I’m not sure we take the right approach in how we teach kids poetry. From a young age we’re exposed to poems via nursery rhymes and what we’re taught is that poetry is rhyming couplets. Dr Suess tells us, then later pop music – the only real exposure we get to what poetry is rhyme, repeated patterns and verse. And that’s fine, in no way would I ever disparage the skill it takes to create great rhyming poetry, but it’s also a very narrow view of what poetry is and can be. The problem is, we’re given such limited exposure to other forms of poetry. What’s more, while there are many brilliant examples of rhyming poetry, it is a true skill to master, and there are even more examples of bad rhyming couplets – and let’s face it, even amidst the greatest rhyming poems there’s normally a couple of laboured lines and references that have been jammed in, in order to stay in theme.
My issue with this is that we might be restricting people’s view of what poetry is by teaching them only one narrow view of the form. When people hear poetry, they think ‘Roses are red…’, that sort of light, generic, often tacky, form of expression. They think of jokes, of rhythmic language that’s used in movie clichés. They think of kids books, that poetry is something for kids, when really, the means of expression via poetic form are so wide, so unrestricted, and rhyming verse is only one small part of the equation. Poetry is the closest thing to connecting thoughts through language. It’s translating emotion, creating connections in the readers’ brains that connect on a higher level than the language alone. Poetry can be transformative and transcendent and more than most people might think it to be.
I know how many people view poetry. I know, because I once viewed it that way too – I’m a story writer, and have always been focussed on story. Poetry was like a joke to me – you put a few words together that may or may not mean something and if you can find the right balance between being vague enough that people can find their own meaning, and so vague that the words don’t even connect, then you’ve got yourself a poem. I even tested this in high school – we were doing poetry in English and one of my classmates asked how you do it. I wrote a poem about crying in the rain, with deliberately vague lines like: ‘My optimistic pessimism’. It got published in the school paper, then it got published in a state-wide street press publication:
This reinforced my view, poetry was easy and not to be taken seriously.
My view changed on this after reading Fight Club. This wasn’t because the language of Fight Club was so poetic, but from Fight Club I researched all I could about the author, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk listed one of his favourite authors as Amy Hempel, so I went on to read all her stuff. Hempel is phenomenal – if you haven’t read any of Amy Hempel’s work, you’re missing out, and you need to get over to Amazon now and order a couple of her books. Her short story collection ‘Reasons to Live’ changed the way I think about writing – Hempel’s style is something that can’t be replicated, so intricate and subtle that, as Palahniuk says: ‘all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.’
Fran Lebowitz still writes about the moment she first looked at a clock and grasped the concept of telling time. Hempel’s work is nothing but these flashes, and every flash makes you ache with recognition. –Chuck Palahniuk on Amy Hempel
Hempel is both a short fiction writer and a poet, with several volumes of both in circulation. The combination of the two is what makes her so brilliant – Hempel can extract the emotion from the most mundane moment and translate it into a thing of beauty. This is not ‘Hempel the Writer’, at work, it’s ‘Hempel the Poet’, but the two have become so intertwined that her prose transcends the parameters of either form. For example, here is one of my favourite Amy Hempel stories – the first story of hers I read, and the one that made me want to buy everything she’d ever written:
My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.
At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.
My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.
When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.
The birdbath is shaped like that tub.
I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.
I lock the door and run a tub of water.
Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.
It’s a perfect example of Hempel’s work – simple but complex, mundane but poetic. It isn’t straight-forward storytelling, but there is such a resonant story there, even this very short piece. It’s a connective work, the way Hempel has used language to build layer upon layer. It’s more than just prose writing, it’s another level of literary expression. And I wanted to read more.
Hempel’s work lead me onto Sharon Olds, who’s an amazing poet, one of the best I’ve ever read. Like Hempel, Olds’ work transcends the confines of what you may think poetry can be. While Olds doesn’t have the prose leanings of Hempel, her poems tell a story nonetheless, and she’s often able to tell a more powerful story than many can in novel-form. One of my favourite Olds poems is this:
Summer Solstice, New York City
By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children’s father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted nest to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when it’s found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.
