I was once asked for my thoughts on writing controversial content, where you balance between ‘confronting’ and ‘gratuitous’. My novel ‘Rohypnol’ has a lot of graphic scenes, and it’s something I was criticised for in a few reviews, that it was gratuitous, violent for the sake of it. Some felt there was no need to go into that level of detail, that much of the horror could’ve been implied and left to the imagination. But I disagree. There was a definitive purpose to what I wrote, and there is, I believe, a reason why people need to include such detail, where warranted, within the context of their work.
One of the inspirations behind ‘Rohypnol’ was a French film called ‘Irreversible’, directed by Gaspar Noe. Noe is well-known for his controversial films and has received much the same criticism, that he glorifies violence, rather than exposes us to it. This is most evident in the extreme violence of ‘Irreversible’. In the opening scenes, there are two guys looking for another man, called La Tenia. They’re in a nightclub, looking for Le Tenia and (if you ever want to watch the film, stop reading now) when they do locate him, they get into a fight and kill him. More specifically, they kill him by beating his head in with a fire extinguisher. And you see every single hit, every detail. You feel everything in this scene. There is no escaping the violence – it’s sickening, it’s so bad you have to look away. It’s horrific and it just gets worse and worse. The viewer has no context for this scene, it’s two guys getting in a fight with another. There’s no lead-up or backstory, you’re just thrown in. The violence is the most extreme you’ll ever see on film, everything about the scene is horrific – the camera moves and swirls round amidst strobing nightclub lights and grinding bass music. The whole sequence is designed to make you sick. Not a great way to start a film, right? Why would a director want to make the audience ill, especially so early in the film?
There is method to Noe’s madness. The film is called ‘Irreversible’ because the storyline moves in reverse – we start with the horrific ending to tragic story. The point Noe’s making is that violence cannot be justified. Responding to violence with violence is not an answer, in any context – but that is exactly what Hollywood films glorify. We’ve grown up seeing revenge films, feeling for the wronged man, siding with him and hoping he’ll make the bad guys pay in the end. That’s justice, that’s what we want to see – that’s what we want to do when we’re wronged. And that’s wrong. That shouldn’t be the way violence is presented. It’s not an answer, it doesn’t solve problems. Noe’s mission with ‘Irreversible’ was to display, in graphic form, what’s wrong with Hollywood action films. Had the movie played in chronological order, you’d have seen that La Tenia had brutally raped and murdered the wife of one of the men. You’d see this, and you’d side with the man, then when they did finally catch up with La Tenia in the nightclub, you’d want him to get killed. You’d want to see him pay. But there’s no right in responding with further violence.
Noe set out to make the film as uncomfortable and violent as he could to show what violence is really like – in that scene, where you want to look away, where many people walked out of the cinema – that’s how you would feel if that situation where to happen in real life. Violence is not ‘cool’, there’s no shotgun-like sound when someone punches someone in the face. There’s no good guys and bad guys in real life. Violence is horrific and frightening – it’s something everyone wants to avoid at all costs. That’s the point of the scene. You don’t want to see this. You don’t want to condone this. We should do all we can to avoid this sort of thing happening. Seeing someone get their head beat in would affect you in ways you can’t even imagine, it would traumatise you for life – yet in most films, people get revenge, blow people up, shoot them in the head and we get nothing. It’s left to our imaginations, and we don’t picture the extreme violence that actually occurred. We just note that the bad guy got killed. Case closed. Hollywood films should not portray violence as a light, humourous, nothing event that just happens. Because that, by extension, is what we’re teaching kids. If more films portrayed violence as Noe does in ‘Irreversible’, I’ll bet you see such acts of violence reduce. Everytime I see another report of violence in nightclubs, of stabbings and glassings and beating. When I read reports of attacks getting more brutal, kids more devoid of consequence, I always think of ‘Irreversible’. Honestly, it should be on the high school curriculum.
