Here’s a question – let’s say someone came up to you while you were in the audience of a major event. This person comes up, holding a microphone, and the person says: ‘Our singer has called in sick and we have no one to sing the national anthem, would you do it?’ No way, right. No freakin’ way – there is no chance you’re going to get up there and embarrass yourself in front of all these people, right?
I thought of this recently when I saw this clip of Daniel Radcliffe rapping on Jimmy Fallon:
Now, obviously, this was planned – all the set-ups on these shows are, but it got me thinking about our reluctance to do things like this, our hesitation to put ourselves out there. And the lack of that same hesitation in people who’ve achieved significant success.
On one hand, this could be confined to performers – people who love being up on stage are always more likely to take the mic and belt out a song, some would even love the thought of being asked to do the national anthem. But it’s interesting to consider why we’re so hesitant, why we’re so petrified of embarrassment. Because generally, there’s not a lot of fallout for people who fail in such circumstances. I mean, if you were to butcher the national anthem you’d become an internet sensation, blasted across every news site beneath headlines celebrating your failure in pithy wordplay. That would be bad, but if you’re not a singer and you had a shot at it and failed, does it matter if you get criticised for failing as a singer? Is it something that’ll be held against you forever? Think of this case, where a taxi driver was mistaken for an IT expert:
Of course, there is an inherent risk in putting forth your opinions on a topic in which you want to be seen as a leader – you don’t want to be presenting to a room of business executives on a topic you have absolutely no idea about, but I guess the point I’m making is that we often over-emphasize the potential harm of failure. Even perceived failure, failure in disciplines where we have no expertise. But those who are more willing to put themselves out there, more likely to take what’s presented to them and just go with it, those people are also more likely to achieve success. Because they’re more likely to say what they think, more likely to stand up and be counted, to present their work, come what may. Because really, it doesn’t matter what most people think. If you’re willing to take a risk and put yourself out there, you’re increasing your chances of success, purely through exposure alone. People shouldn’t be afraid to try things, to present their ideas and thoughts, to reach out. Because why not?
There’s always a level of commonsense in anything, this is not to say you should do whatever you want, whenever you want, screw the consequences, but who cares if you stand up and embarrass yourself at a karaoke bar? Who cares what strangers who you’ll never meet think? So long as you’re having fun and the people who do mean something to you are too. Why not try it out?
The same principle applies to writing, or art of any kind, really. How many people do you know who say they want to write a book or want to have a go at something but they never do? Why not have a try it out? Why not get it down and work on it and submit to a competition or journal? If you hear nothing, so what? You tried. If they didn’t like it, no problem, you can try again – if it makes you happy and it’s something you really want to do (and it doesn’t harm anyone in the process) you should do it. Because you don’t want to be one of those people looking back, talking about how you always wanted to be a [insert title here].
Every now and then, try to take a risk and do something you’d normally avoid, rather than hiding inside your own shell. Through small steps, pushing yourself that little bit, you build up your resilience to outside opinions and increase your chances of achieving your dreams. The more you do it, the more you build trust in yourself. The sky didn’t fall in. Your world didn’t collapse. And in putting yourself out there, you also allow others into your world, helping you connect with likeminded people and build interest-based communities, communities that can help you further your dreams through mutual support. Communities that help you fill that need you’ve always wanted, that thing you’ve always wanted to be. Trying is the key. Sharing what you’re passionate about.
Why not try?
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.
It’s amazing how much state of mind plays in success. I’ve been playing basketball since I was fifteen, still play a couple of times a week (I’m now 34) and I was talking with a team-mate recently, saying how we play so much better in training than we do in our actual games. Why would that be? The reason is because we approach them differently – in training, we’re playing with mates, guys we’ve played with and against for years and we’re comfortable around. If we win a training match, great, if not, no one cares, so we’re much more likely to take shots we’d think twice about in a real game, much more relaxed, and this, generally, means we play better. Because we’re not over-thinking the importance of making the play or how to beat this or that defender. In training, we’re relying more on instinct, and we’ve been doing it for such a long time that our instincts are pretty good.
