The Importance of Writing

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Anyone who knows me personally knows that my political leanings are left of centre. Not extremely left but left enough for my father to express his disapproval when I tweeted congratulations to a famous Australian gay couple who had flown to New Zealand to get married after that country’s marriage equality laws were passed. (Before I continue, please be assured that this post is about writing and not politics).

So when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and I couldn’t take watching the coverage anymore (which took less than two days), I picked my jaw up off the floor and did what all left-leaning writing fans would do: I put Disk 1 of Season 1 of The West Wing in my DVD player and began binge watching it again (for about the one hundredth time). As well as being able to pretend I was living in an alternative reality, I could yet again immerse myself in and appreciate what is essentially a master class in writing.

As I write this, I’m up to Season 3 in which Democratic President Bartlet has announced his intention to run for a second term and the Republicans are on the verge of nominating Governor Robert Ritchie to run against him. When Governor Ritchie attacks affirmative action, President Bartlet has the opportunity to respond but chooses not to, prompting this exchange with Communications Director Toby Ziegler.

Toby Ziegler: I was a telemarketer for about a week. I can’t remember what we were selling but you worked off a script. “Hi. Good evening. My name is…” And Toby Ziegler was okay for New York but once I got into other time zones I needed a name that wasn’t gonna bother anybody.
President Josiah Bartlet: Toby, if you have something to say, please say it.
Toby Ziegler: Ritchie’s good for all time zones.
President Josiah Bartlet: My family signed the Declaration of Independence. You think I’ve got an ethnicity problem?
Toby Ziegler: The line isn’t between light skin and dark skin.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah?
Toby Ziegler: It’s between educated and masculine. Or eastern academic elite and plain spoken.
President Josiah Bartlet: It’s always been like that.
Toby Ziegler: Yeah but a funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.
President Josiah Bartlet: You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.
Toby Ziegler: It’s one thing that Ritchie came out for the Pennsylvania referendum today but the manner in which he articulated it… His presence. The clear sign he wasn’t personally engaged with the facts…
President Josiah Bartlet: Toby—
Toby Ziegler: His staff was cringing, I promise you. And we let it go.
President Josiah Bartlet: It wasn’t the moment to go—
Toby Ziegler: You were asked the question.
President Josiah Bartlet: Do you have anything else?
Toby Ziegler: Sir, I don’t think I need to tell you that the level of respect with which the staff speaks of you doesn’t change depending on whether or not you’re in the room.

From “The Two Bartlets”, Episode 13, Season 3 of The West Wing

This episode aired in January 2002 meaning it was written in 2001. And even though it all happened 15 years ago, it struck me how relevant it was to what has just happened. How President-Elect Donald Trump could easily be substituted for the fictional Governor Robert Ritchie. How Aaron Sorkin and his writing team had anticipated the situation the US and the world now finds itself in. A battle between feminine and masculine, between smart and ignorant, between the elite and the common man (although anyone who thinks Donald Trump is part of the 99% instead of the 1% should really think again).

And I had a realisation, one that I really should have had long before now, about the importance of writing. Why, I hear you asking, has it taken me so long? Why would someone who has spent the last twenty-five years writing doubt the importance of the very thing they do day in, day out?

It says more about me than I would like – because I don’t doubt the importance of writing, just the importance of my writing. I’m not a philosopher or an influencer or one of the great minds of the twenty-first century. I write action adventure, young adult and crime fiction as well as non-fiction about writing and editing and the occasional article about employment. I suspect I will outlive by a long period of time the importance of anything I end up writing during my lifetime.

When I finished my master’s degree in writing with a high distinction average, I had the option of continuing my studies by undertaking a PhD. At least one of my classmates did. I chose not to because I didn’t think writing was something that PhDs should be awarded for. Chemistry, biology, medicine, physics, psychology, yes but writing, no.

In 2016, my little sister finished and submitted her PhD on psychological insulin resistance in Type 2 diabetes sufferers to become the first person in our family ever to be eligible to use the title “Dr”. That could have been me. Any thesis I could have written wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive and useful as hers is but I could have done it if I’d had the confidence, if I’d had the belief in the importance of what I was doing. But I didn’t.