‘Irreversible’ played a big part in the way I portrayed violence in my book. My intent was not to be gratuitous – and I absolutely don’t believe it ever crosses over that line – my goal was to be honest to the story and scenes within it. If you would feel horror, dread, happiness, joy – your responsibility as the author is to communicate that, translate those emotions into the body of the reader. Definitely, I could have left the action out, left the violence implied, but that’s not the point. If monsters like the characters I’d created actually did exist, if they committed horrendous acts like the ones presented, then feeling the detail is important. Yes, it’s confronting, yes it’s shocking, but we need to be confronted and shocked sometimes, we need to face the reality of violence as it is. This is the only way people will ever understand the impacts, the horrific nature of such crimes. And by making people aware, hopefully that inspires more people to avoid it in real life. We shouldn’t, as writers, play down violence, leave it as something that just happens, then move on with the rest of the story. If something terrible occurs, it’s important to be honest, show the necessary detail in order to make the reader feel what you felt when you wrote it. This remains true in all writing – be honest to the story you’ve created, express the reality of your world. What’s happening needs to be real – so be real, be honest with the detail, and never shy away from saying what needs to be said. Don’t be constrained by how people might respond, how people might feel, just get it down, write fuelled by your emotion, and let the story dictate the detail necessary to communicate each scene.
A great place to write is the airport. It sounds weird at first, but it actually makes perfect sense. Chuck Palahniuk noted this in an interview at some stage (I can’t find the link), that he likes to write in airport lounges, in amongst the travellers and tourists. You get to eavesdrop on conversations and hear how people actually talk – which, of course, you can do in most public places – but the thing that makes airports different is the feel, that sense of adventure that hangs in the air.
People at airports are excited. They’re headed off on an adventure or returning from one. They’re saying goodbye to loved ones or anticipating being reunited. The atmosphere in an airport is like no other, that tangible sense of everything being alive, on the edge of a greater emotional high any moment. There’s no place where there’s more raw feeling in a room – tension, excitement, nervousness. People returning to cold grey days in shorts and beach tans. Businessmen embracing their young kids, the little ones in pyjamas and slippers.
What you do is you find a place in an airport lounge – you can’t go through to the international terminal without a ticket, but you can sit outside the arrivals amongst the families (some of them, you can tell, haven’t seen each other for a long time). If you check the arrivals, you can find the gates where people are arriving from holiday destinations – those are more alive than business travellers. You can move around from area to area, get a feel for the different aspects. Then later, you can go out to where the planes come into land – in Melbourne there’s a car park for the plane spotters to stand and feel the rush of the 747s as they descend to the runway. It’s pretty amazing, seeing a flying plane up that close. There’s even a food van permanently stationed there, it’s that popular a location.
As writers, you need to feel the emotion of others, to empathise and see things from the perspective of other people. Airports are great for getting a sense of this. People at the edge of their emotions are more open, unable to contain themselves within normal social restrictions. Think about when someone cries – you can feel their pain, as if they’d just given you a direct line into them. It’s not what they want you to see, not the persona they want to project. This is who they really are. And for that moment, you can connect, be on the same emotional plane. You’ve been there before, you know what it’s like to be at that overwhelming stage where you can no longer contain yourself. Those times, where emotions are pushed to the surface, are where you really understand our connection, what makes us all human. How we’re all fundamentally alike, we’re all doing what we can. Those moments are crucial for writers, being in those moments, feeling them fully. This is how you get to the heart of your writing. This is how you understand what resonates, how your readers feel. How your characters will respond to this or that situation. You need to know people, what motivates them, what makes them tick. And to do that, you need to understand yourself, how you would feel if you were this person and this was happening to you.
Shared experiences of strong emotions allow you to get a feel for that moment, to connect with the people around you.
Airports always awaken memories in me. Places I’ve been, moments with friends. People are experiencing that same excitement in every moment, and being around it, there’s a real buzz, and real sense of shared existence. That’s what makes writing in airports so interesting. Being there with them, seeing the peaks of emotion, touching at the surface. It’s exciting and awakening and equalising, all at the same time. And it can open your mind to all kinds of creative streams.
Mostly I write best at night, when the house is silent. I’ve always done this – for a while, my girlfriend (now wife) worked nights, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to stay up in the study, all the lights switched off, just the monitor screen to light the way.
When I needed a break, I’d take walks. I liked doing this in summer, when people’s windows were all open to the night and you could catch little pieces of intimate conversations drifting on the wind. You’d hear TV voices whispering, the sound of a baby crying through the streets. I liked to just walk along beneath the street lights and feel the rush of the breeze.
There’s something about the night. The stillness, maybe, the isolation from the waking world. Maybe an escape, of sorts, being free to wander around the world without complication. It was like whole sections of the city were abandoned, waiting for you to find them. The streetlights curving round corners in continuous streams.
