writers

How to Become a Writer.

As a writer who writes too many different things all the time – I am often asked: “Where do you find the time and the drive to write? How do you overcome writer’s ‘block’?” Such questions are a puzzle to me and so my answer is 105km and 14 hrs long…

A few years ago, I had a crazy idea. I wanted to put together a women’s team and run in a 105km relay that went around the main island of Samoa. It was crazy because at the time I couldn’t even run around the parking lot without stopping to gasp for breath. But I was determined. I convinced some other moms to be crazy with me and we started training.

For 5 days a week over three months, we would meet at the crack of dawn to go for a 5k run. I use the term ‘run’ very loosely since, at first, we did more of a shuffle, which then accelerated to become a waddle, which then after a few weeks, became a jiggly, joggly sort of jog. Did I enjoy it? Hell no. I hated every minute of it. Many times, I only went because it was my turn to drive and pick the team up. Other times, I only went because the rest of the team was honking their car horn outside, waiting to pick me up.

But after 6 weeks, something strange happened. (No, I didn’t transform into a stunning athletic muscle machine. I wish.) I found myself waking up early on Saturday mornings…wanting to go for a run, itching and edgy for a run. Huh? By Wk 9, I was going for a run TWICE A DAY. And when I got the flu and couldn’t train for a week? I was raving mad. As if someone had bought all the Diet Coke on the island, leaving me with nothing but coconuts to drink. By the time the Perimeter Relay came around, I was running twice a day, sometimes 6 days a week. But more significantly, the running had become as essential to me as eating. Sleeping. Brushing my teeth. I wouldn’t dream of going a work-day without it. It took our team 14 hours to complete the relay, running from 2am to 5pm the next afternoon. Many times during that relay, I wanted to puke and die. But many times, I was also running on an exhilarating high as I gloried in feeling like – I could run forever and never stop.

Writing is just like that. If you want to BE a writer, you don’t ‘find time’ in your busy schedule to write. You make time. You start with a goal. A crazy dream. ‘I want to write a romance. A best-selling thriller. A children’s book. A memoir about my grandmother…’ You set aside a time and a place every day that you are going to write. You start off small. Shuffling, waddling baby steps to get you building the consistent writing habit. You write anything and everything. Start a journal. A family newsletter. Write down those bedtime stories you tell your kids. Record your family history. Write long, chatty letters to friends. Start a blog AND THEN STICK TO IT. The best thing I ever did for my writing career was to start a blog – it forced me to assert and accept responsibility for my writing. Your blog readers can be like that relay team of runners who force you to stick to your crazy dream by bugging you every day for your latest piece of writing. At first, it will be hard. You will probably hate it. Complain. Whinge and whine looking for excuses NOT to write. But if you keep at it, doggedly, persistently – you will hit that point where you can’t imagine a day, a moment, without writing. When you’re not writing, you will be thinking about it. If you have an unruly mob of children like me, you will dread the weekends because it means less writing time. ( And don’t even get me started on the horror of school holidays…aaargh!) You will write because you feel like you will die if you don’t. You will write because you are a writer. And that’s what writers do.

My 105km relay showed me that crazy, impossible dreams are possible.

A Very Sad Footnote to this Writing Story: Since the relay, my first book of narrative non-fiction, funded by the Australian government, ‘Pacific Tsunami Galu Afi’ was launched in 2010. I published four books in my Young Adult series, Telesa.  My collection of short fiction won the USP Press Fiction Prize. My story ‘The Beast that Came from the Sea’ was professionally recorded for radio by the Commonwealth Foundation and broadcast in 54 countries. I have written numerous children’s stories that are published in the NZ School Reading Curriculum. All while being the slave mother to five fabulous children. However, I have not been running anywhere. Not even in the parking lot. And it shows…

 

When you’re so Pitiful that Your own Kid Tells You off.

You know what I hate the most about being an author who publishes her own books? Having to be my own publicist and promoter and network navigator. Not only does it require that I leave my cave, it also requires that I talk to strangers about my work in an assertive and confident way….which makes me feel vaguely ill. Especially when I don’t do it right and it blows up in my face.

