Three kid’s stories netted me $800 (one was reprinted), at about 40 cents a word. Evidently, this invaluable experience taught me nothing, as I ain’t published anything since.
Data Entry Operator. Data – it’s everywhere. And it needs to be entered and operated on. That’s where I came in. For ten years I dealt with botanical data, sampling along the way something of the poetry of science. Lesson No. 9: there’s an art to everything.
Casual Research Assistant. To zone out, that’s what I learned while casually assisting a friend with her research. Numbers aplenty cried out for input and, as an aimless Arts graduate, I was ready to put in. As I daydreamed, my digits became, well, the digits. Truly, trying too hard makes trying too hard.
Ten sure steps to success or a beagle’s blighted breakfast? Call it what you will, this serpentine, potholed path has made me what I am today: a humble Passport Officer (ongoing), no less. Which is perhaps more than a trifler like me deserves.
And yet, as the Lonestar Hitchhiker himself, Don Dilego, puts it:
I want to build a brand new road,
But I’m not so sure I know where it goes…
‘Eighteen is an amazing number.’ That’s how I was going to start this, my eighteenth post. Couldn’t do it, though. For after reading the sentence eighteen times, I realised that, strictly speaking, ‘eighteen’ isn’t a number at all. It’s a word.
And the trickiness soon trebled. Also unacceptable as an opener was ’18 is an amazing number’, my next go-to line, simply because no self-respecting writer (or even me) starts a sentence with a number – it’s just not the done thing. In fact, it’s a dumb thing.
That left me with the following phrase which, you’ll be pleased to know, I’ve deemed good enough to be going on with – even after multiple rereads and a repast. So, now I’ll begin again, properly this time…
It’s an amazing number, 18. It’s the only number, apart from zero, that equals twice the sum of its digits. (And what’s zero? Nothing!) It’s the numerical value, too, of the Hebrew word for ‘life’. (Turns out our days are numbered, after all.) And it’s the number of chapters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Who’d have known?)
More importantly, though, eighteen is the age at which, in many cultures, kids magically morph into adults. Yes, it’s the infamous ‘age of majority’, that time when weedy teens join the rest of us on our sacred mission: the trashing of self and society, all in the glorious pursuit of pleasure.
At a stroke, mere striplings are granted the right to vote for the wrong people; at a stroke, they’re allowed – nay, expected – to start harming themselves, instead of relying on their elders to do it for them. Suddenly, liquor is legal and so are the smokes.
Coming of age. It’s a time, too, for reflection – of reviewing the mistakes you’ve made, and of previewing those you’re about to make. And that, I’ve decided, is what I’m going to do in this, my eighteenth post.
Believe it or not, I’ve got things wrong, bloglistically speaking. My posts have been too hard to get a handle on, for a start – handles on a post? – as has my blog as a whole. At fault, I think, has been my ethos of ‘tough love’; my failure, that is, to kiss up to my readers. Keep it simple, stupid, I do not. For better or worse, I insist on being ‘artful’ in my approach.
Obscurity, here I come!
That said, I’m not going to alter my style much at all, since I think it has some personality and potential. I will, though, do a little window dressing: my titles will become more descriptive and the rest of my blog less distracting. I might even focus on fewer subjects… Small mercies, I know, but better than nowt.
What’s eighteen anyway? Just another number.
It’s something we’ve all heard a hundred times and which we accept without hesitation: readers love lists. From DIY pieces such as ‘Holy trinity: Spiritual perfection in three short steps’ to top-pick posts like ‘Best of the worst: Thirteen unlucky numbers to die for’, lists are hailed universally as the answer to online anonymity.
Simply set out your points on the screen like rungs in a ladder and you’ll soon find yourself climbing the stairway to stardom – so the story goes.
Guess what? It ain’t necessarily so. Lists suck, despite all the hype. Keen on dots and dashes? Don’t be. Morse code went out with the printing press. Hooked on bullets? Their impact can be deadening, so aim a little higher. Headed for headings? Think again: titles are liable to trip readers up.
And that’s just for starters. Here, then, are seven ripping reasons why you should wipe lists from your writing repertoire.
1. Lists are sneaky
Since when is anything in life as simple as one, two, three? Hardly ever, mostly never. And yet lists slyly suggest just this: that every little thing can be reduced to a series of points or pointers. Nobody ever wrote a novel or lost weight simply by following a series of steps, so do yourself a favour and stop treating readers like the idiots they probably are.
2. Lists aren’t sneaky enough
There’s sneaky and then there’s sneaky. Proper dinky-di personal essays, for example, can’t help making life more intelligible, if only because they speak a universal language: the rhetoric of experience rather than mere sensation. Sure, essays reduce reality, too, but they do so in ways that seem to magnify meaning. It’s called art, and it’s artful – unlike most lists.
3. Lists are easy
Do you really want to dash-off a list when you could send yourself half-crazy penning an essay instead? Fact is, no-one ever got writer’s block while writing out a shopping list or scribbling down a list of things to do. Doesn’t that tell you something? Yes, that lists are too damn glib for their own good, otherwise a literary sub-genre would have congealed around them long ago, as it did with the Personal Essay (hallowed be its name).
4. Lists aren’t easy enough
In other ways, though, lists are bloody hard. To number a list you have to be able to count, and writers aren’t renowned for their numerical nous. I mean, some scribblers claim to write 300 words a day, and yet, when the dross is discarded, the total usually amounts to no more than twenty-six. Go figure! To get a list right in Microsoft Word is also a drag, especially if Autocorrect keeps automatically getting things wrong. Grrr.
5. Lists are everywhere
This point is self-evident, surely, given that you’re staring at a list – this list – right now. And even if you’re not, you’re no doubt staring at a list somewhere else online, only you don’t know it. Well, you probably do know it, but what I mean is that you don’t know that I know it. Yikes! What’s Google, anyway, if not one big list.
6. Lists aren’t everywhere enough
So, okay, lists litter the internet. When it comes to the real world, though, they’re nowhere that counts. Ever come across any classic lists? Nope. Ever study lists at school? Nope. Where’s the great tradition of list-writing? Nope – totally missing, I mean. Forget kudos, too, because writing a list ain’t going to win you a literary prize or grant you the grudging respect of any envious authors. All you’ll get from writing a list is, well, a list. Say no more.
7. Six reasons are enough
Studies have shown that six reasons are sufficient. Full stop. Apparently, the human brain is incapable of marshalling more than one or two thoughts at a time – unless they involve food or sex, of course – so why burden and enrage your readers with unnecessary information. Most of them tune out during reason number seven, anyway – hello?
Clearly, lists suck. This one sure does.
If you’re itching to read more about writing and blogging, I suggest you look elsewhere. Too lazy to leave my blog? Why not try these thrilling posts: Novelists Write Novels, On Being a Back-to-Front Writer and Hanging on Every Word. Lots of words, some good enough to read.