I’d always found it easier to block everything out at night, to connect with the words on deeper level than just grammar or logic. When you can see that next level, what’s happening between the words, and you can start to understand the depth of each sentence, the perfect flow and placement of each word. How the detail connect in the readers mind. It’s that hum you can get into, that place where the neurons of the story start to connect and fire, and the piece just comes to life. I’ve got better at being able to tune into it anytime now – mostly through writing everyday – but there’s something about the night that’s always alluring, that appeals to those of us engaged in more solitary pursuits. Some find it in music, some in meditation – I guess it’s in a similar vein to those things. It’s that state you can withdraw into and encase yourself inside an idea – a story, an artwork. Where everything else gets quiet and you can see the full picture developing with each sentence, till it’s clear as any memory. You can smell it, feel it. And then the writing just flows out.
Night time has always provided me the most freedom to find it.
What about you, when do you find is the best time to write?
Sometimes my eyes will catch onto an eagle when I’m driving. I’ve even pulled over on occasion to watch them in flight, huge wings spread wide as they float across the wind.
One time down at the beach, a man and a woman pulled up and run out onto the sand. They were a distance away from us, and they were wearing formal clothes – him in full tuxedo. This was mid-morning on a cold, overcast day, and they ran down onto the wet sand then the woman pulled back, dropped down onto the beach and let go of his hand and he kept on running, black leather shoes clapping into the waves.
Paying attention to detail is one of the key traits of a writer, and it’s little moments like this that capture your imagination, fuel your creative mind. These happenings, flourishes in your day to day life, can open up a whole new world of possibilities in your mind, thinking over how they came to be, what lead to them occurring. Allowing yourself to take in the moment and letting your mind run with it can lead to ground-breaking moments for story ideas. Even if you have an outline constructed, details like this can form key parts of your narrative, taking in the detail of the scene and trying to put yourself into another person’s skin.
You need to let yourself get caught up in the detail, let your creative mind open, just go with it now and then. Take a train into the city one weekend and just look around. Take a drive on the backroads and see where it takes you – not physically, but mentally. Allow yourself to be totally open to the detail of your surroundings, see what your attention catches onto.
Detail adds texture to your work, authenticity. Detail comes from paying attention – writers are naturally curious, naturally attentive to what’s happening around them. It’s worth taking the time, whenever you can, to just stay with the thought, allow the stories to unfold. It’s moments like this that exercise your creative mind and show you the depth in the fabric of the world. There’s so much we don’t know, so many lives and perspectives that we can never experience. Taking a time to wander can bring you closer to the finer details of life and allow you to expand your understanding and expose moments of true art, by your own terms and definitions.
A long time ago, I remember reading an interview with a young author in the paper. She’d just had her first novel published, and she talked about how she’d done an ‘apprenticeship’ in novel writing by writing short stories – writing as many as she could, entering them into competitions, etc. This note stuck with me – at the time I was into short story writing exclusively. I was reading a lot of Amy Hempel, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore and I was all about being a short story writer. Who needs to write a novel? Short story’s where it’s at. This, at least in part, was because the thought of writing 50,000+ words was way too daunting to contemplate. That word count is a massive mountain to climb. I had attempted a novel, kind of, but it was half way through 30 pages in so not quite long enough.
But this idea of doing an apprenticeship in short story opened my mind to the idea of planning a novel in short story form. I didn’t know that I’d be able to write a novel but I could give you 100 short stories, no problem. I was writing new pieces everyday, coming up with new ideas, it became more conceivable for me to visualise a novel as 50 connected short stories. 50,000 words = scary. 50 short stories = doable.
This is how I planned and wrote my first novel (and planned my second, the writing has been slightly more problematic). I thought of an idea, of a concept that I thought would work. I thought of the key points, played them over and over in my mind and then, once I had a basic skeleton of the story, I sat down and wrote a list of 50 short pieces that would tell the story. Suddenly I could see how it was possible, writing short stories, one by one, was easy, I could knock them over at a rate of one a night. If I could get a solid plan down, I could do it. And with luck, lonely nights, and a lot of persistence, I did.
Of course, there was a lot more that came up along the way – extra planning, re-plotting, adding in chapters to build additional context once the themes were clear (note: the themes of your novel will only be 100% clear once you’ve completed your first draft), getting the voice right – there was more work to be done than one planning session. But it did work, and I do think this is a solid way to go about writing a novel. If you’re dedicated to writing a book but having trouble visualising such a vast amount of content, I’d recommend this as a process to help rationalise the workload, to break it down to an digestable amount. Writing 1000 words a day is something you should commit to, if you can, and if you’re able to do that, you can write a chapter a day. And eventually it will start to take form.