The difference between practice and game is totally in our own heads. The opponents we play against aren’t better than the guys we train with, but in our heads, we put more emphasis on it, we get more caught up in doing the right things and not making mistakes. We stress, and that stress makes us tighter, makes us think that little bit too much about the process rather than just allowing ourselves to do it, and we make more mistakes because we get caught up in the detail. We make the situation more difficult for ourselves because of our own self-doubt and mentality. There’s no actual difference in the physical process.
I’ve heard sports stars say this over the years when talking about the difference between the highest levels and the lesser ranks. They always say the psychology is what you have to master, the approach. For a long time I didn’t understand it, but in recent years I’ve come to realise what they mean. There’s a famous quote from Henry Ford which goes: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. That pretty much sums it up – if you go out on the court and you think you’re going to get beat or you’re going to play bad, you’re probably going to. If you take to the floor and you’re getting caught up in who your opposition is and stressing over what might happen, you’re starting off on the back foot. You need to be able to change you’re thinking on it, relax yourself, even enjoy playing the game. You need to think ‘how would I play in practice?’, ‘How would I feel right now if the opposition were all guys I know?’ You need to think: ‘How would I play if the end result didn’t matter?’ If you can change your mindset, you can allow your instincts to take over – that’s what the big name sports stars are able to do. Despite the crowds and the money and the expectation lumped on their backs – the best players are able to block it all out and play just like they did on the schoolyard, just like they would any other time. In doing this, they allow themselves to maximise their natural instincts and abilities.
So why the long sports analogy on a writing blog? Well, the next tangent I thought of is how this also relates to my writing. As writers, we often put too much pressure on ourselves, always thinking this isn’t good enough, or we get caught thinking ourselves round in circles trying to work out the best way to explain certain elements or details. Just as in sports, we’d often do better to trust our instincts and rely on the skills and knowledge we’ve developed – you know you can write, you know you can do this, so why are you being held up? Why can’t you get it out the way you want? Just like Michael Jordan, with thousands of fans screaming on all sides, would rise up and take the shot, same as he’s done for years and years, you can write, free of what others might think, clear of expectation and self-doubt.
Some people talk about the benefits of free-writing, where you just get the story down as fast as you can – no editing, no re-reading, just go. I’ve heard several authors praise this process, saying it frees them up and allows them to get down sentences they’d never have come up with if they analysed and agonised. However you go about it, the important thing you need to focus on is writing what you want to write. You’ve read lots, you’ve written a heap, you know, instinctively, what it is you want to do. So just do it, trust in yourself and block out any other influences in your mind – write like you’re just doing a story for your friends, no one else. Write like no one will ever see it, if that helps.
Success or failure depends so much on our mental approach. The thing to remember is, everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone mis-steps – no one knows everything. You are just as good as anyone else, you can achieve whatever you want. Definitely, you need to work for it, you need to work at it and build your skills, but if you’ve done the preparation, if you’ve done the research and you know what it is you’re trying to achieve, then the only thing holding you back is you.
How would you write if the end result didn’t matter? If no one cared, if no one was going to judge you or your work? At some point, it will matter, you’ll need to edit and refine – but at the first stage, it can help to alleviate the self-doubt and blocks if you write as freely as possible. Don’t think about where it might go next, don’t think about publishing or competitions. Write instinctively, like you’d have done when you were a kid. Relieve the pressure and expectation and might just open yourself up enough to produce your best work.
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.
‘Okay, time to do another blog post’
‘What’re you gonna’ write about?’
‘Well it’s about writing, I’ll write another post about writing, try and share what I know.’
‘And what is it that you know? Why do you think anyone would want to read what you have to say?’
‘Well, I’ve written a book.’
‘One book. Years ago.’
‘Alright, take it easy – that’s still more than most people.’
‘Most people could care less about your book.’
‘Well, they don’t have to care about the book, it’s sharing my experiences in writing, I think I’ve done enough that some people might get something from it.’
‘Would you read it?’
‘Would I read my blog?’
‘Yeah, would you read your blog.’
