the tamago report

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Tag: be a better writer

The Question of Everyday Writing

by MDY

“Nulla dies sine linea,” said Horace. A pithy line from the poet who arguably invented pithy, and one with no small amount of practicality imbued in its chiastic concision. But, like all gnomisms, the wisdom is in what’s unsaid. Does it count if I only spend one day a week crafting fiction, and the other six churning out press releases? What happens to my neural pathways if I alternate between poetry and prose? Are we all taking the lyrics too literally? In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami draws a beautiful analogy between running and writing as activities which, if not repeated daily, will allow the clever beasts of our physical and mental muscles (which I imagine as resembling the beasts at the End of the World in Hard-Boiled Wonderland) to slack off and degenerate back to step zero. But is this sort of punitive regime essential to becoming a better writer?

I’m suspicious of anything that seems prescriptive. When instructed to complete reams of homework in Year 7 Maths, I took the view that I’d be fine if I just did the last five questions (the hardest ones) of any chapter. This cavalier approach served me well until I reached my final two years of high school, at which point I needed to complete entire chapters simply to understand the conceptual pedagogy at hand. While studying journalism, most of my cohort would speak in smug tones about the “connections” that they could leverage to realise their story ideas – typically high-powered executives or politicians who’d they’d gushed hello to at some networking event. These stories typically ended up imbued with less connectivity than a broken modem, so I took a different approach: cold-calling whoever I needed for story with witty emails and secretary-busting chutzpah. So I’m a big fan of short-cuts – but also acknowledge that many of my life-hacks themselves rely on significant amounts of repetitive effort.

I don’t write fiction every day, but I feel a sense of guilt at not doing so. I believe in the power of muscle memory for the brain, but I’m also – perhaps due to life circumstances – wary of over-exertion, and the heady tonic of “pushing the limits” that’s slurped down across my results-addicted social networks with disregard to its corrosive side-effects. So I write, and write often, but not with the monumental focus or endurance which Horace’s line hints at. I sleep more than I sketch, I get distracted by words other than mine, I stare out of windows more than I probably should. My writing style is more sprint than marathon – long periods of restless malaise punctuated by fiery bursts of productive obligation. Perhaps this means I will never be a Murakami, which will make me sad – but I have a ten-year head start, and I’m content just to make it to the finish line.


Managing expectations

by MDY

Nobody ever makes the first jump. Only once I finish a paper draft do I begin to edit, proof and format. Paper forces you to not look back. The more you second-guess your words, the more the terrain comes to resemble a battlefield, carved up by the caterpillar-tracks of surreptitious strike-outs and adjectival regret. Word-processing is too much like Teflon. It also tracks your word-count, which is a distraction I can do without alongside chocolate and equestrian flamenco. My first drafts are measured in pages, or hours. If I get fatigued or restless, I remind myself that I’m writing not paratrooper-ing and it’s okay if I don’t make my next checkpoint in time. But I always do.

The first sort is the specific: write these words by this time, so that this person can react this way. Some things aren’t physically possible – I cannot type more than 2500 words in an hour, or do a bench-press – but a surprising majority are. You build up your fitness with exercises and repetition, like with marathons or equestrian flamenco. My first press-release took me 5.2 hours to write. After a while, you can load and aim and fire without breaking a sweat or the surrounding furniture. The other sort is the general. Find true love, look after your health, make responsible choices for the future. You build up to those with time.

The tragedy of Icarus is that his father would’ve loved him no matter what. On the particularly knife-edge days that punctuate most winters, my fingers stiffen up and have difficulty moving – a legacy of youthful novel-writing and flamencos played on oversized xylophones. I’ve learnt to wear gloves and buy clothes with warm pockets, but adaptability runs a distant second to prevention. Blunt trauma forces you to not look back. Making everyone happy is a fool’s goal, especially not since everyone wants to be. Sometimes, the hardest ones to manage are the ones you set yourself.

What I did this weekend.

by MDY

I struggled on the weekend. It was the water’s fault. The sun was out but the wind was cold, turning my already-sparse muscles into shadows of themselves. The water was heavy from the previous night, immobile save for the faintest shards of wind-chill. When I pulled, it sucked quietly at my strength and turned it into bubbles, and by the seventh lap my only thought was I don’t really want to do this. By the time I was done, though, it wasn’t so bad. On Wednesdays I swim sixteen laps, and on Saturdays fourteen. I used to be antipathetic towards swimming fourteen because no portent outweighs that of certain death.

One of my friends is antipathetic towards kidney beans. I’m not sure why: although kidneys are the life-giving organ, their leguminous counterparts do have a bit of an alkaline taste which sticks in the mouth. We shared tonkatsu and salmon on the weekend after a long hiatus, and she told me about many instances where her only thought was I don’t really want to do this. She also told me that despite my fears, saying to a girl You’re beautiful never gets old. I thought this was good advice and wrote it down, but not on a piece of paper. I also wrote down a short story, which my reader read.

I wouldn’t choose it as an apartment number, but at the end of the day it’s only a matter of belief. If you think it’s cold, then it’s cold, but if you choose to think about tonkatsu or your reader then the crawl doesn’t seem so hard after all. Everyone needs a green light to swim for, otherwise you just end up depressed by the act of covering the same fifty metres over and over again. Even when I do struggle against the current, it’s always comforting to know that I can get out, dry myself off, and have a warm shower which’ll leave me glowing until nightfall. That’s what I did this weekend.