Why you? What makes you’re any different? Who do you think you are? Why would they listen to you? How are you gonna’ do that? What do you know about it? You’ll never do it. You’ll never make it. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Over your head. Out of your mind. Out of your depth. Do you know how many people are trying to do that? No hope. Not a hope in hell. Hopeless. Hope you’ve got a back-up plan. Hope’s only gonna’ take you so far. You can’t live on hope, you know? Fat chance. Snowball’s chance. Zero chance. Not a chance of that happening. Chances are slim. What are the chances? Honestly though, you don’t have a chance. You can’t. You won’t. Why bother? Why even consider it? Impossible. Unlikely. Doubtful. You’re better off to just forgetting about it. Are you crazy? Don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t think you’re better than you are. Just leave it. Move on. Give up. Give it away. Let it go. Take a look around you. Take a good, hard look at yourself. Look at your situation. Look at the reality. Reality is. Not in this reality. Face the facts. Face the truth. Honestly. Seriously. Be serious. Be real. Be realistic. Wake up. Wake up to yourself. Open your eyes. Stop dreaming. Really. Why you?
It’s a wonder anyone ever tries anything out of the ordinary.
Time to change your way of thinking.
Here’s something that’s true in everything in life – criticism is hard to take. No one wants to hear what they’re doing wrong. Even helpful criticism, like ‘you’re breath stinks’ is generally deflating. In writing, criticism is a required element, a constant that will hurt every time you hear it. But it’s necessary. It gets easier over time as you learn to take in what you need and discard what you don’t, but if being told where you’ve gone wrong is something that cuts you deep, you’re gonna’ find it tough to succeed in the writing world.
I know the pain. When my novel came out I was, of course, incredibly excited. I bought the newspapers every weekend hoping to find a review of my book – and all the feedback I’d had on it to that stage was positive, so I was hoping for more of the same. The first review I read was in The Age – The Age being the most respected newspaper for literary content in my home state. The reviewer, Thuy On, had this to say:
‘Rohypnol tries a bit too hard to impress by following the “boys behaving badly and lashing out at society’s moralistic strictures” template, but we’ve read it all before and it doesn’t offer anything else to this particular sub-genre.’
It hurt – oh, it hurt. My life’s biggest achievement, something I’d been wholly committed to for years, torn down in one sentence. I felt shamed, depressed. People I grew up with would be reading this, all my bragging rights as a published author shrunk down to a passing remark. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, maybe the publisher had got it wrong and I wasn’t talented. I know the pain all too well – and this was in a major newspaper.
And there were others.
From The Australian:
‘When a novel begins with the line “Troy f—ed up”, you can probably guess its ambition will be to shock and that this is unlikely to be carried out successfully. A ready use of expletives, like shape poems and the liberal application of exclamation marks, are devices that quickly lose their effect and purpose.’
Yep. The Australian is a national publication. This is what people were going to read about my pride and joy, Australia-wide.
A commentator on GoodReads had this helpful critique:
‘Wanting to be an author myself I figured I should start supporting Australian fiction, so I bought this as it looked interesting and as though it may have something to say. Even though I wasn’t going into it expecting Heart Of Darkness I still came away majorly disappointed. No wonder Aussie fiction doesn’t get much recognition; the characters are 2-D, unbelieveably stereotypical and bland and the story makes no sense. The characters are like try-hard anarchists, date raping women and turning their backs on their parents and society at large. Having the main character follow these flimsy ideals makes the whole premise seem ridiculous. Plot holes also abound, not the least of which the fact a well known group of date rapists live within the community and are never confronted nor questioned by peers. Picked this up wanting to like it, but for drug induced humour and working class violence and profanity I’ll stick with Irvine Welsh.’
Weak characters? Plot holes? Excuse me? This isn’t something I just chucked together on a weekend, this is the result of hundreds of hours of work, and you’re just taking me down like that? And worse, I’m the reason you’ve lost faith in Australian fiction as a whole? That’s quite the weight to bear.
Compare these to the worst critiques you’ve ever had. I’m guessing they’re worse or, at the least, on par.
Every single criticism hurts, but you have to take it in. You have to absorb the info, process it, then cross-check those comments against what you’re trying to achieve. Were they valid criticisms? Were they accurate to your intentions? Are you confident that your work is as good as it could be? This last one is the key – you have to know you’ve done the work, that you’ve done all you can, and that the finished product is what you want it to be. If you can have faith in that and be true to yourself, you’ll be more resilient to the critical swipes and stings. You have to be strong, trust your instincts, and stick to what you do. Because there is one other aspect of criticism that’s important to keep in perspective, a crucial balancing point to counter the pain of negativity.
