Criticism is a big part of becoming a better writer (or a better anything, really). More specifically, how you deal with criticism plays a major role in your improvement and ultimately, the level of success you’ll achieve with your work. As noted in a recent post, a large part of this is your internal critic, your ability to distance yourself from your work and analyse your output, but external criticism, while sometimes difficult to take, is just as important, and how you interpret feedback, how you respond, is the actionable element of the process, the part you need to excel at.
I was playing basketball once and we were up against the best team in the competition. This was a group of guys who had played at a really high level, much higher than the competition we were in, and they were well better than the rest of our league, won the grand final season after season. I was talking to a teammate before we played them one time and he was like ‘I hate playing this team, coming out on a cold night just to get your ass kicked’. And he was right, it was annoying – it’s no fun going into a match knowing that you’re about to get destroyed – but my view on this was actually the opposite of his. I told him I like playing these guys – the problem is more that we only get to face them once every eight weeks. Playing them was an opportunity, a chance to see how you matched up and to try and work them out, maybe even get a few over on them. Yes, they were going to win, but maybe we could put some pressure on them, hit a few shots, remind them not to leave us open. Playing against them was an opportunity to improve – because if you didn’t, you were just gonna’ get trampled over and over again. You either worked harder or you gave up – it was that simple. I wasn’t prepared to give up and drop down to the next grade below, so the only other option was to take them on, keep trying. The only thing you could do was to keep working to improve.
This is how I view criticism. Critiques force you to improve. Just as an athlete trains and works out and builds herself into a better player, you need to read, you need to edit and you have to put in the work, every day. The more you do this, the more you’ll improve. Criticism is an important element of this, because while it’s not always right, it’s worth taking in, worth listening to, even just as motivation to prove them wrong. The more you face up to criticism and accept it as a challenge, something to improve and aspire to, the better off you’ll be. And here’s the thing – you will improve. You see it all the time in sports, players improve year-on-year, they get better because they have to. Because the only other option is to give up. The only way criticism will defeat you is if you give up. If you accept it, if you agree with it, and if you decide you don’t have the energy to put in the effort anymore, then you’ll have decided your own fate. But if you believe you can, that you want to succeed despite whatever odds you face, then you will. You just need to put in the work. You need to train, analyse, study successful people in your field and build an understanding of what it takes to get to that next level.
Writing is work, it’s consistent effort, consistent reading and practice to understand and improve. The only way you stop improving is when you stop. Period. If you’re happy with where you’re at, that’s fine, no need to put in any more work. If you think those professional writers and authors on bookstore shelves are well above your standard, that they’re too high to even consider comparing your work against, then you’re right. But if you really want to succeed, if you take criticism as a call to action, rather than a cue to shut down, then you will improve. And you’ll keep progressing towards that next level of success.
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.
One of the biggest factors contributing to the success of your writing is how good of an internal critic you are. How objectively can you view your own work? How much are you able to put yourself into the mind of your readers when you edit and re-write? This is crucial and probably the most significant difference between a good writer and a great one – it’s one thing to be able to write a story, it’s another to view that story as someone else would, and to be able to cut and edit your sentences from that point of view. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help improve your own editing process.
1. Let everything you write rest before editing
Nothing increases objectivity like distance – it’s like when you end a relationship and it’s devastating and you’re a wreck, but then over time you start to see things more clearly, see the issues and problems that existed beneath your rose-coloured memories. Writing is the same – you’ve spent a long time thinking about the piece, you’ve worked on it in your head, it’s kept you up at night going over it and some of those sentences have arrived to you in such pristine fashion, there’s no way they won’t make the final cut. Once you’ve let something sit, you’re able to review it without that level of emotional attachment. The longer you can leave it, the less likely you’re going to be blinded by personal connection and the more likely you’ll be able to view it as just another piece of writing – and that’s the best way to edit. If you can read your own work as if it’s someone else’s, like you would any other piece, then you can truly unlock your objectivity and see flaws for what they are. And then you can correct them.
2. If your mind’s drifting as you re-read, there’s a problem
I’ve spoken to writers who’ve justified this, to some degree, by saying they might have trouble focussing on the piece because they wrote it, they’re intimately familiar with the story. If you created it, it’s going to be harder for you to be excited or engaged, right? In the vast majority of cases, I don’t believe that way of thinking is correct. If your thoughts are wandering as you read, it’s likely your readers are going to drift too, and if they drift, then your work hasn’t connected and you’ll lose them very quick. Don’t dismiss flow issues or engagement lapses, they’re all indicative of problems you need to, at the least, re-assess. If a section loses you, you need to review the structure and understand why the sequence seems off. You can go crazy on this, I know, you can get hung up on small issues that’ll never feels quite right, but it’s important that you do investigate and understand any areas where things don’t sit as they should. It’s like when you get feedback – you take in all feedback, listen to what the person has to say, then you re-read the section. If it communicates what you intended, that’s fine, but even if you don’t agree with their criticism, it’s worth re-assessing, ensuring the message is delivered as you want.
