There’s nothing zen about writing

When you’re learning to be a writer, you get a lot of advice. One theme that re-emerges is the importance of not caring too much about publication outcomes. At its most extreme, this devolves into a kind of zen philosophy: to be a truly great writer, you must focus solely on the journey, and not the destination. You must divorce yourself from the earthly concerns of career development, prizes, publication and — especially! — ever hoping to one day be paid for your work.

I get the theory behind this, I think. an early career writer’s job is to write the best she possibly can, and quality can be impeded by thinking too much about fit for a particular journal or pandering too much to an audience. A writer just starting out will also face a lot of rejection. Perhaps all that rejection will sting a little less if you don’t care (or have convinced yourself you don’t care) about the outcome?

Like a zen koan, I find this insoluble. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a writer slaves over a great short story in a forest and no one ever reads it, has he really achieved anything? Come on: ego and writing are inseparable. How can you write (other than, perhaps, a personal journal or diary) if you don’t genuinely believe that you have something to say that is worth the time and attention of others? Unless I believe in myself, why would I write? How could I? And if I do write, how could I be truly uncaring as to whether someone else reads me?

Writing is a highly competitive field and there is an up-front price to be paid for success. That price is years of hard work and failure. Perhaps bizarrely, that concept doesn’t seem at all discouraging. An early career writer is making an investment: a bet, in fact, that all this work they’re putting in will pay off one day in the form of recognition, readership, whatever it is. I’ve worked in other industries that have similar barriers to entry. That makes sense to me.

But let’s drop the mystical bullshit that the virtuous writer simply doesn’t care about publication. I want to be published. I want to win all the prizes. I want a readership that numbers in the- …well, at least the hundreds. I want these things deeply and urgently. And I think that’s not unusual.

A tree falling in the forest, my arse.

On Lionel Shriver and Diversity in Writing

I’ve started planning for my next novel. The world is forming up as I go. We’re talking political spec fic here: Australia in 2048. It’s a more diverse Australia across a number of aspects. And I want that diversity to be reflected in my characters.

And that got me thinking about Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival back in September. I’ve read that speech through a couple of times, as well as Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s emphatic response. And now that the dust has settled, with some trepidation, I thought I’d tell you all what I reckon.

As with many provocateurs of the “political correctness gone mad” school, Shriver sets out to defend a proposition that’s pretty much unassailable when reduced to fundamentals: that writers should have licence to write outside of their own lived experience. To do so, she constructs a straw man (or perhaps an LGBTQI straw woman of colour): namely that the PC brigade are on a quest to shame writers who try and write from any different perspective.

If the thought police are really trying to enforce such a prohibition, then point me in the direction of the barricades! But I’m not seeing anyone actually put that a fortiori case: that a man should never write a female character; that a person from one ethnic background should never be able to write from the perspective of another.

Abdel-Magied herself confirms this when she writes that “[Shriver’s] question was – or could have been – an interesting question: What are fiction writers ‘allowed’ to write, given that they will never truly know another person’s experience? …There is a fascinating philosophical argument here…

But Shriver never gets to the heart of that argument. And neither, I think, does Abdel-Magied. She writes: “It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story.” Instinctively I tend to agree. But if so, why is it not always OK?

Abdel-Magied suggests a reason: because “said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience [will] never be provided the opportunity.” I get the sentiment here, but I’m not sure it’s a compelling reason to discourage writers of all backgrounds from trying to write diverse literature.

If we look at the world as it is, do we really want to restrict the privileged – who do enjoy disproportionate access to publication – to writing only about their own experiences? Shouldn’t we be doing what we can to encourage and support variety – to develop a market for all kinds of writing, no matter the identity of the writer – in the hope of developing markets and tastes that marginalised writers can then leverage? Perhaps this sounds like some sort of ugly cultural trickle-down. Even so, I’m not sure that the risk of a (white male) author making money is the strongest argument that could be advanced in support of the proposition that writers should take extreme care when writing outside of their lived experience.

I think Abdel-Magied misses a more basic and fundamental risk that arises when we write characters with backgrounds different to our own: that the potential for bad writing is enormous. Just as I wouldn’t try and write a novel in a genre I don’t read without extensive research, how could I presume to write a character from another cultural background without doing the same? But the danger in the latter case extends further: If I’m writing, say, an indigenous character without having done my homework, I don’t know what I don’t know. And it’s entirely possible that my publisher and my readership (likely also not indigenous) might also fail to realise the misrepresentations and flaws in my depiction. I’ve therefore done my readers a disservice, and it also just seems wrong. It’s flat-out disrespectful. It is disrespectful. And that’s what Shriver glosses over.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, lots and lots of research, for one thing. Long discussions with members (multiple) of any group you intend to represent in your work. Feedback on early drafts from those same people. Everything necessary to avoid writing bad, unrepresentative, shallow tripe. That’s a start.

