It came as something of a surprise to me to find out that one of my friends regularly reads my work. In fact, has read nearly everything I’ve ever written. It shouldn’t have: This woman is well read, erudite, intelligent, and enjoys a good literary challenge. There are few people from whom I take a book recommendation, and she is one of them.
At a boozey party this long weekend, she admitted to me that she tries to write, and fails. She fails because she has this feeling that she can’t write as she speaks; that she wants to explain everything because nobody else will understand what she is writing about. A fear that perhaps her audience is not going to understand her. Writing long things drives her mad because it just gets rambling and retarded… and so she stops.
Another friend, at the same boozey party, told me that a series of books she’s got her teeth into (writing, not reading, you understand), she can’t stand. She hates her characters. The story is pretentious. It’s all wanky and she just can’t touch it because it totally revolts her. Her disgust was utterly hilarious to me, insasmuch as it was also visceral, deep, and very real.
What do you do then, as a writer? When you are lost in the corner of your study, or loungeroom, or bedroom, or (like me right now, in the kitchen), and facing these horrors? Ninety-nine per cent of people just stop.
But in the case of these gorgeous women, they were reaching out to get some feedback. So, what to do?
To the first, I suggested that perhaps writing detail is what failed her, and that maybe creating a story in verse would be better suited for her, and had she tried it? No, she hadn’t. Verse is a wonderful storytelling tool: It gives you far greater liberty with images and visualisation, with the lyrical nature of a story, and – honestly – with absurdity.
To the second, I told her that if she abhors it, that it’s probably outstanding. Some of my very best work was written during times of struggle with characterisation, during times of absolute drudge, during times of total difficult. You know, those times when you feel that dread fill your stomach and push downwards, while you have rising bile, and your brain starts to hurt. Times where you would rather sit in a ball and cry your eyes out than persist with this hopelessness you have in front of you.
When you persist, you become an alchemist and turn logs of shit into bars of gold.
But after the boozey party, I gave both situations a ton of thought. Neither woman really told me who they are writing to. A bank of shitty characters may appeal to a younger audience that has less experience with literature. And the first hadn’t conceived it much at all.
The best advice I ever was told, that I have ever read, is to write letters to someone. My mother tells me that I write exactly how I speak: That she can hear me in the words that she reads.
And I read a story while I was at uni, of a man who wanted to tell his life story. He was totally unable to create words on a page, utterly impotent, could not reach. So he was advised to write his story to someone he would consider his best friend. His book went on to be a best seller… and by hell I wish I could remember who that man was.
It doesn’t matter what you are writing. It doesn’t matter what context you’re writing in, or the audience, or the style. Everything from music critique to tenders is still created through a similar process. You have to write for just one person. When you do that, very often a huge amount of everything else will fall into place.
So: Who are you talking to?