‘Well, yeah, but obviously it’s very tailored to me, like, it’s everything I like – have you looked at that ‘Influences’ section, so much great stuff…’
‘Okay, yeah, it’s about you, and you’re pretty ego-centric, makes sense you’d love reading about yourself. But shouldn’t you be working on your second novel?’
‘Yes. I should.’
‘So why waste time with a blog when you could be doing that?’
‘That novel scares me.’
‘It scares me. I’ve failed at getting it out so many times – I’m scared I’ll fail again. It’s like that really pretty girl you want to ask out but you’re too scared you’ll get rejected.’
‘Right. So you’re giving up then?’
‘No, absolutely not, it’ll get there. But it does scare me.’
‘Maybe you need to do something else for a bit, get your mind of it, free your thinking a little so you can get it out.’
‘Like, write something else?’
‘What, like a blog?’
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.
One of the main reasons I write is because I’m fascinated by people. The things people do, decisions people make every day – I love to look into them and try to understand, try to see why this or that person would do things they way they did. People you pass in the street, people on the train, they’ve lived an entire life with a completely different perspective to yours. I’m always intrigued by what shapes a person’s life, what things they’ve lived.
This is what drove me to write my first novel – I’d heard stories about the increasing amount of people drugging and raping girls in nightclubs and I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t imagine why someone would ever do that. From that, I tried to imagine a scenario where such horrific crimes could come about and how a person could get involved. To me, everything in life can be explained. Everything that happens, everything a person does is the result of the path their life’s taken. You might read a story about some guy who killed three people and that’s pretty much all you’re ever going to know about the case – the murder and maybe the basic motivations and lead-up events. But if you could know more, if you could see his entire personal history, you’d see things that happened, things that lead to this person making a decision to do something unfathomable to you. It doesn’t mean such acts can be justified, but knowing the full story helps understand why things happen the way they do. That’s what I love, trying to understand, trying to see things through another person’s eyes and rationalise their decisions. It’s fascinating to find those connections, the bread crumbs that lead to a person doing what they do.
This, I think, is a crucial element in developing character depth. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to steal a car or pick a fight with a neighbour or tell somebody they love them out of the blue. The things that have happened in their lives have formed them – their actions, good or bad, are a result of their experiences. I read a quote once that was something like ‘the human brain is perfect when we’re born – it’s what we put in that changes it’. On top of that, of course, there are natural tendencies and abilities that will also play a part in the process, but I do believe that is correct – who you are is a result of your inputs. In terms of character development, it’s important that you know these motivations and know how and why your characters would respond to each situation. It’s also where, I believe, the idea that characters sometimes write themselves stems from. They don’t, and they never will, but the more you know them, the better you understand each character’s history – what’s been put into their brain – the more you’ll know how they’d respond to each twist and situation. You need to have an understanding of where each character comes from, what’s happened to them in their lives, and what’s lead them to where they are. From there, you’ll better understand what they’d do next.
It’s actually an interesting exercise – next time you read a newspaper story, try to think of what each person’s motivations were that lead to them making the decisions they have. What might have happened, why might a person do what they’ve done in this instance? This type of thinking helps open your mind to possibilities and will better enable you to creatively elaborate on character motivations and choices. Don’t just read the headline, try to think of the why, what could have made this person see things the way they have, make them decide to take this course of action.
Everyone has a book in them, so the saying goes, but we’ll only ever hear a fraction of a percentage of those stories, because not everyone will have the opportunity to communicate them. With that in mind, isn’t it fascinating to think of all the stories that haven’t been told? Doesn’t it make you think there’s so much opportunity in the world, so much we don’t know? Trying to understand these questions is part of being a writer – an inquisitive mind, and need to know more than what you can see on the surface. You need to do all you can to embrace and build on this, let you mind ask questions, go with them, try to understand all you can. Not only is this the critical to being a better writer, more understanding is key to being a better person in general. If we could all take the time to see things from each other’s perspective, the world would be a much more understanding place.