What I’m less certain about is the circumstances in which an author should seek permission from members of the relevant group. Shriver would ask: if a man wants to write a female character, to what peak body of women should the request for permission be addressed? But a more grounded counter-example would be: if I wanted to write an anthology of stories told by a particular Aboriginal group – say, the Pitjantjatjara – then of course I should ask for permission from that group before embarking. To do otherwise would be slimy. It would be cultural appropriation.

But what if I just wanted to create a character with Pitjantjatjara heritage, in a contemporary story set in a city and with no overt connection to Pitjantjatjara land, stories or dreaming? Would I need to ask permission to do that? What if the character sometimes spoke in their language? These are not easy questions.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do you think I’ve missed something here?

As for my new project, my protagonist is female, likely of Indian heritage. So I’ve got a lot of homework to do…

7 Lessons

These are some things I learned from writing a novel-length manuscript. If I’d known all this when I started, I think I could have achieved a similar result in less than half the time.

Perhaps you can only learn this stuff through inefficiency, wasted effort, and long nights spent weeping into your keyboard. If so, my list might not be very helpful to you. But I’m going to leave this here so that I can remind myself of a few hard-won truths before I start on my next project.

  1. Find your rhythm. I find it easiest to write creatively in the mornings after a coffee, but before I’ve had anything to eat. By lunch time I’m done. I can edit later in the day, but I rarely generate anything new and worthwhile. It took me a surprisingly long time to work this out. Until I did, I spent a lot of time feeling angry at myself.
  2. Look after your brain. Make sure you’re in a good mood and clear-headed when you sit down to write. For me, that means regular exercise, no hangover, and positive permission (internal and external) to ignore, for several hours, the chores, commitments and distractions that we’re all slaves to. If I feel like I’m neglecting some other thing I need to do, it’s all over.
  3. Some days it just doesn’t work. Rather than castigating yourself when the words and ideas just won’t come, do something else that makes you feel like you’re making progress – however small or incidental. Editing things you’ve already written fits the bill nicely. This is not the same thing as procrastination. You’ll know when you’re procrastinating because you’ll have that smouldering sick panicked feeling in your stomach that comes from the realisation that you have a finite number of heart beats left before you die, and you’re watching cat videos.
  4. Think hard before you start to write. I plotted out my book in detail before I started writing. But what I really wish I’d done more of during the early stages of my project (even more than plotting) is to think hard about characters and tension. Who are my key characters? Why should anyone care about them? What do they want more than anything? How can I keep them hungry and scared and desperate, so that every single scene matters? I thought I had the answers to those questions when I started writing, but I didn’t. That meant I spent a lot of time writing dull scenes that needed to be cut or re-written from scratch.
  5. Very much related to the previous item, you need to work out pretty bloody quickly what your work is about; what it is trying to say. When I started, I didn’t think this was so important for a genre novel. But it is, because if the scene you’re writing doesn’t help to advance the core idea of your work, then you’re wasting time: your time and any (future, as-yet-hypothetical) reader’s time. No one wants to read pretty writing that doesn’t make a point – just ask a high school English teacher.
  6. Talk to other writers to troubleshoot your work. I found that it’s not so important what they say (although they’re usually nice, smart people full of helpful suggestions – also some are batshit crazy); but improving a piece of bad writing is like overcoming addiction: the first step is to admit you have a problem and to describe it. Vocalising the difficulties and weaknesses in your work (which are legion, in any early draft) gets them straight in your own head, and as soon as you do that, solutions usually start to occur. Hearing about other people’s projects also provides you with comparison points against which you can identify strengths and weaknesses in your own writing.
  7. When the words do come, be mindful and cautious. Maybe even a bit skeptical. Sometimes when you get some momentum, you just want to write as much as you can before whatever creative wellspring you’ve tapped into dries up. You think something like, “I’ve just got to get all of this down. Expression doesn’t matter so much. I can always edit it later.” This can be dangerous. What seems at first like good progress (in the form of a large addition to word count) often reveals itself on a second reading to be a swamp of toxic prose that would be easier to re-write from scratch than to remediate with a deep edit. Now, when I sit down to write, I try to make every sentence as not-awful as I can make it, as I write it for the first time. There’s a reason writers are tortured souls. If you’re finding the process easy or pleasant, you’re not doing your best work.

There are plenty of other writers out there saying similar things in slightly different ways. But screw those guys – they’re probably hacks.