Criticism comes trailing behind success. The more successful you are, the more people read your work, and the more people read your work, the higher the chance some people are going to dislike it. Nothing in the world that is universally liked. There are millions, maybe even billions, of people who love Justin Bieber, but I don’t know any of them. And as you or I sit back and scoff at Bieber’s latest antics, there are way more people looking at that same story with wide-eyed adoration. We are not the target audience, but as his popularity expands, we’re exposed to his work. And we don’t like it. We’re haters only because he’s big enough to be within our realm of awareness. The more widely known you are, the more people are going to see your work, which, inevitably, means more people are going to hate it. That’s how it is. So in some ways, criticism can be seen as a measure of how well you’re doing – in order for people to criticise you, they have to be aware of you. And one person’s opinion is never going to define your success. Don’t let it sink you – your stuff isn’t their thing, no problem, there are billions of others who might check it out. A single opinion is not indicative of what you do.
To support that point, and to close out the post on a positive, below are a couple of the notes of praise that the book also received. On balance, I got way more positive comments than negative (the book generally averages 4-star reviews on most book review sites), but like anything, the bad ones stand out. You can’t let negativity get into your heart – read it, go for a walk, think it through, then keep the notes you need and discard the ones you don’t. You need to keep learning, keep improving and keep pursuing what you’re passionate about. And one piece of advice that was given to me very early on: Don’t ever respond to critical reviews of your work. No good ever comes of that.
‘Andrew Hutchinson’s debut novel Rohypnol is a great read. It’s assured, convincingly portrayed and grippingly plotted’ – Andy Murdoch, MX Magazine
‘Hutchinson weaves this plot with fierce authority and it is this that makes it such a standout debut. From the first paragraph you are confident this storyteller knows exactly where he is going to take you and, with such an assured, strong voice, he has the power to take you anywhere. This is no small feat.’ Louise Swinn, Sydney Morning Herald
‘A blistering, almost terrifying novel about social alienation, wrought in stark and pitiless prose, it paints a disturbing portrait of a nameless protagonist whose violence is without social cause or particular reason.’ – Kathleen Mitchell Award 2008 shortlist comments
As many would be aware, the teaser trailers for Season 4 of Game of Thrones have started coming through. It’s exciting to have the show return, but the pending disappointment of having to wait so long when the season ends always lingers, bittersweet. As I was watching the latest teaser, I tried to think over what makes Game of Thrones so good. Sure, the acting, the sets, there are a lot of factors involved in making the show what it is, but it started from a book series – it’s core strength is in it’s writing. So here are five elements that I think are George R.R. Martin’s greatest storytelling cornerstones in Game of Thrones – the keys to it’s success, and the lessons writers, can take from them.
1. It constantly subverts expectations. The most refreshing thing about Game of Thrones is that it doesn’t go where you expect. I remember the first season, with Sean Bean up on the platform about to be killed. I remember his daughter weaving through the crowd, the tension rising. And I remember thinking ‘Sean Bean’s the biggest star on the show, they’re not going to kill him off’. But they did. It was so great, so amazing to have my expectation smashed, and I’ve found this over and over again with GOT – as soon as you think you’ve got it worked out, that this person or that one is going to come out on top, they’re gone. Killed, maimed, chained up and mutilated. There’s a whole science to why police procedurals are so popular, that it makes people feel more intelligent when they can work out the details of each case. GOT is almost the complete opposite, and it succeeds by switching up on you every chance it gets. It’s exciting storytelling, and hard to do in the modern era, where everyone has theoretically seen every story before in some form. GOT does this better than any other show I’ve seen. The takeaway for writers: Subvert expectation, don’t go down the well-worn path. Think about what you can do that will surprise and excite your readers.
2. It’s honest to the reality in which the characters live. As a writer, you’re only true obligation is to be honest to the story and world you’ve created. You can do whatever you want, so long as the actions and consequences are honest to the rules you’ve established for the world you’re writing about. GOT does this really well – if there were a medieval type world where the strongest ruled, generally by brute force, then there wouldn’t be the usual fairytale romances and maidens in towers. The key to success in that world would essentially be a willingness to do what others would not. Backstabbers and liars would rise, those willing to kill would seize power – it would be a pretty unpleasant place where you’d have to constantly watch your back (or resign to the life of a peasant). It somewhat aligns with the first point, but in GOT, the bad guys, more often that not, win. Because they don’t have the morals, the ethics of the hero. They’ll do what they need to take and maintain power. In the reality of that world, that’s how it would be. It’s that authenticity, that conceptual depth, that Martin has harnessed so well. The key note for writers is to stay honest to the reality you’ve created. Think through the impacts to ensure things don’t jar or stand out as obvious plot devices which don’t fit into that world.