At one stage, I was a really big fan of The Streets. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Streets’ was the stage name of British cockney rapper Mike Skinner. Skinner became known on the back of his excellent debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ and the single ‘Weak Become Heroes’.
There was nothing technically amazing about The Streets’ music – the beats are somewhat generic, the almost spoken word vocal delivery is not immediately stand-out. What Skinner was able to do better than most was capture a moment in time. Every song on Original Pirate Material had a feel to it, a vivid sense of time and place. You could smell the rain soaked concrete, feel the breeze pushing past along the London streets. Skinner was more storyteller than rapper, and no one could tell a story in quite the same way.
He reinforced this with his second, and by far most popular, album, ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’. If you’ve not heard this album, I highly recommend you go check it out, particularly if you’re a writer. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a concept album – Skinner documents his entire relationship with his ex-girlfriend from start to finish, stretching from track to track. We share the elation and excitement of the beginning, the complacent beauty of normality, then the sadness of the eventual end. Every element is so familiar, so real, and each track carries an emotional depth and resonance, made all the better by Skinner’s knack for capturing the moment. There’s a section in one track, when his girlfriend is breaking up with him, that just hurts so much:
I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s lookin’ straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s lookin’ down at her feet
There’s the desperation – we can have an open relationship if that will keep you with me – then the realisation that it’s all over, told in Skinner’s unique, simple style. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is more akin to reading a novel than listening to an album, it needs to be experienced from beginning to end to fully appreciate it’s excellence.
Things changed by the third album. While his clear strength was in telling stories to which we could all relate, the success of A Grand Don’t Come for Free meant his life totally changed. He’d become a full fledged celebrity, regularly appearing in tabloids and gossip mags, holding hands with this or that pop starlet, hanging out at VIP events. His success ultimately turned his strength into weakness – he was still writing about his life like always, we could just no longer relate. The album ‘The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living’ had some classic Streets moments, but it wasn’t the same. The title track had Skinner lamenting the many downsides of fame, like the costs of making music videos and complications of putting on stage shows. These were real things, real issues that he was experiencing, but it was pretty hard for listeners to align with the view that his career, which had granted him massive amounts of cash and seen him invited to perform all over the world – all while doing what he loved – that the downsides to that lifestyle could be all that bad. Another track looks at the difficulties of picking up famous women – again, something he’d experienced, but the difference between his reality and the listener’s created a gap, a distance from the material. It once again highlighted that The Streets’s appeal was more in story than in music, and Skinner experienced a significant drop-off in fan support as a result.
He was never able to fully recover after that – Skinner released two more albums under The Streets’ moniker, ‘Everything is Borrowed’ (on which, Skinner pledged not to reference modern life on any of the tracks, a response to criticism of the previous album) and ‘Computers and Blues’. As with The Hardest Way to Make and Easy Living, there are some great moments on both of these albums (and Skinner’s musical ability increases markedly through each), but he’d lost that edge, that storytelling dynamic that made his work so great. A mixture of life changes and criticism seemed to pretty much kill off The Streets as a project, which Skinner acknowledged by retiring the name after his fifth full-length release.
The story of The Streets highlights one of the inherent dangers of fame – the more successful you are, the higher the risk you can lose touch with your audience. But above that, Skinner’s story highlights one very important element for writers that can often be overlooked. The strength of The Streets was that it told Skinner’s story, from his perspective. And that was perfect, it was real, something with which we could all relate. The rise of Mike Skinner highlights the fact that you don’t need explosions or car chases to gain an audience. Your experience, your viewpoint on life, no one has that but you – that unique insight is interesting. A story doesn’t have to be exciting or amazing to be resonant. A key strength of storytelling is honesty, capturing the feeling of the moment in an honest and real way. In Skinner’s case, those common life experiences were far more resonant than the fast-paced world of being a rock star – that’s not to say his experiences with fame were any less honest, but his story was so much stronger when we could be part of it, when we could all relate and share in the familiarity of those moments.