This is a story, right? This is more prose-like than you’d expect a poem to be, but it’s also definitely a poem. The words carry such weight, each line is crafted and precise. Olds’ poetry taught me the importance of ‘language economics’, of the need to be concise and ensure each sentence reaches it’s full potential – there’s so much more to this poem that the words on the page. Great poetry uses the experiences and associations of the reader to build the greater context, rather than explaining it to them – which is true also of great prose writing – but nothing illustrates this point better than a great poem. One line can change everything, can hit you so hard. Poetry taught me the importance of rhythm and timing, and word placement in general. These are the tools you need to be able to communicate well. Poetry showcases those skills better than any other form.
Knowledge of poetry better informs you as a writer and helps you find better ways to communicate your story. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is one of the best examples of poetic description in prose form, and it’s so much more resonant because of it. A sequence like this:
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 his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This is poetry, this is connecting emotion via language – sentence construction aligned with thought. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, than just the words alone, there’s a beauty to it’s simplicity. If I’d presented this as a poem, you’d not have thought twice about it. But it’s used in prose, in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, no less. This is the potential of poetic expression. It’s far more than just rhyme.
With a newfound respect for poetry, I started to investigate and appreciate other forms of the medium. And while it’s often lambasted as the height of pretentiousness, spoken word poetry, when done well, can be extremely powerful. The thing that many miss is that the performance is a major part – it’s ‘performance poetry’ not a poetry reading. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival a few years back, I remember Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan had done a session. Koyczan had his mostly female audience swooning, all because of his delivery of lines like:
looking at you it occurred to me
I could sit around all day
wearing nothing but your kiss
– Shane Koyczan, Skin 2
And one of my favourite performances was by ‘Coded Language’ by Saul Williams.
It’s passionate, resonant and again, it’s more than the sum of it’s parts, more than the words alone.
So this is why I don’t think we take the right approach to how we teach poetry, because I would have never thought to look at these things, I’d have never come across the greater opportunities of creative expression through poetry without finding it in my own way. I realise one of the main challenges of education is engagement, finding ways to get kids interested in what’s being taught, and no doubt that’s a barrier, but I feel like we need to reinforce that real poetry is so much more than rhyming couplets. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe educators are doing all they can, but there’s so much opportunity for expression through poetry, so much more than what people might interpret ‘poetry’ to be. While it’ll never be mainstream, by highlighting all these other avenues, maybe we can encourage more participation in poetic expression, and get in touch with more amazing writing as a result. At the least, knowledge of poetic expression will improve your written communication, in all forms.
We all like to think that our likes are interests are totally unique, right? We’re into this new show that you may not have heard about, we’ve read this new book that’s just come out – we all like to believe that our likes and interests are very different from anyone else. But they’re not. Stereotypes exist for a reason – the things you like the most probably have a large following that you may or may not be aware of. Things like Game of Thrones, for example – when that first came out, I remember thinking it was amazing, but no one was really watching it, like I’d found something that I had to share with everyone else. But actually, I was put onto it by a friend who’d read the books, and it’s now one of the most popular TV shows in the world, even though it’s full of violence and bad language and things that you’d expect might confine its audience size to some degree. Because the things people like tend to be things others will like also – your interests and cultural leanings are just not that unique.
But here’s the thing – that also means that you should trust yourself more. Remember how you were drawn to the character of Boba Fett in Star Wars even though he wasn’t one of the main players? You thought no one else paid that much attention to him, but Boba Fett was actually everyone’s favourite character. When they were doing that interview on TV the other day, you couldn’t take your eyes off the chumps in the background, smiling and waving at the camera and calling their friends at home, asking them to switch over and check them out, right? The things you notice, the details that stand out to you that you think might have been missed by the rest of the world – nope, we all noticed the same thing. What stands out to you most probably stands out to everyone else, and what this should highlight to you is that your responses are more common than you think. So trust them.
This is something that you need to understand as a writer or blogger or creator of any kind, really – the details that stand out to you will stand out to other people. This is not a bad thing, it’s actually reassuring, knowing that the world you see is shared by many other people – we’re more connected than you think. Maybe we can’t all communicate it, maybe we’re restrained in our connection with other people, but that guy on the train reading the paper, you’d probably be able to talk to him for hours about 90’s movies. That woman over ordering a juice, she’d totally relate to your anecdotes about living in a shared house. Our experiences are not as dissimilar as we train ourselves to believe, strangers are not as strange, and what this really means is that you can put more trust in yourself, more trust in your audience, and share things the way you see them. More often than not, you don’t need to over-explain, you don’t need to second-guess the way you’re communicating, people will get it. Put yourself in the position of the audience, think of how you’d respond to your work, what reaction would you have to reading this? Your viewpoint will likely be shared, and while it’s never easy to analyse your work from an impartial perspective, you need to trust yourself and rely on your instincts – if this were written by someone else, would it work for you?
