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.
(This is a short fiction piece I wrote a while back, part of a series of shorts I worked on – hope you like it. And warning, some bad language)
Of all of it, the months I spent in the beach town, right out at the edge of the Earth, those are the ones I remember. The memories I see when I close my eyes. The sun warming across the backs of the white sand grains. The desert weeds flickering in the gusts. Of all the times, those were the days I felt happiest about. The times that would return in dream.
I’d got in with this group of people who’d come to the beach and decided they never wanted to leave. Minds flooded with childhood memories and adulthood hurts. They’d created this community of deserters all living in this two storey house, growing their own vegetables, generating their own electricity. Re-using their waste. Jobs were hard to come by, so only a few of them worked and then I came in and I got a job at the service station just off the freeway. Every week we’d pool the money earned by the ones who worked and we’d buy essentials which were listed in order on a piece of paper in the kitchen. They sang songs, which I didn’t like, but I could sit and smile and pretend I didn’t know the words, my face burning from the camp fire blaze. It was simple, living with them. No one wanted to know who you were, what you’d done. Everyone just was. Everyone just wanted to enjoy life.
There were at least twenty people in that house. Drifters would come through town and sleep on floors – they always had odd names like Rex or Pardy or Jai. They were just wandering through life, these guys, hitch-hiking one town to the next. No pressure, no concerns. They just lived a day at a time. I thought, for a while, that this was how I should be. This was what I should be. I asked lots of questions about how they did it, how they went about life, but a lot of the time it sounded difficult and unpleasant and they never really wanted to say too much and I figured it was best to stay where I was. In the beach sun it was idealistic, but when the rain set in. Sickness is difficult with nowhere to rest.
They had an outdoor shower. What it was was a bucket that they’d fill with warm water, then, once it was full, they’d drag it up by rope over a tree branch and it had these tiny holes in the bottom that would leak the water out and you’d stand beneath it and wash yourself, right out in the open. Sometimes, I’d watch the women do it, I’d stand at a distance and watch the soap bubbles sliding over their nipples and their curves, gathering at the edges of their hair. It was amazing.
We were working on building another room, gathering wood and nails from building sites in the night and buying other parts as we could afford them, bit by bit. One of the men used to be a builder and he told us how to connect this to that and I listened to everything and tried to make sure I didn’t saw anything uneven or bend any nails. He said I was a good worker, put his arm around me at the end of the day. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.
At nights we’d play board games and read stories from the newspaper and they’d talk about the latest news and politics and I had no idea what they were saying most of the time. Other nights we’d go to those big metal Salvation Army donation bins and we’d jump inside, sift through what was there. We’d push out bags of jumpers and pants and t-shirts and bring back what we needed. Sometimes, someone would sleep right up beside you, hug onto you, and you’d just go with it. That’s just how it was, it didn’t mean anything.
One time some drifter fucking yelled at me. He was tanned with this curly, long blonde hair and he was yelling about me working for a big oil company, saying they were responsible for some shit and I was responsible too because I took their money and I clenched my fist, ready to punch the fucking teeth out of his head and then the others yelled back at the blonde guy. They put their hands onto my shoulders and they pointed and yelled and then they kicked him out, that guy, pushed him out into the night. They patted me on the back and on the head and the girls kissed me on the cheek and I watched that guy leave from the window, dragging his backpack beneath the blue of the full moon. He kept stopping and turning round and yelling some more, then he was gone, drifted out into the darkness.
Lost beneath the sounds of the waves washing in.
There was one night when I was working and it was real quiet, no one was around – there never was late at night. Then these two guys came rushing through the electronic doors, both in balaclavas and singlets and shorts and the two men rushed to the counter and one of them pointed a hand gun right at my face and I stood up, put my hands in the air.
‘Don’t worry.’ The man with the gun said. His eyes poked through the woollen holes. ‘Just give us the money, it’s all good.’ And I knew the man’s voice. I stayed still.
‘C’mon man, it’s cool, it’s all under insurance, we worked it all out.’ He was one of the drifters, this guy, I couldn’t remember which one. ‘You just give us the money and we walk out, simple. We’ll give you a cut after.’
I shook my head slow.
‘C’mon man, you can talk. The cameras don’t record sound, it’s just video. You just have to make it look like you’re scared and take out the money.’
‘No, they do record sound.’ I told the drifter. ‘They showed me when they went through the training.’ The man looked to the other guy, then up at the camera.
‘You’ve fucked me.’ I told him. ‘I’ll have to leave now, because they’re gonna’ think I was in on it.’
The man lowered the gun, kept looking at the other guy.
‘Fuck.’ The man said, then he raised the gun again, poked it towards me. ‘Okay, well if we’re fucked anyway, we should just take the money, right? Just take it all out and we’ll just go.’