People relate to what they know and understand, they need a way into the narrative. Even if your story is sci-fi or fantasy, we still need to be able to connect with the stakes, understand the emotion of each scene. The development of flesh and bone characters is critical, and those characters are borne from your knowledge of real people, real situations. Writing is about exposing yourself, sharing what you’ve felt in similar circumstance, creating the experience of being there, in the moment. You need real relationships with your characters, real emotions, those are the details that fuel the connections in the reader’s mind – the more readers can relate, the more they’ll be drawn in. Keeping it real, keeping it familiar, capturing experiences based on your unique perspective, this is how you develop fully rounded characters. This is how you share not just words with your readers, but experiences and create real life within the confines of the fictional page.
I recently watched the film ‘One Chance’, a film based on the life of British mobile phone salesman turned opera star Paul Potts. If you’re not aware of who Potts is, he won the 2007 iteration of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ after he blew everyone away with his pitch perfect performances on the show, the first one, in particular, gathering him worldwide attention.
Like Susan Boyle, Potts is a poster-child for the talent show format – an unknown, unrecognised talent plucked from obscurity and given a chance to shine on TV’s biggest stage. There seems to be one of these stories in every season of these shows, and they are great – I challenge anyone to remain unmoved by Potts’ initial performance (above), where the judges had clearly expected way less from this unconfident, overweight and plain-looking gent standing before them. Potts’ rise to fame is probably the most successful transition of it’s kind, given Boyle’s challenges with fame ever since. It’s a great story that deserves to be told, and ‘One Chance’ is a solid film, though not quite as good as it had the potential to be.
The main issue I had with the film was the portrayal was a little too light. That was intended, they wanted to hit as wide a demographic as possible, so it needed to be a feelgood film, but the greatest aspect of Potts’ rise was encapsulated in that first performance – you could see in his body language and the expression on his face, this was a man who’d been kicked one too many times. He’d lost faith in himself, in everything, you could see that he was bracing himself for more anguish. I didn’t feel the film truly captured this, the defeated nature that Potts exhibited – James Corden, who plays Potts, was very good, but he couldn’t quite capture that uncomfortable nature exhibited by Potts in real life. This was the key reason why Potts’ story was so great, because you could see that he’d almost given up – but then he won. It’s a great example of persistence in doing what you love in the face of constant opposition.
But the key message I took from the film was the importance of having support from your loved ones in what you do. All through the film, Potts’ dad is telling him to give up on his dreams of being a singer, to face reality and get on with life like everyone else. There’s a scene where he’s really down, where nothing’s going his way and his wife realises that if he can no longer hold onto the dream of being a performer, that he really sees no point to his life. It’s part of who he is, he needs to do it, needs to hold onto it in some way or he just falls flat, lays on the couch, gives up. I think that’s true in everything – if you’re not true to yourself and not pursuing what you’re passionate about, at least in some form, your life purpose can be eclipsed, and you face a dreary reality of just being, just doing what you have to do. A life of obligation more than exploration of being alive. That’s no way to be, you always need to keep searching for what makes you happy, what drives you as a person, and you need to keep chasing it – sure, there’s certain things you have to accept, and yes, you’ll probably have to work a job that’s not exactly aligned with your dream path, but as long as you continue to pursue your passions in some form, as long as you have the support of people close to you to do that, that’s a big key to maintaining balance. And the moments of clarity you can get from pursuing your dreams make all the effort worthwhile. People should never give up on chasing what it is they’re most passionate about. Everyone has something.
And as a parent, it also underlined to me the need to support your kids in everything they do. If they feel strongly about something, parents need to be supportive, foster it as much as they can. Your mother and father have a profound influence on your psychological make-up, just having them back you, being aware that they’ll be behind you no matter what, it’s such a huge pillar of strength. It can change your life. My parents have always been supportive of me, and while there are certain realities we have to face, I’ve always known they’re behind me and they’ll be there for me, no matter how unrealistic my goals. Knowing that I’ve made them proud at certain times has been one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my life.
Stick with what you love, find that thing that makes you happy, and surround yourself with people who won’t ask ‘why?’, but ‘why not?’. It’s one of the keys to maintaining happiness in life and feeling complete in everything you do.