3. The story develops organically. Or more accurately, the story feels like it develops organically. Martin has created such deep, true to life characters that every action has a reaction, every step resonates with someone else. And you pretty much know how each of the characters is going to respond. There’s a real logic and humanity to each of these interactions and no one ever gets away with anything, nothing is ever confined to one plotline. The characters respond as you’d expect real people to, and that changes their story arc. Someone who was once hell bent on one course of action can be swayed by emotion, and that change shifts the entire scene. It doesn’t feel like anything is planned or set in stone, which again, adds to that unpredictability. As a storyteller, the note to take away is to consider every action, not only from a core storyline standpoint, but for how it will ripple through to the rest of your fictional world. This attention to detail will add an important layer of authenticity to your work.
4. The characters are deep. I noted this in the previous point, but it’s a key one to highlight. The characters in Game of Thrones all feel like they could have a mini-series of their own to explain their back story. Martin knows each one very well, has got into tune with who they are and what they want. All of them have a level of humanity that is tangible, allowing the audience to be taken in by them. Well, except Joffrey, I guess. The key point – you need to know you’re characters. Not just ‘he was sixteen with brown hair…’ you need to know them, know where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced, how those things have affected their world view. Once you do, once you can conceptualize a character to this level, the writing gets a heap easier. Because you know how they’ll react, what they’ll do in response to any action. Knowing your characters is key to writing great stories – research them, understand them. Even if you do all that work and a lot of it never makes it to the page, you’ll know it and your writing will be better for it.
5. Very little of Game of Thrones is revealed in exposition. I’m talking about the TV show here, not the books (which I haven’t read) but on the show, there’s very few sections of blatant exposition – characters delivering monologues on the reasons why things have come to be in this world. This is pretty rare, particularly for these fantasy realm stories, where you need to set up the parameters. GOT pretty much throws you into the politics and lets you work it out. And it’s much better for it. I liken this to something like ‘The Wire’ – when I first started watching The Wire I had to re-check I started on episode one, cause I had no idea what was going on. But four episodes in, I was totally immersed by it. Not knowing the detail made me concentrate harder and take in more to catch up. Of course, you don’t want to make it so complex that the audience doesn’t understand, but there’s definitely something to be said about writing a story that’s lived in, where things are how they are. Your characters wouldn’t, in their reality, sit down and go over the details of why things are how they are, and often you don’t need to, and shouldn’t, do this in your writing. People are smart, they’ll work it out, just give them what they need to make them want to turn the page and you’ll have them. It’s the old ‘show don’t tell’ principle – don’t spell it out, allow your readers into it, let them see it with the characters, engage with the story in a more organic way.
Game of Thrones is an excellent example of storytelling, and there’s a heap for writers to learn from it. Keep these elements in mind as you watch, try to work out how they utilise storytelling elements – and more importantly, how you can use the same tricks in your own work.
I recently had a chance to catch up with my friend Wally. Wal is one of my biggest inspirations and it’s always great to get a chance to catch up with him and talk about what he’s been working on, creative processes, inspirations, etc. What makes Wal slightly different, in context, is that he’s also known as ‘Gotye’. You know, that guy who used to know somebody? Wal is one of the hardest working and most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and his passion for what he does is infectious. But while most people would be aware of ‘that song’, many are not aware of the long road it took for Wal to become an overnight success.
I met Wally a couple of years after he’d finished high school. Wal had been in a band with some high school mates, a very good and well-known band (locally) called ‘Downstares’, but after graduation the band drifted apart, the guys moving on to their respective next things. You could see this kinda’ broke Wal’s heart, he loved music and he loved performing, but without a band he had no outlet. Wal was studying at uni and working part-time, but there was definitely something missing. He wanted to make music again.