‘You fucking idiot.’ I said. I was furious, my fists shaking up by my head. ‘You’ve fucked everything up.’
‘Hey, don’t fucken yell at me, I’ve got a gun.’
‘You fucken idiot.’ I yelled. I could feel the warmth of tears bubbling round my eyes. ‘I’m gonna’ get you.’
‘Hey.’ The man yelled. ‘You ain’t gonna’ do shit. Now we are where we are, that’s how it is. Now, you need to get me the fucking money and hand it over, right?’
I stared him down. Those stupid eyes, poking out that black beanie. The man looked out to the road, like maybe someone was coming.
‘C’mon, c’mon, get the money.’ He roared, poked the gun towards me again, the barrel right up at my face now.
‘You pull the fucking trigger.’ I told him. The man hissed, looked away, then back at me.
‘C’mon man. Just give me the fucking money.’
‘You pull the trigger.’ Tears were sliding out now, dragging down my skin. ‘You’ve ruined me.’ I stared straight into the barrel, straight into the darkness of it.
‘Get the fucking money.’ He yelled, pushed the barrel into my cheek and I closed my eyes, held my breath.
Here are three of the questions the police asked me, in no particular order:
‘Did you know the men who robbed the service station?’
‘Did you assist the men in the planning and execution of the robbery?’
‘Did you know you’re wanted on burglary charges back in Melbourne?’
Here are my answers to those questions, also in no order:
Either way you look at it, I was fucked.
I’m always writing. I write 1000 words a day – but I aim for 3000 – and that’s spread across various articles, fiction, specific projects, etc. Some of these turn into posts or stories, some become larger projects and then others, they sit. I submit to different places, save things I’ll come back to later, but sometimes pieces come together and I don’t have a home for them. But I have to write them – really, I have such a compulsion to write that it eats at me if I don’t get them all out. With that, I thought I might start posting some of those pieces here. Short essays, fiction, things that I really like but that don’t necessarily fit anywhere specific. Today, I went to see Ben Watt speak at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and he was great. He was talking about his new book, a memoir of his family life, or more, his parents’ relationship, and when I got home, I was inspired. I thought maybe I’d have a go at it – I’m obviously not as high-profile as Ben Watt, and my life isn’t as interesting. But the way he wrote, the beautiful way he presented parts of his life, it fascinated me. So here’s a short, non-fiction piece about my Dad. Hope you like it.
My Dad would change the channel when those road safety awareness ads came one. You know the ones, with the graphic depictions of car accidents, shoulder blades splashing into windscreens. There was this one where there was a kid on a road and a car sped through and trampled him, tumbling his body beneath. My Dad couldn’t watch that one, the images too painful in his head, memories he could smell, feel. We didn’t know, we were just kids. We didn’t understand. So what if some kid gets run over by a car on TV, it’s not real, right? But Dad had seen it for real, he’d been there when it happened. Held bloody hands as warmth faded from them. He knew those scenes more than anyone should.
He was an ambulance officer, my Dad, but before that, he’d served in Vietnam, a career history that my brother and I cherished as kids. He had models of army helicopters and remainders of ration packs in drawers and Dad had pictures of himself with machine guns and riding in helicopters, looking down onto the jungle. Dad was a hero, a real life army man who then went on to save lives in the ambulance. I remember times when our weekend trips would be halted, my brother and I strapped in our seats, waiting by the roadside because Dad had stopped to help at some accident. We played with GI Joes when we were kids, we idolised those characters. Those were my Dad. That’s what he did. That’s what we knew.
When he started to show the effects we didn’t understand. He’d be angry for no reason, upset and we didn’t know why. He started switching the channel away from those ads and we’d be like ‘what are you doing?’ and he never wanted to say and he’d clench his teeth then leave the room. Mum would tell us Dad doesn’t like those ads. Then things got really bad. I remember Dad sitting on the floor in the kitchen, his head low, back against the laundry door. He had a carving knife in his hand. We didn’t understand, but Dad had taken on one thing too many, seen more than anyone ever should. And he couldn’t take anymore.
Eventually he got help. He talked to people and he stopped work and he got a returned services pension. He’s still damaged, still broken, but he’s okay. And he’s still a hero to me, someone who’s done amazing things, things of great pride. But what we didn’t know is that heroes are human too. Everyone has a breaking point, you can only numb yourself to so much. Sometimes I see him, when he doesn’t know I’m watching, and he’s just looking at his hands.
And I remember that one time, when I came home from school after bragging to my friends about my Dad, how he was in the Army and a soldier and I came home to him, an eight year-old kid, and I stood in front of him and said: ‘Dad, have you ever killed anyone?’
Because we didn’t know.
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.