Everyone else lives in the same world you do, we all experience similar things, similar problems and troubles. Everyone’s overcome difficulties, everyone feels down sometime – the things that make others happy are most likely the things that make you happy. Definitely, our overall perspectives are different, our viewpoint is ours alone, and that’s what provides opportunities for new stories, new and interesting ways of connecting, but we’re not as dissimilar as we tend to believe. So don’t stress about communicating with people, about saying the wrong things, being the right person. Remain true to yourself and trust that what you have to say is important. While you can always improve on how to do this effectively, you should also realise that you are not alone and create with that in mind.
Music has always played a big part in my writing. Not so much as I’m writing, as I like to be fully enclosed within the words (sometimes strangled by them), but when I’m thinking, when the story is percolating inside my head, it’s good to have a background theme. I used to live in Kinglake, which is about 40 minutes drive away from anything – a rural town stranded on top of a mountain. The distance meant you had a lot of time alone with your thoughts, travelling from one place to the next. I worked in the city, which is about a 3 hour round trip, and the best thing about it was having that time and space to open your mind, to allow your creative thoughts to drift and evolve. I found music often played a big part in this, certain songs or albums would wriggle into my consciousness and form a soundtrack for my expanding imagination.
While it’s different for everyone, I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite idea accompaniments. If you’ve not heard these or haven’t given them a re-listen in a while, maybe this will motivate you to load them up and let your mind wander through the tracks.
‘Pieces in a Modern Style’ – William Orbit
It takes some people a moment to get their head around this one – William Orbit is an electronic music producer, and he took some of his favourite classical pieces and re-worked them using digital sounds. And some of them, I can get totally lost in – most notably ‘Ogive Number 1’, (track 3). Each track inspires it’s own visual idea in my mind, and it’s a great album to just press play on and go about your thoughts. Try listening to it as you drive through the city at night, or along the freeway at dusk.
‘Untrue’ – Burial
I find all of Burial’s music to be incredibly vibrant, in a visual sense. The titles of his tracks alone inspire certain narrative ideas (‘In McDonald’s’, ‘Homeless’, ‘Night Bus’). There’s a sorrow and detachment in Burial’s music, which is reflected in the man himself (in the few interviews he’s done). But in that too, there’s beauty, something that entices you to take a better look at the world around you, to take in the various elements. It’s the detail that he seems to bring out, the heart of a moment, encapsulated in musical form. Again, best for listening to at night – though I do most of my writing at night, so there may be a reason for that motif.
‘Endtroducing…..’ – DJ Shadow
That’s not a spelling error, the album is called ‘Endtroducing…..’, the diamond in the catalogue of sample genius DJ Shadow. Very few artists come as close to creating a perfect album as Shadow did with this one, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse for his career – he obviously garnered huge amounts of fame and acclaim for it, but everything he’s done since has inevitably been compared to it, and also, inevitably, fallen short. For his part, Shadow has always said he’s produced music he loves, and he’s stood behind every album, regardless of critical sentiment – and some of them do have moments of greatness (his follow-up, ‘The Private Press’, is amazing). But ‘Endtroducing…..’ is such a high benchmark, it’d be near impossible for anyone to live up to. There’re so many great moments on this album, songs that inspire such amazing feeling and nostalgia. It really is on another level, something everyone should experience in a dark room with no other stimuli to distract them. Just listen and feel the emotional depth of the work (Shadow has said he was in despair while making the record, and you can feel those edges of emotion breaching through the beats).
‘Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!’ – Godspeed You Black Emperor
Really, you can listen to any GYBE album and be transported to another time and place, but there’s something about this album which transcended their other work. It’s by far their best known album, and it definitely does have an extra element that stands out, something that elevates it. Essentially, GYBE create soundtracks – they’ve contributed to several actual movie soundtracks, but even without the movie backing, their music is narrative driven, just, most of the time, without the actual narrative. Some people find it hard to get into, I find it best to just play on low volume to start with and just let it build with your thoughts.