Writing doesn’t have to be important but it can be. I know that now. What I do could be important.  What I write could be important. What you write could be important and I suspect you’re more likely to write something important than I ever am. (What can I say? Old habits die hard.) Why is it important? Because writing is the way we explode the bomb to explore the consequences without anyone having to die and without having to destroy anything and without having to pay for it (both in economic and historic terms).

Regardless of what it is we do, whether it’s writing or something else, it could be important. We have to be able to recognise that within ourselves, within whatever it is we are doing. Perhaps most importantly of all because if we weren’t doing these things, if I wasn’t writing, it would feel like something was missing.

I’ll give the last word to Kalinda Vazquez and Jane Espenson, who wrote the following dialogue about character of the Author who writes the fairytales Once Upon a Time is based on and became trapped in his own book. They say it much more succinctly and beautifully than I have:

August Booth: There have been many authors throughout time. It’s a job, not a person, and the one trapped in here was just the last tasked with the great responsibility. To record, to witness the greatest stories of all time and record them for posterity. The job has gone back eons: from the man who watched shadows dance across cave walls and developed an entire philosophy, to playwrights who tell tales of poetry, to a man named Walt. Many have had this sacred job. Great women and men who took on the responsibility with the gravity that it deserved.

From “Best Laid Plans”, Episode 17, Season 4 of Once Upon a Time

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Book Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

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Another legendary story, another example of how a great idea can transcend time, place and the rules of writing. First published in 1820 as part of a larger collection, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story that has gone on to overshadow everything else Washington Irving has ever written.

Ichabod Crane is a teacher from Connecticut (where all teachers at the time are from apparently), educating the children of the Dutch farmers in New York and accepting their hospitality – he doesn’t have a place of his own and bunks in with anyone willing to offer him a place to sleep so he moves around quite a bit. To remedy his lack of fortune, he has his eye on the attractive daughter of a local wealthy man but the Headless Horseman – the legend referred to in the title – has his eye on Ichabod (well, maybe not his eye since he doesn’t have any but you know what I mean). Continue reading

Trine: Part Two, Chapter Three

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On Tuesday, I wrote about how you can get to know your characters better by, among other things, imagining them in session with a therapist. I’ve done this myself before and the imaginings ended up being the basis for the third chapter of part two of my unfinished novel, Trine.

So here it is. A little background – the narrator is Jock Copeland, the police chief of a three officer town who has organised for a therapist to visit twice a year and assess his staff, including himself, to make sure they aren’t succumbing to post-traumatic stress, suicide or the variety of other issues being a police officer can lead to. You can read the first chapter of part two here if you want to read Jock’s introduction first.

*****

When Dr Chamberlain arrives, I am already sitting at my desk typing up the report of my dealings with Martina the night before. I look up as she opens the office door without knocking and notice the way her mouth tightens momentarily before she gains control of her expression once more.

“Good morning,” I say, pretending not to notice.

“Good morning,” she responds, taking off her jacket and positioning herself in the armchair opposite the couch, her pen and notepad poised and ready for our session. When I don’t rush to join her, she looks over at me in a way that some would misinterpret as patience but that I know from long experience is meant to drive me nuts until I can’t stand her inspection any longer and postpone whatever it is that I’m doing.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” I tell her, even though the report is pretty much done. It’s for her own good, I tell myself. She’s too used to telling everybody else what to do.

“Take your time,” she says amiably. But I know that if I take too long, she will simply spend the time analysing my body language. Which bothers me even more than when she analyses my words.

I save the file and take my cup of coffee – the store bought instant stuff we keep in the kitchenette here – and head to the couch. I sit down on it facing her. Dr Chamberlain has offered me the option of lying down at the start of every session we’ve had but accepting that offer would feel like giving her the advantage from the start. I always decline. But I’m still expecting her to offer this time as well. She’s a woman of habit.

“Are you comfortable?” she asks instead. She’s also a master of mixing it up when she knows it will put me off balance.

“Yes, thank you.” I drink the last of my coffee, then put the mug on the table next to the couch. The psychiatrist looks at the cup disapprovingly. She may think she knows how to push my buttons but I’m just as knowledgeable on pushing hers. She likes order. She likes cleanliness. She likes solving puzzles. She doesn’t like not being in charge. She doesn’t like mugs on coffee tables without a coaster underneath them. And she doesn’t like patients who refuse to cooperate.