Its one thing to be humble and shy and unassuming. Its quite another to just sound and look like a complete loser – BECAUSE one is too shy and meek and scared to assert otherwise.

Case in point. I was invited to attend a Commonwealth Short Film Premiere thingy. I’m not quite sure why I was invited. Its either because I’m a Samoan that’s written some books. Or because one of my stories got an award in a Commonwealth thingy a few years ago. (Or because they heard I never go anywhere and I have no friends and so they felt sorry for me.) Either way, I was very tempted not to go. Even though it would be an opportunity to meet with decision makers in the NZ/Commonwealth film and creative arts industry – the thought of hanging out with a bunch of strangers was not  my idea of a good time. (I mean, heck I havent finished watching every episode of The Good Wife yet…) But, I reminded myself that I am a big girl. You can do this. How hard can it be?    Big Son offered to babysit because “You need to go and network and promote yourself Mum.” When your own kid is trying to pep talk you – how can you chicken out? I put on clothes that hadnt been slept in and housework’ed in.  I even brushed my hair and put makeup on!

I invited my fabulous niece to go with me because the Hot Man is away in Samoa.  So there we were… We watched some interesting short films from different countries around the world. Then we attempted to mingle in an artsty, intellectually stimulating fashion with all the artsy, intellectually stimulating folks.  The urge to bolt from the room was very strong. I tried – and failed to score myself some Diet Coke – so I was sorely missing in liquid courage. We ended up beside a lovely silver-haired lady in a very elegant black suit dress. I mistakenly assumed she was feeling ‘out of place’ and a little overwhelmed (like me.) We started chatting. I offered to get her a drink. She reassured us ‘it’s alright, thank you – my husband is getting one for me.’  We talked about the films. She asked which one we were connected with. I said none of them. She asked if we were in the film industry. I said no. You could tell she was trying to figure out what the hell we were doing there….the moment screamed for me to introduce myself with confidence and glowing assertiveness as ‘the author of the contemporary Pacific romance series Telesa’….

But I didnt. Just kept smiling like an idiot. Sipping juice wishing it was Diet Coke.

We talked about how important it is for Pacific stories to be told, to be shared, to be funded. She said, “I know there are many Samoan writers out there besides the great Albert Wendt, with stories to share. The Commonwealth Foundation wants to help get those stories told in print and on screen.”

Did I maximize that perfect moment? No. Shyness/stupidness/fearfulness all combined to make me say nothing. I kept smiling like an idiot. Sipping juice wishing it was Diet Coke.

Then the lovely woman’s husband joined us. It so happened that he is the former NZ Governor General. Who has just been appointed the new Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation (in the whole wide world.)  With him was one of the NZ Film Commission bosses. The lovely woman greeted them eagerly, “I’ve been talking to these nice young ladies about the films. They really enjoyed them! They aren’t involved in the film making and just came because they were interested in the program. Isn’t that wonderful?”

The Film Commission boss lady asked, “So how did you hear about it? Did you just walk in off the street?”

That’s right. She thought we must have crashed their artsy party – for free juice and appetizers probably. I died inside. I babbled, “Umm, no, I heard about it…I got an email…” The Chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation and his lovely wife and  the NZ Film Commission boss lady all nodded. Encouragingly. Probably thinking, ‘This woman is a loser.” I know that’s what I was thinking.

I smiled like an idiot and sipped juice – wishing it was straight shots of Jack Daniels so I could blame my idiocy on drunkennes.  Or rocket fuel so I could set myself on fire in a blaze of humilation. Hey, maybe that’s why they only serve wine at these events? So people can get an alcoholic buzz and be brave enough to network?

I skulked away from them after that and drowned my shame by eating cake appetizers. I did no networking. No creative arts connecting. Nothing.

At home Big Son was not happy with me. “You didn’t introduce yourself? You didn’t network? You didn’t say ANYTHING about what you do? What a complete waste of time!”

