the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Tag: prose

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.

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The Importance of Mentors

by MDY

Writing well didn’t come naturally to me. Any writer who tells you that it did – they’re lying. Writing needs other people, otherwise it’s just scribbles on a flat surface. So do writers.

My first mentors were my parents. They, for whom a simple missive would take hours to pen, wanted better for me. Every night when I was little, my mother would read to me while I lay in bed, filling my young and pliant skull with tales of heroes, monsters, and delicious irony. Whenever I wanted to go to the library – at least once a week, often more – they would bring me there and wait while I took my pick from the shelves: an alternate universe here, the end of the world there, and so on. I won a story-writing competition when I was 10 and my mother drove me to the winners’ workshop, waited hours for me to finish, and had her car rear-ended in the parking-lot while she did so. My parents gave all they could for a rather modest goal: that I grow up with the confidence in writing which they didn’t have. They taught me to love words.

I was lucky enough to have not one, but two esteemed authors who took me under their wings. The first was a prize-winning academic and writer of short stories, but he seemed much happier looking after the school library than attending awards ceremonies. When I wrote pieces – turgid short stories, pretentious poems, a heaving melodrama of a novel – he would always have time to read them and tell me what he thought. Even now when I proof my own work, I hear his voice commingled with my own. That sounds good. I like the metaphor, but does it fit? You’ve let it run on a bit, but trimming it here might get you started.

The second was a novelist and tyrant of the literati, whose criticism I came to fear. I would offer up manuscripts and he would snort them back at me weeks later, pockmarked with red ink and sarcasm. He was the destroyer of worlds, and to approach him was to face death by annotation. But he did so to make us stronger, and while many came away bitter and broken I vowed to keep on building. Together, both these men turned my desire to write into an ability, a weapon which I could wield with total and utter confidence. They taught me to command words.

My words serve many purposes, but I write them all with one person in mind. I don’t believe in inspiration, but I believe in support, and this friend never fails to remind me that she will always be my reader – even if nobody else will. She quotes to me the turns of phrase which affect her most; my rhyming couplets amuse her to no end. I think of her when I write because it’s a lot easier to write for one person than it is for a thousand, especially when that one person believes unswervingly in your ability. You can love words with your entire being, but they won’t love you back. She taught me that writing needs other people.

Writing well didn’t come naturally to me, but that’s okay. Good mentors teach you not only that everything you write matters, but that you do too.