It was around the same time that The Avalanches’ album ‘Since I Left You’ was going well, and DJ Shadow had just released his second album, ‘The Private Press’. In retrospect, I would say that these two albums were among the most influential in the Gotye project coming into being – not musically, necessarily, but in terms of them showing Wal the possibilities of sample-based music. Wal had never really considered using samples – he’s an excellent drummer and pianist, and I imagine the thought of samples seemed somewhat inferior or not as tangible as actually playing an instrument. Either way, he’d never seriously considered it, then one night he tried it out, mucking around with records, playing with sounds on his PC. Wal’s a perfectionist, so once he’d started on it, there was no stopping him, and he worked with the samples till he had something he felt was great. And it was. His first tracks were amazing, way beyond what anyone would have expected. Wal was excited, he’d found a way to make music again, now he just had to work out what to do next.
Wal read up on agents and record labels and radio stations, sifted through the phone book to find as many contacts as he could. Wal hand made hundreds of four-track CDs, printing up the CD labels and hand writing the track listing on each sleeve. I remember seeing the pile of worn down brown pencils in his room. He sent the CDs out to everyone he could, then followed each one up with a phone call. The workload was amazing – Wal was driven to do whatever he could to find an audience for his music. Early feedback was limited. Most places didn’t respond, some did but weren’t able to offer anything. Wal kept calling, kept making CDs, kept chasing, and kept making new music. Eventually, Triple J added one of his songs to their playlist, an amazing day. I still remember hearing Wal on the radio for the first time. It was an incredibly proud moment. I think some other smaller stations played a track or two, and Wal was getting mentioned in street press, nothing major, but the first stages of Gotye had begun.
Wal released two more four track CDs, all hand made (though he cut out the hand written business after the first one).They got limited attention, but music critics were highlighting his stuff in their weekly columns, even if it wasn’t getting added to radio playlists. Wal continued to get support from Triple J and he gained enough attention to develop on a live show – a small gig in a city bar with a bed sheet as a projector screen. Wal worked extremely hard to try and perfect a live show, unsure of how to do it with sample based music. And afterwards he thought it was crap (one of the difficulties of Wal’s perfectionist nature is he always notices every tiny error – in his head those errors are highlighted way more than the audience would ever notice).
Eventually a small record label agreed to distribute an album of Wal’s music, a selection of highlights from those first four-track CDs. This was another amazing milestone, Wal’s CDs were in JB Hi-Fi, in between ‘God Speed You Black Emperor’ and ‘Green Day’. I remember going into stores just to see it on the shelves. Wal was a legit superstar in our eyes, but even at this stage, Wal was still doing all the work – the label was distributing the music, but Wal still had to work on all the production and manage every aspect, along with creating new tracks. After all the work and all the effort, Wal went quiet in Gotye stuff for a little bit. He was still working on it, but he’d started playing in another band and he’d moved house and he just hadn’t been able to give his new music the time he needed for a little bit. And in some ways, I think the whole process burned him out a little. This was probably three years after he started recording music as Gotye.
We were on a group holiday on the Gold Coast when Wal first played us his new tracks. He’d put together an album, had had it all mastered, professionally done, it was a major step up from the previous stuff. The album was called ‘Like Drawing Blood’ and as soon as Wal played the first track, ‘The Only Way’, I just wanted to listen to it over and over again. ‘Like Drawing Blood’ is an amazing album, and not only good because he’s a friend, a seriously amazing album, among the best of any released that year. Rightfully, it was recognised with an ARIA Award along with many other accolades. His track ‘Hearts a Mess’ was number 8 in the Triple J’s Hottest 100 in 2006. Wal had become a fully-fledged rock star. People recognised him in the street (it’s still pretty cool seeing it, seeing people do a double-take as he passes), he played sold out shows and huge, surging crowds sang along to his tracks. And people stopped believing me when I told them I know him. For years, I’d been pushing his music at people, saying they needed to listen to his stuff, now I couldn’t even convince people that he was a mate. It was all pretty great – amazing, inspiring stuff.
Then Wal waited a couple of years, recorded his next album in amongst his other musical and professional commitments. Quietly, patently, took his time getting it right. Then he released that song. No doubt you know the rest. Wal’s first Gotye recordings were in 2001 in his basement bedroom in Montmorency. In 2011, Wal released ‘Making Mirrors’, his third album. Ten years to become an overnight success.
Why is this overly long Gotye history lesson relevant?
As noted, Wal is one of my biggest inspirations. He has taught me so much about following your dreams and allowing yourself to be creative, and about how much work it takes to achieve something great. Wal’s story highlights three important things:
1. Persistence is key. Wal had to work so hard to get recognition. There were so many times when things seemed like they might never go anywhere and Wal could easily have walked away. But he never did. No one wants to be sending out hundreds of copies of their work knowing that many of them will never even get read or listened to. No one wants to follow up with phone calls and hassle people who probably have no interest in talking to you. But this is what had to be done, and Wal did it because he was driven to succeed. He believed in what he was doing, he believed in his music, and he worked and worked and did whatever he could to get it heard. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and to put in the consistent effort required to succeed. It took a decade of persistence for Wal to achieve that ultimate success. An even now, he’s still working on his music, every day.