I whined, “Its not easy for me to go out there you know. Baby steps. I went, didnt I? That was something? Give me some credit for that?”

He was bristling with outrage, “No it’s not. You always tell me, there’s no point just sitting in a class if you’re not going to engage with the material and with the teacher. That’s what you did last night. NOTHING! All you did was waste petrol getting there. I’m not going to babysit anymore if you’re going to be useless.”

“I looked nice though! And I smiled a lot. That’s something.” Was my lame defence.

Big Son’s response was curt. “Nobody cares if you looked nice.” He mimicked, “I wrote nothing on my exam paper but I was dressed really good and I smiled a lot during the exam. That counts doesn’t it?”

I had nothing to counterattack with. Why must this child be so incredibly clever?  It’s very annoying.  He left for school with these parting words, “I don’t want to hear anymore about it. I’m getting so mad thinking about how pitiful you were and how you wasted those opportunities.”

He was right. I was so depressed I had to go get donuts for breakfast to choke my sorrows.

What do we learn from this? Next time I get invited somewhere faintly strange and artistic – I should just stay home. Watch ‘Good Wife’. And drink lots of Diet Coke.

Things you should know before you date (or heaven forbid, marry) a writer

1. We go to extreme lengths to delay writing. We want you to leave us alone so we can write but then you will find us: color coding the linen cupboard, cleaning out the fridge, baking three different kinds of cookies (For the children dammit!) Emailing that longlost friend from high school that we havent spoken to in 20 years and probably will never think about again for another 20. Ironing sheets… All of this stuff is essential FOR writing to happen because not until we have taken care of every single loose end and tied every loose thread in the jumbled mess that is our lives…only then can we sit down and actually write something. So, dont ever make the mistake of asking, ‘But I thought you were supposed to be writing today?’ Or ‘Since you’re not writing, why don’t we have a fun outing to the hardware store together?’ No. Just don’t. Or we might shank you. Because even though it doesnt LOOK like it – we are WRITING.

2. You need to accept that if you date a writer, she is going to write about you. Somehow, somewhere, sometime. She may not do a Taylor Swift and compose an entire novel dedicated to telling her crappy ex-boyfriend that ‘We are NEVER EVER getting Back Together’ (and I’m happy and gorgeous and rich and successful and you suck, so there!) No, we’re writers. We’re more subtle. We have more class. And most of us are not psycho rich and successful like Ms Swift and we don’t want you to sue us for defamation. Instead, we will put all the nicest pieces of you into our glorious romance leads. And those super sweet things you say or do for us? Will probably end up in a book somewhere. We may give you a pseudonym to protect your innocence/hotness identity ( like “Hot Man”…) and blog about you. Which will be alright when only three people read our blogs but then it could become a little tricky for you when readership bounces up a few thousand. ( or sixty.) And then you might end up on airplanes where random women giggle and ooh and aah and ask you, ‘Are you the Hot Man on so-and-so’s blog?!’ You will then grit your teeth, grin and bear it while wishing you had included a ‘Thou Shalt Not Write About Me’ clause in your marriage contract.  I’m here to tell you though that while you may not like to see pieces of yourself in a writer’s book/blog – you should be worried if you DON’T. We write about what matters to us. If we write fiction, we take creative license with the people and situations and experiences that have an impact on us. The people we love (or hate) can inspire us the most. Can spark the most powerful writing from us. So take it from me, if you’re dating a writer and she DOESN’T write about you somewhere, somehow, sometime? Then it’s not looking good for you. Oh, and it’s very true – if you are really mean to a writer she can (and will most probably) write you into a book – and kill you. (Humming a Taylor Swift song while she does it is optional.)