“So what would you like to talk about today?” Dr Chamberlain looks at me evenly. She’s also a professional and very good at what she does. The one upmanship part of our session is done.

“How are Sarah and Matt?” They’ve both had their sessions now.

“How do they seem to you?” Like all psychiatrists, she loves answering a question with another question.

“Fine.”

“I concur.”

“Good.”

“So let’s talk about you.” She continues looking at me, somehow having perfected the ability to maintain eye contact without becoming uncomfortable like regular people become.

The eye contact certainly makes me uncomfortable and I can’t come up with anything.

“Would you like to revisit anything we’ve talked about previously?” she asks, reaching into her bag and pulling out a folder. She keeps meticulous notes, although I’m sure it’s only because it’s protocol. She seems to be able to recall every word I say during these sessions from memory even though we only do it twice a year.

I think back on the topics we’ve already covered. My choice of career, why I left Hope Springs, why I came back, my parents, my siblings, the expectations of the locals, the expectations of my staff, finding the balance between leading them and empowering them, the concerns I initially had that they might not fit in or that they might suffer the same fate as the former police chief, an outsider who was basically run out of town. I wasn’t here when it happened but my parents filled me in after I’d been offered the job to replace him. I didn’t probe too deeply but I suspect they were leading the cause to free up the position so I could come home. It’s not something I’m proud of. But it didn’t stop me from taking the job. That’s not something I’m proud of either.

“Do you believe in fate?” I ask, thinking maybe the notion that I never really had a choice would help shake loose some of that guilt.

“No.” Dr Chamberlain’s answer is emphatic.

“Why not?”

“Because if our lives are pre-determined, then nothing we do to try to better ourselves, our world, makes even a scrap of difference. If I thought that was the case, then I’d be in entirely the wrong profession.” She makes a short note on the first line of a fresh page in her notebook. “What made you ask that?”

“I suppose because it would be easier not to have to be accountable, especially when I think of all the silly things I’ve done.”

“Are any of these silly things recent occurrences?”

“Less and less.” I wish I could say I never do silly things anymore but I’m only human.

“That’s good. That shows you’re learning from your previous experiences.”

“Maybe it just shows I’m boring. That I don’t take risks anymore.”

“Did taking risks in the past make you feel happy?”

“It made me feel… something.”

“Are there times when you feel nothing?”

“There are times when I feel like I’m waiting. For what, I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t it be more concerning if you didn’t feel that way? If this – right here, right now – was all there was and nothing ever surprised you ever again, wouldn’t it be worse?”

“I don’t know. I’m talking nonsense.” These sessions are the one place I can get it out of my system without damaging my reputation as a no-nonsense, respected figure of authority in the Hope Springs community.

“Not at all,” Dr Chamberlain contradicts me, which I understand. What I call nonsense, she is able to interpret to see into the deepest, most secret parts of me, more than I would prefer she did.

“Well, maybe it’s not nonsense but they definitely seem like questions without conclusive answers. My least favourite kind. It’s an occupational hazard,” I add when I can see she is gearing up to ask why I don’t like uncertainties.

“But did it become a dislike as a result of doing the job or were you drawn to the job because you had the dislike to begin with?”

I don’t remember ever giving it the level of thought Dr Chamberlain has. My uncle was the police chief, he was respected and he seemed to enjoy it. And he let me tag along for work experience while I was in high school, which transitioned into a part-time after-school job.

The types of job available in Hope Springs during work experience week were fairly limited back then – a variety of roles with an agricultural bent, a few within the council chambers, a number of retail positions in the local stores and one trailing my uncle around as he went about the business of keeping the community safe. Those with grander ambitions went slightly further afield to Glenville half an hour away.

Come to think of it, the types of job available in Hope Springs during work experience week are still fairly limited now. I take on one student each year but part-time jobs for untrained, underage civilians have been abolished. It’s just as well. Some of the things I was exposed to during my time working with my uncle may not have been the best formative experiences for a teenager. Like the time we retrieved the body of Eric Weatherby from the lake.