There’s a heap of other albums, tracks and sections that have inspired my work, but these are the ones that stood out the most, and ones I think others might also get something out of. If you’re ever struggling with a section or idea, maybe sit down with one of these and see if they take you out of your day-to-day for a moment, expand your imagination and sense of place.
Do you have any albums or tracks that inspire you? I’d love to know, always keen to try out new music and ideas as I write.
I was genuinely saddened to hear of Rik Mayall’s passing. Normally when you hear news of a celebrity death, someone you never really knew in person, you’re reminded of the things they did, and there’s a general sadness or loss that’s associated with that, sadness that we’ve lost this person and their performances. But most of the time, for me, it’s not an emotional connection, it’s connection with what I knew of them. With Rik Mayall, I felt actual, human loss. It was very much like someone I’d known was gone. In a way, Mayall was someone I grew up with.
Like most people around my age, I grew up watching ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘Bottom’. I remember when we discovered ‘Bottom’, airing late at night on ABC. It was the most amazing thing – us barely teenage boys couldn’t believe what we were seeing. I watched it on a black and white TV, about as big as a microwave, and I’d have to fiddle round with the rabbit ears to get good reception (there was always be a point where it’d come through perfect, then as soon as you let go of the aerial, it’d go fuzzy – I think I actually watched a couple of episodes with metal in hand, angled just so). The Young Ones was truly ahead of it’s time, some of the jokes in that show pre-date the random moments that The Simpsons later became renowned for, and they’re still brilliant to this day (‘Travel Scrabble, Death?), but it took me a while to truly appreciate that show, which is why I probably gravitated to ‘Bottom’ more. I remember one of my birthdays, when a friend of mine gave me the ‘Bottom Live’ DVD. They swore. They made mistakes. They cracked themselves up. It was fantastic.
Rik Mayall was one of those rare talents that stole your attention in every scene he was in. I can’t remember any appearance of Mayall where any other actor got a look in. He dominated the screen, took over, and you just wanted to know what his character would do next. He made everything else seem less interesting, his characters always larger than life.
I didn’t really expect to hear of him passing. It’d been a while since I’d seen him do anything, but just knowing he was around was comforting. Knowing that he might show up again in some random film or TV show. Seeing him was like seeing your favourite toy from when you were a kid – that excitement came back, that feeling. There he was. And now he’s gone.
Rik Mayall was creative, intelligent, stupid, hilarious, an over-actor, an annoying twat, a cunning villain, an inspiring hero, a unique genius, and above all, a man who reminded us that you can’t take life too seriously.
When he was in the frame, he made everything else seem less interesting. Without him in the world, everything kind of is.
I’ve been working on putting together a better Pinterest page, if you’re interested. It’s got a lot of social media content on there, but also a lot of art and writing content I’ve found online. I’ve also created a Tumblr page, which is mostly highlights of posts from here, but also a range of some of my favourite book quotes. Check them out, if you’re so inclined.
In what’s always exciting news, one of my short fiction pieces has been published. Melbourne literary journal The Suburban Review has published my story Last Night on their website, with excellent accompanying artwork from Ruby Knight. The guys are going to post it in two parts, so this is part 1 of the story – check it out if you get a chance.
It’s amazing how much your mental state can influence every element of your being. People can convince themselves of almost anything, can think themselves into having heart attacks – their thoughts manifesting themselves in physical form. I’ve seen people held totally captive by their own thoughts, crippled with fear and anxiety and absolutely unable to see things any other way. Their minds have been made up, and once that happens, it can be a very hard thing to change.
I read an article about something similar recently, about how our minds can be tricked into seeing one thing or another in an optical illusion – but once our mind is made up on what we see, it’s almost impossible to change it back and see it another way. It highlights how easy it is for our brains to get locked onto one path and how hard it can be for people to break from that and change their perspective. We always see the worst of ourselves, we always see weaknesses and flaws and imperfections that might be totally oblivious to anyone else. Skin care company Dove ran an advertising campaign based around this very notion, that what we see is not how we’re seen by others. This is never more clearly evident than seeing someone in the midst of depression. The way they see life, the hopelessness they feel, it’s an all encompassing thing. They can’t see out of that tunnel they’re in, can’t see anything there for them to cling to. No matter how you try to tell them otherwise, their minds are locked. It’s scary to see, a heartbreaking thing to witness, and I feel for anyone whose ever been afflicted by such all encompassing sadness.