3. Editing is going to take you way more time than writing
If it doesn’t, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re not maximising the potential of your work. I was reading an interview with a musician once who talked about how he’ll do more than 50 vocal takes for every track he creates to ensure that he gets the best version for his final piece. This is ‘the work’, as he explained it, and he’d seen many musicians who weren’t willing to do ‘the work’ fall by the wayside because they would do three takes, feel one of them was perfect, then want to move on. Attention to detail is the difference between good and great. This is true in everything, but very much so in writing. How many times has a small error in a piece stood out to you? How many times have you seen an error in a piece by an accomplished writer? Attention to detail is a sign of professionalism, and while people can get over a minor mistake here or there (everyone makes them, I probably have in this post), you don’t want to give your readers anything that could divert their attention from the piece. A small mistake is like a bump in the road, it can distract you from the main narrative momentarily. Too many bumps, and they become the narrative themselves. You should always edit, then edit, then edit again before you even think about releasing your work, because you’ll always, always, always find issues, no matter how naturally gifted you think you are. Always.
Accepting that editing is just as significant a part of the writing process is important, but ideally, you also need to make yourself just as excited about the editing process as the writing itself. How? By thinking of your readers, by keeping in mind why you’re doing ‘the work’. Because the better it is, the better it’ll be received and the more likely you’ll reach a wider audience. And it can be an engaging process – you’ve written your first draft, but now you get to go back and find ways to improve it, to make it even better. That’s genuinely exciting, it’s great to read through and find ways you can make sentences better, to think over progressions and words and improve the final product. You are not only the writer of each piece you create, you’re the first reader, and you have the chance to shape that story into what you want. How many times have you watched a movie and thought ‘it would’ve been better if…’ The more objective you can be, the more you can actually do this with your own drafts.
4. Is that how you would say it?
One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to ‘write like you talk’. And like most tips (e.g. ‘write what you know’) there’s really more of a middle ground truth to this. Definitely, you should review your writing and ensure it flows naturally. The reader will have a voice in their head as they read, and if that voice sounds inauthentic or starts saying things that stumble in the flow, it’s another bump in the road that could, potentially, turn them off. I highly recommend reading your work out loud to ensure the flow is right – it’ll highlight things no other method can, and the more you do it, the more your internal monologue gets attuned to sentence flow, and you’ll make fewer mistakes in your initial drafts. But you need to also ensure that you’re communicating effectively for each piece, which is not always exactly like you talk. For example, if you’re writing fiction, it’s crucial that you write how the characters would talk, not you. For non-fiction, you can’t use slang as you might in regular conversation for every piece. There’s a level of self-awareness required to accompany this advice – it’s not necessarily how you would talk, it’s how you would talk to the intended audience of the piece.
The most common errors I see on this front are things like ‘you are’ when it would read better as ‘you’re’, ‘it is’ instead of ‘it’s’. These types of common contractions are very much in tune with how we communicate – a simple sentence like ‘it is crucial that you are aware of this’ is grammatically correct, but no one would say it like that in real life. Your words are translated into a voice in the reader’s mind, and it’s important you communicate like a real person to avoid any chance of losing their attention.
Being able to distance yourself and view your own work with a critical eye is integral to your success as a writer. If you write one draft, don’t re-read, and send it out, I guarantee you will fail. No one, no writer in the world gets it perfect in one try. You need to embrace editing and improve your self-awareness by benchmarking your work against the best (as a comparison, not in admiration) and come to it as the first reader of your content. The better you can do this, the more likely you’ll make your work the best it can possibly be.
I lived in Canberra from 2006 to 2011 and while I was there I came across a story that absolutely intrigued me. I’m always fascinated by how people end up where they are, why they do what they do. When you read a story in the newspaper of how some guy, for example, murdered his wife, you’re only ever skimming the surface of the real details behind the story. But what motivates people to do such things? What could’ve happened in this person’s life to make him decide that this is the course of action he’s going to take? These questions are key to your character development efforts in your own writing – it can’t be that a person just does something, there has to be a reason why, an authenticity in their thought process.