Eric was only five years older than me at the time of his death. He’d graduated from high school a few years earlier and headed off to the city to begin his studies at university. He would visit every three months or so and in between we’d receive updates on his progress from his parents. But on one of his visits, instead of just staying the weekend, he stayed the week. And that week turned into a month, then the month turned into a year.

There were rumours; Hope Springs is a small town and there are always rumours. Some suggested he’d failed his second year subjects and been asked to leave the university. Others suggested a girl had broken his heart. There was also the occasional cruel insinuation that he’d gotten himself involved in something illegal – drugs, prostitution, gambling, maybe even a murder – but none of it was true. Instead, he’d found himself in the grip of something so common now but rarely spoken of back then. An all-consuming darkness from which he could not escape.

His parents reported him missing on a Friday morning and tourists reported seeing a body weighed down on the bottom of the lake the next day. Police divers from the city were at another call-out and wouldn’t be able to make it to Hope Springs until Monday. We never actually agreed out loud to do it but my uncle and I went to the lake, hired one of the tourist row boats, stripped down to our underwear and took turns diving to the bottom of the lake to remove stones from the pockets of Eric Weatherby’s heavy wool overcoat, then the overcoat itself. Slowly, his body floated to the surface. We dragged him aboard and rowed back to shore.

His parents handed over a note they’d found in his bedroom – “I can’t think of a reason not to do this” – and the coroner declared it a suicide, commenting that it was a shame no one had recognised his depression earlier and gotten him the counselling he needed.

If I had to try to pinpoint when my dislike of unanswered and unanswerable questions began, Eric Weatherby’s death would be a reasonable guess.

“You’ve been quiet for a while now.” Dr Chamberlain interrupts my introspection.

“Sorry. Just thinking,” I say in a small voice I barely recognise as my own. I haven’t thought about Eric for a long time.

“About anything you’d like to share?”

Sometimes I wish Janet wasn’t quite so good at her job. “A guy I knew when I was a teenager.”

“What made you think of him?” Her pen is moving hurriedly over her notepad even as she probes me further.

“He’s one of those questions without a conclusive answer. He died when I was sixteen.”

“Were you close?”

“No. He was a few years older.” And much smarter than me, as well as a little bit of a loner. Although Hope Springs isn’t a large town, it was just large enough back then to have a few key groups of teenagers with which to align yourself. I played football and most of my close friends, including the current mayor, were also jocks. Another group was comprised of the creative types – actors, writers, artists, photographers – and a third group consisted mainly of the academically inclined. Eric fell into this last group almost by default but he seemed to exist on the fringes of it.

Perhaps if Hope Springs had been a larger city, his lack of engagement with the broader community would have been more obvious. But in our small town, where everybody knows everybody else, he could be amongst us without actually being involved.

It’s easy to see in retrospect. I beat myself up for a long time for not seeing it before when the knowledge could have been useful.

“How did he die?”

“He drowned himself.” It doesn’t seem to convey the right amount of anguish I felt back then, so I clarify with the one word that does. “Suicide.”

“Of course,” she says, my reference to a question without a conclusive answer now making sense.

“Have you ever considered suicide yourself?” I suppose the question isn’t completely irrelevant considering the topic of our discussion but I try hard not to resent it.

“Never.” It’s my turn to be emphatic now.

“It’s not an unreasonable question,” Dr Chamberlain says in response to my absoluteness. “There are a lot of members of your profession who have to deal with terrible things on an almost daily basis and don’t get the counselling that would help them cope. Suicide amongst police officers occurs at a higher rate than it does in the general public.”

“Suicide amongst men occurs at a higher rate than it does in the general public. That doesn’t make me in particular any more likely to kill myself.”

“True,” she concedes but she doesn’t say anything else. She’s consumed with filling the page of her notepad with lines and lines of blue handwriting. Then she flips the page and continues at the top of the next one. Clearly we’ve landed on a topic to her liking. I don’t feel the same way. I wish I hadn’t brought it up.

Her silence continues, forcing me to fill it. “I’d rather not talk about suicide anymore.”

“It can be a difficult topic.”

Tell me about it, I think to myself, but hold back on actually saying the words. She wouldn’t take it as a throwaway phrase. Instead, she would tell me about it and I really don’t want to hear detached, intellectual comments about something that is never unemotional when you’re involved personally or professionally.