This is something that affects many writers. We can easily get locked into the idea that we’re no good, that our writing will never be good enough. We’ll read work by other authors and just feel so small, so distant from that level of quality that it can seem like all hope is lost. But what you’re seeing in your work is not necessarily what everyone else reads. Just like an optical illusion, there’s another side that you’re tricking yourself out of, another way of seeing it that you just can’t get your head around. But if you try, if you push yourself, there might be a way. If your brain is strong enough to totally convince you of one thing, why can’t it be trained to also convince you of the opposite?
This is a great challenge for anyone, to convince your brain to look at things from another perspective. Very few people are able to see things from other vantage points, but that’s something we, as fiction writers, do all the time. We see stories from the perspective of other characters, you just need to do that in real life, with your own work, from time to time. Definitely, you need to be objective – writing is a solitary pursuit and most of the time you’re your number one critic, so you need to keep that edge, you can’t go too easy on yourself. But just ask yourself ‘why not?’ Why can’t you do this? Make your brain see it differently and think ‘why can’t I write great literature?’ If you can convince yourself that you can, it makes it easier to commit yourself to the necessary work you’ll need to do to make it happen.
Writing takes self-motivation, you need a level of positivity and belief to push yourself. But you also need to get your work out there, you need to take the feedback you get – some of it won’t be good, but you need to push through and take in the benefits of negative feedback also. It’s not to say you should convince yourself that you’re always right, it’s that you need to take it easy on yourself, don’t see things from the negative point of view all the time, take on any notes and feedback and keep pushing on. Because why can’t you do it? Why not you?
The human brain is a powerful thing, if you can keep it from getting locked into any one way of thinking, you can remain open to all possibilities. And in that state, anything can happen, even things you’ve convinced yourself will only ever be in dream.
Have you heard of Iggy Azalea? She’s a statuesque rapper who’s album recently debuted at number three on the US Billboard charts. She’s also Australian, though she’s not as well known here as she is in the US. Azalea (who’s real name is Amethyst Kelly) made her name in America after moving there to pursue her rap dreams at age 16. Azalea grew up in Mullumbimby in New South Wales but saw that her opportunities were limited in her home town, and home country as a whole. She decided that if she was ever going to make it, she’d need to head overseas – and the story of her success flows from there.
Azalea caught my attention recently when I read her story about leaving Australia. I could see what she was saying, could sympathise with the situation she faced. Here she was, obsessed with Tupac and desperate to be a female rap superstar, but living in a country town where others didn’t take her seriously and her opportunities for exposure were limited. While Azalea was referring to the music industry, the same can be said about writing to some degree, in that our creative culture, particularly our creative diversity, is not overly strong. In my conversations with international writers, and in the brief times I’ve spent in foreign cities, I’ve definitely felt that there’s a much bigger emphasis on creative arts and culture in other nations. Not everywhere, but in some places there is a distinct artistic undercurrent, a feel to it, and those creative communities are strong, visible and well supported. The sad reality of not having such a strong culture is that many writers end up in isolation, unsure if there’s an audience for their work or how to find it. What’s more, writers’ groups are often hard to locate and some writers are hesitant to join if they feel they’ve done nothing, like they won’t fit in.
This is not the fault of any person or group, I realise many arts organisations work very hard (and have done so for a long time) to create communities and provide writers with opportunities to join like-minded folk, but definitely my experience of larger cultural centres like London, New York, Seattle, even Vancouver, is that there’s a much bigger creative pulse, or at least, a more present one. Things like spoken word poetry have a real sense of purpose in these cities, a real pride of place, and while we do have similar communities in Melbourne, they’re much smaller, more underground – you have to be more active in seeking them out.