This is how I approached the story of this NRL player that I heard about in Canberra. Being from Melbourne, I know hardly anything about NRL and have very little interest in it. I tried to go to a few games in Canberra, to experience the local culture, as it were, but it never caught on for me – I imagine people from northern states have a similar reaction to AFL. But while I was there, there was this one player who just kept doing really amazingly stupid things. This player was on $400k per season with the Canberra Raiders, had everything going for him, yet he just couldn’t stop himself from getting drunk on the weekend and punching people in the face or breaking things. I read each headline with amazement – Why was he doing this? What renders a person unable to follow basic societal norms for the sake of their livelihood, what they’d worked all their life to achieve?
The player I’m talking about is Todd Carney. You may or may not have heard of him, but he recently got sacked, again, from another NRL club. It makes no sense – he’s a great player, no one debates that, but he just can’t seem to stop himself from making dumb decisions.
For example, here’s a rundown of Carney’s career history:
2004 – Carney makes NRL debut at age 17, wins Raiders ‘Rookie of the Year’, plays for Australian junior side
2006 – Canberra Raiders leading try scorer, team finishes in top 8, selected as captain of Australian junior side. Charged with drink-driving and reckless driving, license suspended 5 years
2007 – Loses chance to play for State of Origin side due to another driving offence – refuses to stop for police, leads them on a chase through Canberra, hits a dead-end street, then flees the scene, leaving team-mate in car. Banned from driving till 2012, told he’ll go to jail if he offends again
2008 – Allegedly urinates on man at a Canberra nightclub. Gets suspended by club, whilst another investigation takes place into driving incident where he left his team-mate, with team-mate saying he was told to keep quiet about the incident. Carney suspended for season, told to accept strict management plan from Raiders – eventually sacked by club and de-listed from NRL for failing to agree to terms. Seeks contract from overseas club but can’t get a visa due to criminal history
2009 – Tries to get back in the NRL, but application denied – respond by smashing a shop window and jumping on cars in Goulburn. Receives 12-month suspended jail term. Released by Raiders to play in lower-level league in Cairns – gets in fights, sets some guy’s pants on fire, eventually signed by Sydney Roosters to new contract
2010 – Joins Sydney Roosters, has great season, wins game’s highest individual honour, the Dally M Medal – so he’s undeniably a great player, despite the off-field issues
2011 – After three separate alcohol-related incidents, Carney sacked from Sydney Roosters. After again trying to play overseas, and again being denied on visa grounds, Carney signs contract with Cronulla Sharks – estimated to be $350k per season for two years
2012 – Plays in State of Origin, has solid overall season, but sits out final games with injury
2013 – Signs on with Sharks for another five years
2014 – Sacked from Cronulla after pictures emerge of Carney seemingly urinating into his own mouth
It’s a pretty amazing record, not only for the indiscretions, but for the amount of opportunities he’s had to straighten up.
Of course, he’s not the first pro athlete to do things like this, things that frustrate us normal folk as we do whatever we can, day0-to-day, to keep our incomings higher than our outgoings. Did you know that 78% of NFL players go broke within five years of finishing their careers? The average NFL salary is $1.9 million p.a. Amazing, right? How do they do it, how can they throw such opportunity away?
Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to see things from their perspective to understand. Carney’s naturally gifted, a top-level athlete. He’s always been better than most at what he does. So while we can’t understand why he doesn’t seem to appreciate his unique position in life, he probably doesn’t understand why we can’t do what he does. Its stories like this that are the reason I write. Not Carney himself, but people, what makes people do the things they do. People will often say that there are really only a certain number of basic plots, and that all literature is just a variation on these outlines. I disagree. There’s so much complexity in people’s actions, so much opportunity, as a writer, to explore new things. Not every human has been born yet, so, to me, not every story has been told. Everyone has a totally unique perspective, different motivations for how they conduct themselves. Writing, for me, is about trying to understand those reasons, the things that cause people to respond the way they do. How people come to be who and where they are.
Cases like Todd Carney’s highlight that we don’t have – that we can’t ever know – all the answers. This is why, as writers, need to keep working to better interpret and understand the complexities of the world. Because things happen everyday that are fascinating, intriguing, amazing. By taking to time to understand them, to view things from a perspective other than your own, you’re stepping beyond the realms of what you, yourself, understand to be true and opening yourself to a wider experience of the human condition. That excites me about literature, that fires the synapses of my brain and gets me thinking, and after I get thinking, I get writing. And I love that plain, that hum you get into when your ideas expand and burst.
Whatever your opinion, whatever the real reason may be, stories like Todd Carney’s remind me of why I love to write.
In reading literary reviews, or writing reviews in general, one note that commonly comes up how the author has found his or her voice. ‘This writer has found his voice…’ ‘She’s established her own voice…’ ‘His unique voice comes through loud and clear in his writing’. The problem with this note, for prospective writers in particular, is that it can be a bit vague – what does that mean? How can someone find their literary ‘voice’? Your ‘voice’ is your distinctive presence, your way of communicating a story, and in that sense, there’s not really any way a person can say ‘here’s how you find your voice’, because it’s unique, it’s who you are – and not only that, it’s who your characters are, the authentic voices of your story. It’s the voice of the piece needs to be reflective of the story and true to the reality of the world that you’ve created.
