Category Archives: Writing

New hope for spurned writers in Biden victory

 

Rarely has Joe Biden been described as inspirational. That is now changing as aspiring authors around the globe tap away with renewed hope and purpose. Why? Because President-elect Biden, more than any other political figure around, has shown that constant rejection – the bane of authors’ lives – can be overcome.  

Next January, when he is sworn in as 46th President of the USA, it will be 34 years since Biden first ran for the top job. He tried again in 2008, only to confront the eloquent appeal of Barack Obama, and had to settle for a consolation vice-presidency.

Finally, he’s done it! On inauguration day, I appeal to him to speak to authors everywhere. To use his story to lift their spirits, to make clear that decades of rejection are just part of the great plan.

I offer these notes to guide him.

“I know your despair”, the new President should say. “I understand your often-pointless toil. That day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year grind of creating short stories, novels, plays, multi-volume histories on subjects as diverse as the history of ancient Rome or the reproductive habits of the speckled cuttlefish. I know the cost: the blood, sweat and tears; the intellectual ferment and emotional turmoil; the alcohol abuse; the family stress. And, finally, when the draft is complete and despatched, I know the suffocating quiet that settles over you, your house, your computer, your iPhone; the stillness of the cemetery.”

“Look at me”, he might go on, “I, too, have written books. Like you, I reached into my heart, and my head. Alright, I know mine were best sellers and I had no difficulty finding a publisher. But do you know why that was so? Because I had an impeccable record of failure in my chosen field of endeavour.”

The President might then pause and gaze reflectively at the hushed audience. “This next bit’s difficult”, he can say, sounding heartfelt, modest. “No one watching this great celebration of democracy should take it as an admission on my part. It involves the p-word. Plagiarism! A charge levelled at me many years ago. It is true that in recounting my struggle to get ahead my words were eerily similar to those used by the then British Labour leader. But we are a great trading nation, we will always import ideas. I simply chose the best available. There is no shame in that.

“To writers everywhere, I now say, ask not what your publisher can do for you, rather what you can do for your publisher. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. And always be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else. Never let anyone walk through your mind with their dirty feet. Remember, too, no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. And while you’re at it, don’t forget that ideas are like rabbits – get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you’ll have dozens.

“Keep all that in mind”, the new President should conclude, “and a new, golden era will be upon us. Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence, so let’s make writing great again. It’ll be tremendous. Just tremendous!”

 

The first Tuesday of November: think like a horse

I’ve just watched a short, award-winning play about three horses, locked in their stalls and bickering about their lot in life (no pun intended). One of them is a self-satisfied champion, the two other horses feel deprived and exploited. It all sounds very human.

That’s entirely reasonable. The play, Fabio the Great, was written by a woman, not a horse. Even the most subtle, incisive mind within a human head will never know what it’s like to be a horse. Or a whale, a rocking chair, or any other animate or inanimate object. That shouldn’t stop us imbuing them with human qualities and characteristics in the wonderful grown-up game of pretence many of us like to play.

Rarely will anyone contemplate what it’s like to be a baked bean. Still it would be an interesting exercise to set for children and adults: you are a baked bean who keeps a diary: write an entry for one day. Note that you are not allowed to be eaten at lunch time to save imagining how baked beans while away their afternoons.  

But leave baked beans aside. It’s early November in Australia and there are bound to be a few people wondering what it’s like to be a horse in the Melbourne Cup.

A giddying mix perhaps of fitness, sleekness and nervousness?

Do the animals give each other “may-the-best-horse-win” neighs of encouragement? Or are they conscious of all the money riding (no pun again) on the outcome and determined to stay “in the zone,” just the way a champion human athlete would. Do they have their own favourites, encouraging the young, or maybe deliberately giving an older runner a last hurrah? Do the horses themselves ever fix the result, knowing they won’t be held to account? Do they contemplate the horror of an accident, talking in hushed whinnies about what happened last year or the year before and why some contenders will be forever absent. Do they bridle (alright, that one is intended) at the fact that injured jockeys are rushed to the hospital while injured horses often end up in the knackery.

And just what do horses think of their jockeys: do they like some more than others, making more of an effort for them? Do they resent the hypocrisy of rules which allow riders to whip them while society at large decries animal cruelty?

What’s truly going on in a horse’s mind will forever remain a mystery, as much as the mysteries of being a baked bean or whether an apple feels discomfort when it’s pulled from the tree.

Still, “I wonder what it’s like to be a …” is a critical question we should ask every day. If we can’t or won’t imagine how others see the world, and us, we can’t expect much understanding or sympathy from human beings, or animals for that matter.

Exercise: you are a wombat; write a short play about three humans sitting near your burrow and discussing their lives. (Remember: a group of wombats is called a wisdom.)

Tone matters

Last month (May 2017) the World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, was stripped of his management duties (he remains the bank’s chief economist) after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly.

Romer wanted his staff to write succinct, direct emails, presentations and reports, using the active voice and avoiding too many ‘and’s’. Good advice, delivered poorly. Staff found Romer curt and abrasive.

Quoted in Bloomberg Romer  said, ‘I was in the position of being the bearer of bad news…It’s possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke.’

Indeed. Writing is an expression of personality. Just think of how long it took you to refine your signature, still a common way to prove your identity. Criticism of the words you put on paper can hurt. Furthermore, writing according to an organisation’s style or a boss’s preferences takes guidance and practice. That’s something the supervisors of writing need to understand: to get the best out of writers demands clarity of tasking; consistent style rules; plus more coaxing than red pen or sharp tongue.