One of the most intimidating prospects about publishing your work is that once it’s out there, it’s out there, and readers will interpret your words in varying ways – sometimes not in the way you might have intended. Ideally, that doesn’t happen – the surrounding context should provide enough guidance and meaning in a story sense. But beyond the story alone, people will look deeper into your words and meanings, and make assessments of both you and your intentions.
In many ways, this is the point of writing – you’re trying to get people thinking, to see things from another perspective, so you want your readers to look deeper into the underlying logic. When people understand what you were communicating, that’s the ultimate for a writer, but when they misinterpret your meaning, or specific segments, it can be tough to deal with.
I had this with my first novel – of all the sections that got brought up, this one seemed to come up most often.
In a chapter where a group of young people are at a party, one young girl, Aleesa, speaks to the main character:
Aleesa smiles. ‘Who’s your pick tonight?’ she says, turns to face the girls dancing on the carpet.
‘You’re looking pretty good,’ I tell her. She shifts her eyes slowly back to me, the straw from her drink gently held between her teeth. She holds her glass up to my face.
‘You gonna’ drug me?’
‘I don’t do that.’
‘Ha. Bullshit. All you guys do it.’
‘So why are you here then? Aren’t you worried?’
‘I can take care of myself.’
A young guy joins the dancers, rubbing his hands across the clothes of the girls. Aleesa catches my eyes watching them.
‘Some girls don’t really care,’ she says, and walks off into the crowd, looking back over her shoulder.
This, in some reviews or comments, was interpreted as the character implying that some young girls simply don’t care about the prospect of being drugged and raped. Which, in literal translation, I can see – that is what Aleesa says – but the point of this scene was more to show that Aleesa was strong, that she wasn’t scared of them. At this point in the story, the group is gaining confidence, they feel like they’re dominant, that they run things. In this context, the line was more about Aleesa taking the power from them, saying that people know what they do, but that doesn’t scare anyone. The implied ‘liking’ of it was more the gossip aspect, as opposed to being targeted.
But I understand why this was misinterpreted, and why it stood out as such – but even so, it can be difficult to read such interpretations and not comment back to clarify. But you can’t.
A very high profile author once told me that you can never, ever, respond to criticisms or reviews. It’s tempting, obviously, but no good can come of it. And he’s right – though there is some argument that a level of controversy could, maybe, help in a promotional sense (maybe, if you were high profile enough, responding to a critique could help you get more coverage, similar to how some celebrities hit back via tweet every now and then) – it’s very risky, and you’ll most likely just come out looking worse.
But really, the work needs to stand on its own. Once you’ve published it, released it – once it’s out there, it’s its own thing, and open to criticism on its own merits. Your ownership of it decreases somewhat – if the work can’t stand on its own, then you haven’t done your job, and no amount of supplemental information will cater for that.
So while you might be misinterpreted, you have to accept that, and learn to give your work its own life. The story is what it is, it’s its own thing. You have to let it be.
The key is that you have to be happy with what you’ve created. If you’ve done all you can, you can’t think of any other improvements and you’re satisfied that the final result best captures your vision for the work, then that’s it. Sure, there might be things you want to do better next time around, but that’s always going to be the case. Nothing is ever perfect.
It’s the push to do better next time that’s exciting, and ideally drives us towards creating better and better work.
I recently spoke to Sarah Macdonald on ABC Radio’s ‘Nightlife’ program in Australia to discuss my new novel ‘One’, my writing career, my approach to writing (why I write) and various other things.
If you’re interested, you can check out the interview here (from the 1:00:26 mark):
I liked this simple review of ‘One’ in the latest Qantas in-flight magazine. Captures the essence of the story fairly well.
I got a chance to speak to Adam Shirley on ABC Canberra this morning about my new novel ‘One” and the inspirations and motivations behind it.
If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview here (at the 1:06:10 mark of the playback).
“Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women’s cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought stay.”
Weekend – by Amy Hempel
Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer
Mud by Jeff Nicholls
“All the men like my uncle who had the boats stood around the edges of the barge away from the big green tarps, away from their boats they could not look at, and as far away from each other as they could without falling over into the boiling water. They stood watching for faces of boiled-over people to come up to just below surface like they sometimes did, like they just wanted to sneak a peak before slipping back under.”