While I can’t tell you how you can find your voice as a writer, what I can tell you are some of the things writers’ often do that are counter to finding their voice. We’re all trying to ‘be writers’, all trying to do what writers do, as opposed to what we, normal-folk, do, and inevitably, that leads to us adopting some practices which go totally against the mission of finding one’s own unique voice. Here’s a few things to avoid, or think about, as you go about your writing work.
Not every detail has to be painstakingly poetic
This is probably the most common mistake people make, they’ll try to create epic, poetic descriptions of even the most mundane and irrelevant details of the scene in order to conform to what they believe is a literary approach. It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into – you get self-conscious about your writing, you think you need to make everything more stylised, more beautiful, and you end up wasting paragraphs on details that serve no purpose to the wider piece. The greatest stories have a flow to them, an effortless beauty, a sense that every word, every description, is rested right there, in it’s correct place. That sense comes from knowing the story, from having every detail relate back to the core of the piece. Everything you describe, every element, should all be adding to the wider themes and ideas of the world of the story.
For instance, I read a piece recently where a writer had spent sentences describing the details of the way a room was set out. The story had nothing to do with room detail, and the characters didn’t have any psychological predispositions to noting down such elements. The description was purely there because the writer felt like they needed to include complex description. Now, if the character did have a leaning towards being caught up in intimate details – if, for instance, the character was having a life moment and such details reflected a wider sense of his/her own position at that time, those details would be relevant, but painting literary embellishments without direct story purpose is often jarring and representative of your own lack of confidence in your writing. Every detail you note should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, cut it out, it’s just weighing down your prose.
Trust what you know
A big part of establishing your own literary identity is trusting what you know. Your voice is exactly that – your voice. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve with your work. You know how people talk, you know what interactions feel genuine. You also know, in your own experience, what makes people do the things they do, what life events lead to people being how they are. Your experiences on this front are totally unique – you’ll have seen and heard of people doing things for different reasons, and you know those sequences as truths, as things that have happened. Those understandings are what you need to reflect in your work – if something happens, if someone does something, it’s not just a random event. What made that person do that thing? What compelled them to act in the way they did? You know what would most likely lead to a person being in the state of mind they’re in, and that is the truth that you need to reflect and tap into in your descriptions. That’s not to say you need to go into every detail of their life, but you need to know your characters, who they are, what they do, what their motivations are. If you know that detail, you can ensure their perspective is reflected in every action – how they react is how they would respond in real life. And that’s based on what you know – that’s where your own authenticity comes from, not from movies or books or what you think other people might think. You have to trust your own knowledge and understanding and ensure that that honesty is reflected in your work. If something happens that doesn’t feel true to you, it’ll likely feel totally fake to another reader.
Your only obligation is to the honesty of the story
This particularly relates to the voice of your work – the way the characters speak, the way the story is presented, these details need to reflect what’s best for your story. You know the characters, how they talk, how they act. The way it’s communicated, in your words, should reflect the voice of the piece. If you want it to be slow and dreamy, read other writers’ who’ve written in that way and study what they’ve done that works. Use thematic images in your writing area and music to inspire your thoughts and get the words flowing through your head. But above all, ensure that the voice you use for your work is true to the story you want to present. If it’s first person, get in the head of your character and describe the world as he/she would see it. If it’s third person, understand the flow you’re going for, how distant or intimate you need to be, and ensure that perspective is maintained – but always be true to the feel of the story, the characters, the drive. How do you want the reader to feel when reading it? What elements will keep them glued to your words as they flow through the piece? Don’t write in the voice that you think a ‘real writer’ might go for, write in the voice of the story, of the characters. Write as if they’re telling the story themselves, how they would describe it. You have to inhabit the story, be part of it, see things from the interior of the book. Once you get in there, in between the words, you’ll start to see your own voice shine through and move from being influenced by other works to being contained within your own piece.
As I’ve discussed before, there’s no sure fire way to be a successful writer – if there was, everyone would do it. It’s a lot of introspection, a lot of observation and a lot of daydreaming, allowing yourself to get caught up in your imagination. Finding your voice is difficult – it’s something that gets thrown about like it’s a goal to aspire to. But more often than not, you find your voice by not specifically looking for it. Be honest to your work, to the world’s you’re creating, to the characters you’re building, and through that honesty and focus, your voice and style will develop all on it’s own.
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.
‘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.