2. Practice makes perfect. Wal is an amazing musician, always has been, but it took time for him to work out how to perfect his sound. He had to learn a heap of new instruments, read through pages of software documentation (the worst of all documentation) and he had to practice over and over and over to get things right. One time Wal told me how about he records around 100 vocal takes for every track. He knows what he wants and he tries and tries again till he gets it exactly right. Wal practiced over and over again to get to the point where he can produce the amazing live shows he does today, none of that came easy. He’s tried, he’s failed, he’s been dejected, then he’s tried again. You have to practice to get it right. As much as you possibly can.
3. Passion is your push. No one made Wal succeed. No one pushed him, and as noted, he could’ve given up several times. But he was passionate about what he was doing, he wanted it more than anything. That’s what makes Wal the success he is. It’s not his intelligence or his natural ability – those elements play a big part, but Wal taught himself most of the skills he needed because he had the impetus to do so. Because he was totally driven by his passion. If you’re passionate about something, you can achieve great things. You work hard, there’s nothing you can’t learn to support your art. You have to be self-driven, you have to make it happen, and you have to be willing to listen and learn and take in everything you can along the way. Take risks, be strong in your self-belief, trust in your ability even when no one else does. If you do these things will that turn you into an international superstar? Probably not, but it’s these fundamental elements that position you to achieve your greatest success.
Also if you’ve been living on an island with a volleyball as your only companion for the past few years, go check out www.gotye.com and listen to Wal’s music – if you’ve read through this whole post, surely that’s enough context to pique your interest.
One time, Christos Tsiolkas told me how he dealt with blocks, passages he’s having trouble with. He walks. He told me how he used to go out and smoke cigarette after cigarette till the sentences became clear through the smoke haze, but then he quit smoking. So now he walks. He walks all over the suburbs where he lives, just taking everything in, observing, thinking things through.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with writer’s block, or not even ‘blocks’ so much (because ‘writer’s block’ is like ‘Voldemort’ to writers – we just don’t mention it), but those points where the sentences don’t flow. When everything’s working, the words flow into each other like drops of water, washing through your head, and it’s beautiful, but with everything I work on there is at least one point where I need to re-think it. Usually I write something, then I leave it for 24 hours (if not more), then I’ll go over it with fresh eyes, see it much more like a reader would come to it, then I’ll move things around, sort out what’s not working, tighten the sentences. And in that stage there’s always a few things that I need to go over – words that don’t feel right in the sentence flow, ideas that aren’t incorporated properly. Those bits that you know don’t quite work.
When I need to think, I go out and shoot baskets in my backyard. I can sit out there for an hour, not really thinking about what I’m doing mechanically, but going over sentences, rolling them over in my mind, even speaking them out loud (not too loud), working out what fits best. I do the dishes, the washing, mundane tasks that require no real engagement from my brain, things that will just occupy me and allow me space to clarify my thoughts and get the ideas to magnetise.
The worst is when I can’t stop thinking about it. If you don’t already have one, you need a notepad or some way to note things down at all times because it’s a killer if you forget that perfect sentence. I’ve had so many great sentences and paragraphs come together in my head just before I’ve fallen asleep (interestingly, studies have shown that you’re more creative in those moments before you fall asleep, where you’re slipping between reality and dream) then I’ve totally forgotten them when I’ve woken up in the morning. Even ideas that I’ve thought were so perfect, fit so well into the piece that there’s no way I could forget them – gone. You need to keep a notepad, or your phone, nearby so you can write a note. I’ve got heaps of barely legible scribbles, hand written in darkness. They’re normally enough to recall the idea, at the least.
It’s really important that writers be out in the world. You can’t create without ideas and inspiration to mould into stories, and the best place to get them is outside of your study. Reading, too, is crucial, but you need to get out and see things, feel things. So if you’re ever feeling blocked, ever re-reading and getting to that point where it feels like it’s all cardboard and the words barely seem to link up at all, just turn off your monitor. Get out of the house. Even if it’s the middle of the night. You need to get out, get away for a moment, think it through from a distance. And you need to experience life, feel it flowing against your skin.