So what do we do about it? What can we do to foster a better literary culture and highlight opportunities for writers of all genres and styles? The answer is we all have to get involved. Joining a writers’ group is not just for your own benefit, it’s for the benefit of the wider writing community. Attending book launches, readings, spoken word events, joining discussions at your local writers’ centre – just being present and supporting these projects helps build that literary community and enhances recognition, making them easier to find. By taking part, you’re not only participating in something you’re interested in, you’re also endorsing that community, building it, helping create a wider network. This promotes more opportunities for writers to connect, which then leads to more niche writers finding others who feel the same. The rise of social media helps in this respect, as it enables people to find communities outside their geographic limitations, but it’s also important that we establish these groups locally, that we build support and acceptance for the various forms of written expression in order to create our own networks and our own localised culture.
We also need to recognise the passion and dedication that goes into all forms of writing. I’ve got little interest in the work of Matthew Reilly, but I respect the man greatly. I could go and hear him speak and get a heap out of it, regardless of whether I’ve read a line of his work. All writers have made a commitment, an effort that’s above and beyond what they have to do. We’re all in it together – we need to support each other in order to create a stronger literary eco-system, a stronger community that gives voice to more writers who might not have the confidence to ever release their efforts from their notebooks. Maybe we have writers who, like Iggy Azalea, are very talented at what they do, but they feel like there’s no chance for them – there’s no chance a female rapper could achieve significant success in Australia. That was a really sad sentiment for me to hear, and most teenagers in the same boat won’t have the tenacity to move to another nation to chase it. They’ll just give up. We have to do whatever we can to stop that, to embolden more voices and give them the confidence to chase their creative dreams, whatever they may be.
Writing events are about more than people trying to sell their books and in-crowd meet-ups. It’s about community, being part of something bigger. You have to go along to events and get involved wherever you can. Talk to people, tweet about it, tell others where you are and what you’re doing, introduce yourself – and I know it can be hard sometimes to go and get involved (my default position in such situations is ‘wall flower’) but it’s what you need to do, not only so we get to hear your voice as a writer, but so other writers, young writers especially, see what you’re doing and know they can get involved too. Writers are welcoming types, we all want to know more about the world and the people in it. We need to ensure that that openness remains part of our culture so we can encourage a stronger literary bonds and continue to see great writing emerge. So our stories remain as diverse as our society and an accurate reflection of our full creative capacity.
I recently watched ‘Dom Hemingway’, an unusual, energetic and excellent film by writer director Richard Shepard. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it – I’d heard Jude Law’s performance was great – a cockney, over-the-top, gangster-type, like Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast. But the character of Dom Hemingway had much more to him than that, more than stereotypical characteristics and quotable lines. Shepard’s character had a real life to him, a real heart – definitely, Jude Law was great and this added to the character (also, no one owns male pattern baldness like Jude Law), but there was so much more to him, more than what was presented on screen. He felt larger than cinematic life, a character that demanded to exist – at times affable, other times offensive, all the time a risk, a liability unto himself. A time bomb with a blood alcohol level as a countdown. As such characters are in real life, he’s both frightening and exciting, making him fun to be around, so long as you can handle the inevitable crash.
In the first scene I wasn’t sure where it would go, an opening monologue paying tribute to his own masculine prowess. I thought it might go down the path of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson‘, which I was not a fan of (while many were, I felt it rode too close to being over the top a little too often). But the scene ends perfectly, and you immediately get the title – the ill-educated but articulate street crim, hence ‘Hemingway’. The scene captures the essence of the character, the passion, the anger, the verbosity – then the charm and the carelessness that follows. I was definitely intrigued, but it was the next scene that was so great, yet so shocking – I can’t even talk about it without ruining it. It’s symbolic of the juxtaposition that underlines the whole film – yes, it’s funny, but there’s also serious consequences to being the guy who doesn’t care, who can’t keep his emotions in check. For every laugh, there’s a sorrow, and the depth of that emotion is what really brings the film into it’s own. Shepard could have made it lighter, could have played down the impacts of these moments, but he allows the viewer to dwell in them, just long enough each time, just enough to sink you beneath the water with no hope, seeing the sunlight shivering above the surface – and then we’re back, Dom moves onto the next option, taking the audience along for the next chapter of the ride (and speaking of chapters, I liked the text on screen dividers, which can sometimes fall flat or be pretentious).