In my time at writing and literary events, I’ve had opportunity to meet a lot of authors. Most of them are pretty quiet, all of them have been pretty nice, normal people, but a couple have become genuine close friends. It’s great to have a few writer friends, some people who know what it’s like to commit yourself to such a solitary act. It’s also great to have them to bounce ideas off, talk about your frustrations or concerns, just share with folk who’ve gone through a lot of the same things.
One of those people, for me, is James Phelan. I met James at the Newcastle Writers Fesitval in 2006 and we hit it off straight away. What’s always been really interesting for me is James writes in a completely different style to what I do. James’ novels are action/thrillers, and I’ve never been able to get into them. But hearing such a difference perspective on writing and the writing/publishing process has always fascinated me. James is the guy I go to when I need to ramble about writing and the challenges I’m having, the guy I seek out if I don’t know how this or that works in the industry. He’s also a close friend whose always been willing to listen to my ramblings.
I asked James to answer a few questions on writing and his writing process:
When did you decide to pursue a career as a writer?
I was 15 when I knew I wanted to be a novelist but I thought you had to be an old dude to do it. So, I figured I’d give it a try when I retired from a “real job”. I studied architecture and worked for a couple of firms, and by 20 I knew that I had to give writing a serious try. I wrote my first novel by 21, got a job at a newspaper, did an MA and PhD in Lit, and had my first novel published published at 25.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a full-time writer?
Deciding what to do next. I’ve written series for adults, young adults, and kids, and each has its pros and cons. The adult stuff has complete freedom, YA slightly less so, and the kids stuff has a whole bunch of things that the publishers tell me I can’t do or say on the page. The YA and kids stuff involves way more PR, on average a day per week, and while that’s great in terms of meeting enthusiastic readers, it sucks time away from writing. Publishing books for adults is more about Crystal, Maybachs, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes… you know the rest. Publishing books for kids sells about 10x more.
What’s the key to ongoing success?
Working hard. It’s easy for a writer to procrastinate, and there’s creative merit in that, sure. I write every day, starting early in the cafe nearby. Depending on which stage of writing I’m at, I’ll be sitting with my notebook or laptop or print out. Every day. That’s the writing side. The business side – you need good agents (and an accountant) who you trust will give you good advice when you need it, look over your contracts, and support you through the process.
Best tip for keeping ideas flowing and avoiding/beating writers’ block?
It’s my belief that if you write every day you’ll keep things moving along. That, and knowing your ending. Whether I’m writing a short story or a 40,000 word novel for kids or 90,000 for adults, I always know how I want my ending to play out. Not so much beat for beat, but in my ending I need to know the feeling that I want to create in the reader, be it comedic, dramatic, tragic etc. Usually by the time I write the ending, it will play out different to how I envisaged, but that value will stay always the same, and by knowing where I was going I managed to get there. I’ve been a full-time novelist since 2007, and it’s all about working hard.
Best tip for writers starting out?
Don’t ever sign a 13 book deal. Only recently have I finished all my contracts, and the freedom is incredible. So, enjoy your freedom, while it lasts. Write what you want to write. Make it shine through revisions, then decide what you’re going to do with it. I still think that agents are worth their commission, so get one of those. How? By getting published. How do you get published? By having an agent, or already being published. I know, right? Oh, and don’t forget to read as much as you can and as broadly as you can. Good luck.
[Note: Not everyone’s as luck to be offered a 13 book deal, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance, but as noted by James, it can be double-edged]
Also, this punch really hurt him.
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.
An aspect that you need to keep in mind when writing is what you want your readers to feel as they read each section. Fiction writing is, essentially, trying to re-create the emotion you feel for the scene within the body of the reader, and in that, you need to always be aware of how you’re communicating the details. Importantly, what you need to be careful of is what words you use. Sometimes an out of place word can ruin a perfectly good set up – you wouldn’t have the word ‘chook’ in the middle of a scene of romantic resonance, for example. Careful word placement, and even word themes, can help build scene depth, and characters individually.
Here’s something that’s worth trying – assign each character in your story with a colour, based on their personality and traits, what you know of them. Once you have the colours down, write down words you associate with those colours – make a word cloud of 10-20 words that you’d link to it. For example, red might be associated with fire, stop, heat, fast. Once you have your words down, as you write, try to use those words in your descriptions of those specific characters and their actions. What this does is it builds a theme around that specific person – you associate those words with that colour for a reason, and readers will to. With red, anytime those references come up, people will have an association with them, and thus, the character, which creates more of a theme or personality type for each. This can help develop a distinctive persona, making them identifiable in more than just physical attribution. Those words form part of who the person is, and this can help develop depth and definition in a character’s being.
This won’t work for all writers, some may even find it restrictive to their process, but it’s worth trying, even with just a short piece, just to help build more presence around each participant in the story. Even try it in real life – think of someone you know and what colour you would attribute to them. What words do you link to that colour? Do they relate to the person? Normally, you’ll find they do, and this adds to the emotional linkage between character and reader.