On the Rope by Mark Richard
Requiem for a Dream by Darren Aronofsky
“Trousers rolled to the knee but still they got wet. They tied the rope to a cleat at the rear of the boat and rowed back across the lake, jerking the stump slowly behind them. By then it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had spoken a word. This was the perfect day of childhood. This is the day to shape the days upon.”
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Underneath the Roses by Gregory Crewdson
Happy Go Lucky by Mike Leigh
Today is the culmination of an eleven-year journey in writing my second novel ‘One’. It’s been a massive challenge – as all major writing projects are – but this one has also made me question myself, my ability, and my capacity to reach the levels to which I aspire.
I’ve had to question not only how I write, but why; not only my physical process, but my mental one as well. And most importantly, I’ve had to establish what it is I’m trying to achieve with my writing.
I feel like I’ve moved closer to all these things – whether you can ever meet, or exceed such, is probably an unanswerable question. But I’m very happy with the result, and I hope it connects with readers.
I’m so happy to be finally sharing ‘One’ with a wider audience, and happy to be contributing to the greater literary landscape once again. And I do feel that ‘One’ does that, it contributes something different, something to consider, to entertain as well as provide a point of contemplation and perspective.
Thanks to everyone who’s supported me along the way – and if I can ever answer any questions, drop me an e-mail (details on the ‘About’ page).
You can find more details about ‘One’, including ordering info, here, or check out your local bookstore (in Australia and New Zealand)
I’ve heard and read a lot of different theories about the relationship between writing and music. Some people say they write better when listening to specific songs or styles, while others (myself included) need general silence to concentrate on the job at hand, and build the scene in their head.
But even then, there are various ways that music informs my writing, and there are specific albums and tracks that have helped spark my imagination.
Of course, it’s not just the music itself in such cases, it’s often the situation you were in when you found it, where you were in life, in your creative process, etc. For me, there are some albums that always awaken a level of recognition, which trigger something in my mind, and can often help kick-start my imagination.
Here are four albums which do that for me – you’ll no doubt have your own list of inspirations, but if you’re looking for a new source, these may be worth a listen.
- “Mezzanine” by Massive Attack
Okay, so most of my picks are going to be a little older because – well, I’m old. “Mezzanine” was released in 1998, and it’s the perfect mix of musical creativity and mood-setting pieces, which, for me, is a great combination. I wouldn’t say Mezzanine has inspired so much of my writing directly, but it helps open up my mind by showcasing what can be done with subtle shifts and changes, and what art – even in a more popular form like music – can be. For me, Mezzanine reminds me that you can do different things, you can adapt different styles and you can make them your own, and that attention to detail is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’.
- “OK Computer” by Radiohead
I imagine almost every late-nineties teen would have some recollection of “OK Computer”, the genius of the album simply can’t be overlooked. And while it’s not for everyone, much like Mezzanine, OK Computer showcases the depths of creativity within an established art form, looking at pop music from an entirely different angle. I think what really inspires me the most about both albums is that they’re so different, that a group of creative people have got together and just let themselves go, thrown everything out there and moulded it into something amazing. It’s the fine-tuning, the editing, the refinements that make OK Computer so special – which, in a writing sense, comes back to editing, and polishing your experimentation to capture the mood of your work.
- “Untrue” by Burial
And speaking of mood, nothing sets the scene better than Burial’s ‘Untrue’. Burial – a one-man band from the UK (in fact, all of these picks are from the UK – wonder what that says about me?) – records his tracks in the dead of night, and he has an uncanny knack for capturing the feel of those moments when the rest of the world is asleep. Again, this is not a direct influence on my writing, I don’t think, but it’s another album that opens my creative thinking and leaves me pondering the stories I want to tell.