The thing about Dom Hemingway is everyone wants to be him. Everyone wants to be as charming and witty and be able to say what we really think, just unleash with no consideration of the consequences. Even in the face of death, Dom still can’t resist telling it like it is, and it’s refreshing and awakening. We’d all love to be able to just let it go like Dom does and go on three day benders with no concern for our everyday lives. But we can’t. That’s why Dom exists, he’s the embodiment of that escapist streak. But to be Dom comes also with the downside, the failure, and Dom certainly feels that, over and over. In the end you just hope he’s taken in the lessons, that he’s going to stay on the level enough to remain present. But you know he won’t. And it’s heartbreaking, but beautiful at the same time. Dom Hemingway is the epitome of ‘larger than life’, the personification of rebellion and good times, and a reminder of why that lifestyle is something most of us leave behind.
It’s a complex, intelligent and thoughtful film and it’s stayed with me for days after as I’ve mentally noted the depth and the art of it. It has style, skill in it’s execution, and I can’t fault it on any level. The only criticism I have is that I wanted more – which is the probably best way to end a film about such a character. You’ll always want more Dom Hemingway, but you know, after everything, how it’s going to end. Maybe best to get off before the real tragedy starts to kick in.
There’s one certainty in writing, or in doing anything creative for that matter – not everyone is going to like your stuff. In fact, there’s always going to be people who hate what you do. It’s just not their thing, they’re not going to like it no matter how you go about it. You can’t expect everyone to be supportive or positive about your work, because it won’t happen. Same as you, people like some things, don’t like others, that’s going to be the case with editors, publishers, judges – sometimes your stuff just won’t be their thing. You can’t take it personal.
The best way to combat this is to know who you are and what you want. I was listening to a podcast by artist David Choe once, where he was talking about his life and how he became an artist. Choe was basically a juvenile delinquent, vandalising whatever he could. He talked about how he grew up doing stupid drawings of G.I. Joe figures and his early drawings that you can find online are just that, scribbles no better than anything you could do (Choe notes this himself in one of his books). But he stuck with it, and over time he developed his own personal style. His work (in my opinion) is amazing, but as impressive is his persistence and dedication to his art. It wasn’t created for anyone else, it wasn’t designed with a commercial strategy in mind – Choe has said his options were become an artist or end up in prison (he ended up doing both, but that’s another story).
What David Choe’s story highlighted to me was that you need to do your art for you. You need to know what you want and be happy with what you’re doing. And to a large degree it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, you stick with what you want to create, what you feel passionately about doing, and you can create something that will be wholly fulfilling. Anything can be art, any means of communication you choose for what you want to create can work, can come together, you just need to be true to yourself and be able to envision want from your work. It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants, you put your heart into something and that is something that cannot be replicated. You are putting your individuality into your work, no one else can do that. As long as you can feel happy with what you’ve created, feel that it is all it can be, then it’s right.
And that’s an important note to keep in mind – that it’s all it can be. Most times you’ll know when something’s done right, it will feel complete. You’ll also know when it’s not complete, when you haven’t given it your all. If you put out work that you know isn’t complete, that’s likely to come across, that’s the feedback you’ll get, and you have to be honest with yourself. If someone criticises something you’ve done, you have to think ‘is this the best I could do?’ Sometimes you need to be confronted with tough feedback to get the best out of your work – it’s not a stop sign, not a signal for you to give up. You need to take feedback on and use it. Keep in mind what it is you want to achieve.
My approach with my writing is that I will listen to any and all feedback from readers who want to give it to me, good or bad. If one person says they didn’t like a section, I won’t necessarily go back and re-do it (it would depend on their reasons for disliking it). But if that same section is highlighted by more than one reader, I will definitely go back and re-read it and make sure it’s communicating the story I want to tell. If I can read my work back and feel happy with it, especially if I’m reading it back months after first writing it, then I know it has something. It may need more work to polish it, but I know there’s something there and I’ll stick with it.
You, as a writer, as an artist, should never be afraid of criticism or feedback. You need to get your work out there. But you need to know your work is, at it’s core, the best it can be from your perspective. New perspectives will help you enhance it, but you need to be the one who feels confident – it’s your work. It needs to be you, not what you think someone else might want. You’re going to get rejected and criticised, but that’s how it is. All writers get rejected. All of them. Don’t let rejection get in the way of what you want. If you know that you have done all you can, that your work is the best it can be, in alignment with what you want to achieve, then you should stick with it. Keep working, keep developing your own style. You only fail as an artist when you give up.