3. Having said that though, be aware that a lot of what a writer writes is NOT ABOUT YOU.  When she writes a short story about a psychotic, wife-beating, stalker husband, she is NOT trying to send you a message. When she writes a character who bears a suspicious resemblance to Hugh Jackman, she is not wishing you would grow a Wolverine beard and undergo adamantium implants. Because lots of stuff a writer writes is complete fiction and there are no subterranean hidden meanings in there anywhere. When she says the curtains are blue in her character’s bedroom – she really does just mean the curtains are blue. Not that they represent her inner yearning for the freedom of the wide open ocean because she secretly hates being with you and wants to escape your clutches. Trust me folks, not everything is about YOU. This counsel goes for family members and friends of writers as well. I have a relative who is often suspicious that every mean girl I describe in my books is really HER in disguise because I’m trying to get back at her for a lifetime of familial squabbles. It’s not about her. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about a cool story idea that a writer gets and is driven to put on paper. Nothing more. Nothing less. So get over yourselves.

4. Writers are obsessive possessive about their books. Writing a book is like giving birth to a child. You’re pregnant with that story in your head for at least nine months ( or 9 years) and it’s always there no matter what you do. Sometimes your story plunges you in the depths of despair and you wallow in misery, puking your guts out. Other times, it’s on fire and you’re happy and glowing and the world is a wonderful place with lots of yummy food to eat.  If you’re not careful, EVERYTHING in a writer’s life becomes about that blasted baby book. You take a writer to dinner and she will be casing the joint, wondering if the restaurant would make for a good scene in her novel. Go to a movie with her and she will either complain about how unoriginal films are these days and why the hell cant somebody make a movie about her stinkin book already? Or she will be swept away by the onscreen romance, be filled with excitement – and tell you to ‘hurry up and take me home so we can get it on… NOT! HAHA so I can get to my laptop and write.’ Its not over when that book is released. Once that writer ‘gives birth’ to that kid, she worries and frets about it as it goes out into the big bad world. She stalks reviews and is sad when people are mean to her baby. She goes over that book again and again and hates herself when she finds mistakes that she missed. If the book is successful, she is proud of her child’s achivements and everything in your house is blissful. If it sucks? Yeah, well – dont go home…. Date a writer and you will have to share her with her characters. With her story. With her villains and heroes. You will need to set boundaries with that writer. Draw the line somewhere. Tell her, ‘I hate to break it to you, but NOT EVERYTHING IN LIFE is about your stupid beautiful book.‘ Hopefully you will be able to negotiate some compromises, but it wont be easy. Let’s be honest, there’s a reason why so many writers end up alone, miserable, starving losers writing in gutters and garrets and possibly sticking their heads in an oven.

5. Many writers have shockingly abysmal social skills. And are disgustingly private people. Which doesnt match their blabbermouth writing selves at all. Your writer may be painfully shy in person and prefer to order takeaway, talk to herself, go to movies alone, and only dance when nobody else is looking. YET, this is the same writer who will conversate with total strangers on Twitter, be best friends with bloggers she has never met, and have the funniest, wittiest things to say on Facebook. You will need to accept that many writers have a carefully constructed public persona that is very different from their private real self. She may blog the most hilarious things but when you come home she is the grouchiest, meanest and most depressing woman you’ve ever had the misfortune to occupy the same airspace with. Do not freak out. It is not a sign that she hates you. It is a reminder that writers are SCREWED UP PEOPLE. Lots of us are kinda crazy. We hear voices, we have conversations with them…and then we write those voices down and turn them into books that (strangely enough) people actually want to read. We are also really really good at making shit up. We are proffesional pretenders. We invent, exaggerate and lie – its called writing. And we’re really good at it. If we really  love you, we let you see the true parts of ourselves – and then we desperately hope you don’t freak out, we hope you love us enough to stick around.

I hope this advice can be helpful for any and all considering the possiblity of a relationship with a writer. Get out NOW while you still can!  I am grateful there is someone who loves ME enough to stick around. I’m also grateful I had some children because they don’t really have a choice – they’re stuck with a mother who writes – so I’m (hopefully) never going to end up alone and miserable in a gutter. Or garret. Sticking my head in an oven.

However, it is my fervent hope and desperate wish that none of my kids ever end up becoming a writer. Or marrying one.