- “A Grand Don’t Come for Free” by The Streets
And then there’s The Streets. Mike Skinner, who is himself, ‘The Streets’ came to prominence with his first album ‘Original Pirate Material’, but it was his second, ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ which both made, and in many ways, destroyed him. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a concept album – it tells the story, track-by-track, of Skinner’s developing relationship, eventual end, and hints at what’s to come next. The great thing about this album is that it showcases just how powerful and resonant a simple story can be. Skinner’s tale is entirely relatable, it’s run of the mill stuff that almost everyone has experienced. The album shows that you don’t need an elaborate plotline or a complex idea for it to be powerful.
As noted, everyone will have their own musical touchpoints, but these ones speak to me, and always help me get my mind moving if I need.
With One set for release very shortly, I’ve been working on my third novel, ‘Control’, and it’s reminded me of the input/output of the creative process – i.e. what you create is a result of the content you consume, and will be influenced by what you read, hear and see.
This is why most writers will say you should read as much as you can if you want to write, because it informs your stylistic choices – the more you learn about the flow of words and different ways in which you can communicate through prose, the better off you’ll be.
But that’s not all you need to know. In my experience, it’s not so much that you need to read everything, but it’s important to fill yourself with the inspirations and styles that you want to re-create, or are within the themes of the story you’re trying to tell.
For me, I can remember specific writers – prose and poetry – songs, films, even images that have inspired each scene in my stories. When I’m writing, I have them up around me – I have photos and printed out pages of text from certain novels and quotes all around my desk and computer screen to help keep me focused. I’ll watch the same things over and over, listen to the same music – in this sense, it’s not so much that I’ve read everything, but I’ve latched onto the themes and ideas that have resonated with me, and having them present keeps the story fresh and active in my head.
Of course, in order to do this, you have to have read enough in the first place to find the right inspirations, so in that sense, you do need to read as much as you can. But I do think it’s worth clarifying that while reading a lot is important, holding your inspirations closer, the things that speak to you on a deeper level, is what helps me better explore the ideas and elements I want in my work.
Everyone’s different, there’s no prescriptive formula for writing. But I find that staying on theme greatly helps provide more consistent inspiration and drive.
(FYI the top image is from the film clip for Massive Attack’s ‘Come Near Me’, which serves as an inspiration point, of sorts, for elements of ‘Control’).
Years of mental energy, months of keyboard tapping, countless hours of introspection, self-assessment and research. And there it is.
Available April 2nd – more info here.
The following is an excerpt from Nick Flynn’s ‘Another Bullshit Night in Suck City‘, which is an intriguing memoir about his search, and subsequent discovery, of his long-absent father.
This piece has been analyzed by many others, but I think’s it’s worth highlighting as a relevant example of how to capture something so obvious, yet so easily overlooked.
The usual I say. Blood of Christ I say. Essence. Spirit. Medicine. A hint. A taste. A bump. A snort. A sip. A nip. I say another round. I say brace yourself. Lift a few. Hoist a few. Work the elbow. Bottoms up. Belly up. Leg up. What’ll it be. Name your poison. Mud in your eye. A jar. A jug. A pony. I say a glass. I say same again. I say all around. I say my good man. I say my drinking buddy. I say git that in ya. Then an ice-breaker. Then a quick one. Then a couple of pops. Then a nightcap. Then throw one back. Then knock one down. Working on a scotch and soda I say. Fast and furious I say. Could savage a drink I say. Guzzle I say. Chug. Home brew. Everclear. Moonshine. White lightening. Firewater. Antifreeze. Wallbanger. Zombie. Rotgut. Hooch. Relief. Now you’re talking I