It’s worth trying out, just to see what comes of it – even if it’s not for you, it might help open your mind to another way of thinking and improving character depth.
Been a good week for getting my fiction out there – Tincture Journal have published one my short fiction pieces in their latest edition. The piece is called ‘Memory’ and is one I’m particularly proud of. You can get a copy for $8 here – get one and you’ll not only get some cool, new fiction to read, but you’ll also be supporting the Australian literary community.
There’s nothing better than having something you’ve written published. There’s no better feeling than to walk into a bookshop and see your words printed on the pages of a book or magazine. It’s surreal, you remember where you wrote them, how you started with that blank computer screen. And now your words are here, for everyone to see. It’s extremely gratifying to have your work out there – whatever comes next, be it criticism or praise, you’ve already reached a level of personal success.
On that note, I thought it would be worth noting a few places fiction writers can get their work published in Australia. I’ve had the opportunity to work with most of these publications at some stage, and have enjoyed being involved, and I highly encourage all writers to have a look at what they publish and submit your own work.
Voiceworks is produced by Victorian not-for-profit group Express Media and only publishes work by writers under the age of 25. It’s aim is to encourage new voices and provide publishing opportunities – not just for contributors, but for magazine staff also. Express Media has played a part in the development of many published authors and Voiceworks is a respected, quality publication. Writers under 25 should check out their submissions page and send something through – it could be a stepping stone to the next big break (I did a mentorship with Christos Tsiolkas via Express Media, which directly lead to the publication of my novel).
Tincture is a quarterly literary journal which is always on the lookout for new poetry and fiction. I’ve worked with the guys a couple of times and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience – they are knowledgeable, approachable and intelligent. They’ve also published some really great stuff and deserve more exposure – if you haven’t checked them out, go to their website and buy a copy – they’re priced between $5 and $8 and you can download and read them straight away (their Winter 2014 issue is also coming out very soon and features a new piece by me).
The Suburban Review
While still establishing itself somewhat, The Suburban Review is a quality publication. The artwork alone is worth checking out, but the content they’ve published so far has been high quality. Each publication is based on a theme, so you need to check out the submissions page to know what they’re after, but the guys are doing some great work and are gaining recognition for their quality and presentation. A group you want to be involved with.
And speaking of groups you want to get involved with, Stilts are a literary collective based in Melbourne. They produce an amazing looking themed journal, but they also have regular events, columns and themed writing opportunities to get involved with. I’ve had two pieces published as part of the Stilts Monthlies series, which is a micro-fiction series based around a theme, and my experience working with the guys has been excellent, I highly recommend you check out their website and subscribe to their social media channels to stay up to date with what’s happening. Amongst these guys and The Suburban Review team are the literary leaders of tomorrow, worth getting to know them, and getting them to know you.
The Canary Press
Canary Press is probably the best looking literary journal going around. The guys have a distinct flavour, their own way of seeing things, and that’s also reflected in their content selection, but they’ve definitely made a splash on the local literary scene, and it’s worth checking out their submission guidelines and getting involved if you can. They accept pieces through Submittable, which means it can all be done online – easy, no fuss, why wouldn’t you give them a read and see if your work fits?
The Lifted Brow
The guys from The Lifted Brow have established a pretty good profile in the local literary scene, underlined by them creating a whole issue, from scratch, during the ten days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last year. Like Canary Press, they go for a definitive style of work, so you need to grab a previous copy to know how, or if, your work fits, but worth checking out, and a great opportunity if you can get a piece accepted.
The annual ‘Sleepers Almanac’ is one of the most prestigious publications for new writers in Australia. I love what Louise and Zoe do, and I’d get involved with anything of theirs I could – they are both strong supporters of new writers and genuinely love to find new, great stuff. Given the Almanac’s status, it is hard to get in, but their distribution is great and it’ll put your work in front of some of the most influential literary identities in Australia, so worth the effort. I strongly encourage everyone to support Sleepers, not only for your own publishing opportunity, but to help them continue their work in finding and nurturing great local talent.
This is by no means a complete list of the literary opportunities available – there’s also Meanjin, Overland, Best Australian Short Stories – there’s a heap of places you can submit to. It always worth checking out what they publish – if it’s a guest editor, look them up and see what they write or what they’ve edited before to get an understanding of which of your pieces will be a good fit – and always follow the submission guidelines and ensure your work is error-free. It’s important that all writers get involved in their local literary communities and groups – obviously the main aim is to get your work out there, but above and beyond that, you’re contributing to your local literary scene and helping build that local culture. The more we can build it, the more writers will be willing to get involved and the more young writers will want to take up pens and put down their own stories. As a writer, you can play a significant part in the growth of your own local community by getting involved. And the connections you can make, the readers you can reach, these can all have long term benefits for your own writing career.