Eventually, I manage to distract her by talking about strategies for dealing with the aftermath of suicide and other unnatural deaths in a professional capacity and we fill the remaining hour. When we finish, she takes over my desk and spends another half hour completing her notes on our session.

She emerges to find Matt, Sarah and I behind the front desk all waiting to farewell her. I know she is here at my invitation and I know the importance of what she does but I don’t think I’m the only one who considers the goodbye the most satisfying moment of her visits.

How to Get to Know Your Characters Better

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“You make it look like work. I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it.”
Jonathan in Center Stage

Okay, Jonathan was talking about ballet but I have a theory that almost all of these types of statements can be applied to writing. And just like ballet, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes in writing that isn’t – or shouldn’t be – visible in the final published book.

I have no academic research to back this up but I suspect for a book that ends up around the 100,000 word mark, a writer would actually write closer to 200,000 words and discard the other 100,000 words as part of the editing process. Not all of those discarded words would be prose, of course. A lot of it would be research.

The problem with research is that no amount of it will help a writer to get to know their characters better. Because characters, like people, are more than just a collection of facts. They are human. They are unpredictable. And how they will react in any given situation is difficult to know. In fact, the only way a writer will know is to put them in that situation and see what happens.

The situations that might teach writers something about their characters may not necessarily make the final cut of their books. But writing them anyway can be a great way to get to know their characters better. So here are a few options for doing just that. Continue reading

Why “Little Did He Know” Gives Away Too Much Too Soon

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Professor Jules Hilbert: Perhaps you should keep a journal. Write down what she said or something. That’s all I can suggest.
Harold Crick: I can barely remember it all. I just remember “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death”.
Professor Jules Hilbert: What?
Harold Crick: Little did he know…
Professor Jules Hilbert: Did you say, “Little did he know…”?
Harold Crick: Yes.
Professor Jules Hilbert: I’ve written papers on “Little did he know…”. I used to teach a class based on “Little did he know…”.’ I mean, I once gave an entire seminar on “Little did he know…”. Son of a bitch, Harold. “Little did he know…” means there’s something he doesn’t know. That means there’s something you don’t know. Did you know that?
Stranger Than Fiction

*****

I recently edited a book that consistently ended each chapter with a “Little did he know” giveaway.

“Little did he know that a cancer diagnosis would soon change everything.”
“Little did he know that the worst was still to come.”
“Little did he know that his sister was also his mother.”

Okay, those are fictional examples of what the writer was doing but you get the picture. He thought he was building up suspense. But instead what he was actually doing was giving away all the plot points before they happened. So by the time the reader got to the plot point as it occurred later in the narrative, the element of surprise and all the other associated emotions that should have been felt in that moment were dulled by the fact they already knew it was coming. Continue reading

Book Review: Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

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I’ve racked my brain for a perfect one-word description for this book and the best I can come up with is this: pointless. It’s one of those books that is easy to read because it’s really well written. So clearly Anne Tyler knows how to write but given the complete absence of plot, I don’t think she knows what to write.

Back When We Were Grownups is narrated by Rebecca, a middle-aged woman trapped in her own life. Married at twenty after abandoning her high school/college sweetheart fora much older man who mesmerises her during a two-week courtship, she becomes an instant stepmother to three daughters, gives birth at twenty-one to a biological daughter and then is widowed at twenty-six when her husband dies in a car accident. Continue reading

Introduction from Project January: A Sequel About Writing

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Almost as soon as I finished writing Project December: A Book About Writing, I knew I was going to follow it up with a sequel. I told myself a year was a reasonable interval between books and that since the first one had only taken six months to write, I had a little bit of time up my sleeve. I took some time off, wrote 30,000 words of a novel I’ve been trying to finish for the last four years (still not finished) and then started to gear up to yet again write about writing.

Of course, as with all the best laid plans, life was about to get in the way. I landed a six-week writing job, then another, did a semester of intensive tutoring for a university student and last but not least received – and accepted – an offer to extensively rewrite and edit an autobiography. Suddenly, it was November and I barely had half of Project January: A Sequel About Writing written. I hadn’t even had a chance to do my traditional Project October month of intensive writing. Continue reading