say. Live a little I say. Drain it I say. Kill it I say. Feeling it I say. Slightly crocked. Wobbly. Another dead sailor I say. Breakfast of champions I say. I say candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. I say the beer that made Milwaukee famous. I say Houston, we have a drinking problem. I say the cause of, and solution to all of life’s problems. I say ain’t no devil only god when he’s drunk. I say god only knows what I’d be without you. I say thirsty. I say parched. I say wet my whistle. I say awful thirst. Dying of thirst. Lap it up. Hook me up. Beam me up. Watering hole. Hole. Knock a few back. Pound a few down. Corner stool. My office. Out with the boys I say. Unwind I say. Nurse one I say. Apply myself I say. Tie one on I say. Make a night of it I say. Dive. Toasted. Glow. A cold one a tall one a frosty one I say. One for the road I say. A drinker I say. Two-fisted I say. Never trust a man who doesn’t drink I say. A good man’s failing I say. Then a binge then a spree then a jag then a bout. Coming home on all fours. Rousted. Roustabout. Could use a drink I say. A shot of confidence I say. Steady my nerves I say. Drown my sorrows. I say kill for a drink. I say keep ‘em coming. I say a stiff one. I say as fast as possible. I say the long haul. Drink deep drink hard hit the bottle. Two sheets to the wind then. Half-coked then. Knackered then. Showing it then. Holding the wall up then. Under the influence then. Half in the bag then. A toot. A tear. A blowout. Out of my skull I say. Liquored up. Rip-roaring. Slammed. Fucking jacked. The booze talking. The room Spinning. Primed. Feeling no pain. Buzzed. Giddy. Silly. Glazed. Impaired. Intoxicated. Lubricated. Stewed. Tight. Tiddly. Juiced. Plotzed. Potted. Pixilated. Pie-eyed. Cock-eyed. Inebriated. Laminated. Stoned. High. Swimming. Elated. Exalted. Debauched. Rock on. Drunk on. Shine on. Bring it on. Pissed. Then bleary. Then bloodshot. Glassy-eyed. Mud-eyed. Red-nosed. Thick-tongued. Addled. Dizzy then. Groggy. On a bender I say. On a spree. On a drunk. I say off the wagon. I say gone out. I say on a slip. I say in my cups. I say riding the night train. I say the drink. I say the bottle. I say the blood bank. I say drinkie-poo. I say a drink drink. A drink a drunk a drunkard. Swill Swig. Faced. Shitfaced. Fucked up. Stupefied. Incapacitated. Raging. Seeing double. Shitty. Take the edge off I say. That’s better I say. Loaded I say. Wasted. Looped. Lit. Off my ass. Befuddled. Reeling. Tanked. Punch-drunk. Mean drunk. Maintenance drunk. Sloppy drunk happy drunk weepy drunk blind drunk dead drunk. Serious drinker. Hard drinker. Lush. Drink like a fish. Boozer. Booze hound. Absorb. Rummy. Alkie. Sponge. Sip. Sot. Sop. Then muddled. Then maudlin. Then woozy. Then clouded. What day is it? Do you know me? Have you seen me? When did I start? Did I everstop? Slurring. Reeling. Staggering. Overserved they say. Drunk as a skunk they say. Falling down drunk. Crawling down drunk. Drunk and disorderly. I say high tolerance. I say high capacity. I say social lubricant. They say protective custody. Sozzled soused sloshed. Polluted. Blitzed. Shattered. Zonked. Ossified. Annihilated. Fossilized. Stinko. Blotto. Legless. Smashed. Soaked. Screwed. Pickled. Bombed. Stiff. Fried. Oiled. Boiled. Frazzled. Blasted. Plastered. Hammered. Tore up. Ripped up. Ripped. Destroyed. Whittled. Plowed. Overcome. Overtaken. Comatose. Dead to the world. Beyond the beyond. The old K.O. The horrors I say. The heebie-jeebies I say. The beast I say. The dt’s. B’jesus and pink elephants. A hummer. A run. A mindbender. Hittin’ it kinda hard they say. Go easy they say. Last call they say. Quitting time they say. They say shut off. They say ruckus. They say dry out. Pass out. Lights out. Blackout. Headlong. The bottom. The walking wounded. Saturday night paralysis. Cross-eyed and painless. Petroleum dark. Gone to the world. Gone. Gonzo. Wrecked. Out. Sleep it off. Wake up on the floor. End up in the gutter. Off the stuff. Dry. Dry heaves. Gag. White knuckle. Lightweight I say. Hair of the dog I say. Eye-opener I say. A drop I say. A slug. A taste. A swallow. A pull. Sadder Budweiser I say. Down the hatch I say. I wouldn’t say no I say. I say whatever he’s having. I say next one’s on me. I say match you. I say bottoms up. Put it on my Tab. I say one more. I say same again.