Rant: ain’t nobody’s business…
It’s not often I get filthy-mad after watching current affairs programs. I don’t watch a lot of TV. 60 Minutes is the exception, mostly because Sunday night is my night off and it has a good mix of human-triumph stories and the hard-hitting stuff, plus the odd prod to my social conscience.
Last night’s combination of stories Justice for Thomas, Chloe’s Law, and Island of Youth did my head in (to be fair, another real-life story has been banging around in there since I heard it on Friday and I was already feeling fragile). We have Thomas Kelly, whose life was taken with one punch, and a flawed legal system that meant his killer had to be tried for the lesser charge of manslaughter to ensure conviction. In Chloe’s Law, a beautiful young lady took her own life following a lengthy bullying campaign, physical assault and threats on social media. On the Island of Youth, human connection, a vegetable-based diet and lashings of red wine (and distance from westernised civilisation) is possibly the secret to happiness and long life.
I’ll begin with the story I overheard on Friday. When I go to a Tupperware-style party I expect a cheese plate, a glass of cheap wine and to spend money I don’t have on something I don’t need in order to ensure my lovely host reaches her sales target—I don’t expect to have an epiphany.
A guest (let’s call her Mandy) was recounting her recent experience in a busy shopping-centre food court; a mother with two children had vigorously belted one child (not a smack) in full view of hundreds of people. Mandy and her daughter were the only onlookers who tried to protect the child—at risk to themselves—as the mother stood, abused them and took photos of their faces so she could ‘get’ them later for poking their noses into her business. Mandy told the woman over and over that she made it her business when she abused her child in public. Hundreds of people present—and only two women were prepared to get involved.
When security came they tried to diffuse the situation. The guards repeatedly said they would call police, as if the threat alone would end the stand-off. Mandy refused to sit down until the police were called and reminded the security guards that they had a duty of care, that an assault had been committed. Their reaction was along the lines of: it’s her child and maybe Mandy was overreacting.
When the police finally came, an officer asked if only one child had been hit, why were there bruises and welts on the other? Mandy was worried that she might have made things worse for the child but she committed to making a statement to the police. She is still furious that there was no support from the other patrons.
My epiphany came when my 11-year-old daughter (having overheard part of the conversation) asked if I would have done something. She has witnessed me intervene before during an incident of animal cruelty and seemed baffled when I answered, ‘I don’t know’.
I really don’t know. I hope that I would. Our society has become fractured to the point that we exist in separate bubbles; your business is your business, and nobody has the right to tell you how to bring up your children. I learned my lesson early by telling off someone else’s child for hitting another at a birthday party. No other adults were present; he’d raised the cricket bat a second time and I reacted strongly to stop it from happening again. The child burst into tears and told his mother. I received a public dressing-down and the air outside the classroom was decidedly chilly after that (and the child was decidedly smug).
I was raised by a village, and by that I mean I had aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbours who were all appointed guardians. Trial and punishment was meted out by any number of hands or wooden spoons and public shaming was a rite of passage. I won’t advocate the cane, but at least back then (there, I nearly said ‘in my day’) teachers were not simultaneously stripped of the tools of authority and expected to carve our future leaders with nothing but a procedure manual and a beatific smile.
So what’s my problem with last night’s 60 Minutes footage? It’s not a criticism of reportage, as such, but an accusation of hypocrisy aimed at society.
My problem lies with a scene in Chloe’s Law where former police officer and cyber-safety consultant Susan McLean addresses a group of students. She says, ‘If you see it, if you find it, if you observe it, you MUST act’.
Really? We expect our children to stand up for victims and expose bullies? As a society, do we act? We dither and toss up the likelihood of litigation, maybe bitch about people behind their backs, occasionally whine about how badly-behaved children are these days.
What if our society allowed for the collective frown, what if a mere acquaintance or a complete stranger saw your child do something criminal, dangerous or worthy of a mouthful—would you be okay with that person saying something? Or would you say that the job of parenting your child is yours alone?
It was interesting to see the reaction to two recent incidents of bully-shaming (I won’t link here because I don’t want to add to the furore): parents have copped equal parts flak and praise after making their children stand on street corners holding signs that read ‘I am a bully’. The naysayers piled on, criticising them for shaming their children publicly and for using humiliation as a tool for rehabilitation. Their tactics could be seen as part of the bullying culture—children do live what they learn— but there was praise, too, for standing with their children, for taking responsibility and a hard stance against their behaviour.
Yeah, kids deserve many second chances. I’d hate to think my childhood mistakes somehow ‘reduced’ my character to a point beyond redemption—I prefer to believe I learned, changed and moved on. I have been bullied, physically assaulted and emotionally wrecked during my teenage years. I’ve also been a bully.
Last night I couldn’t get the image of Chloe out of my head. On the afternoon she was bashed on the street by a group of girls, I wonder, what did the adults do? Were there witnesses? What if there were adults present and they did nothing, either out of fear or indifference? What if some adults had hauled those girls off Chloe, stood them up against a wall and told them, publicly, that what they were doing was inhumane and that our society won’t stand for it? What if someone had taken Chloe into their arms and told her she was safe?
Then came the story, Island of Youth. It was a feel-good pick-me-up story about a place where people routinely live into their hundreds, dance in the streets and quaff wine with every meal. But all I could see was the village.
Rant: fear is the root of my writers’ block…
I’ve suffered through many stages of writers’ block over the years. With each project it has manifested itself differently, like a virus that changes its biology just to thwart my immune system. Just when I figure out how to beat it, it pops up again in another form, each time stronger and more elusive. Each writer has their own type of writers’ block. The only thing I’m sure of is that my personal writers’ block is anchored by fear.
When I started writing All I Ever Wanted—my first attempt at a novel—it showed itself as fear of commitment. Writing a novel is an energy-sapping, time-consuming, relationship-testing exercise. It’s an enterprise that comes without a guarantee; a leap of self-faith that might seem arrogant or selfish to those who rely on you being available. The literature tells us to expect (and embrace) failure, not just once but many times over. Writing a novel is a ‘business’, a ‘discipline’, and if you don’t hold the metaphorical gun to your own temple and turn up at the keyboard, day after day, it won’t happen.
Well, bollocks to that. I overcame my fear of commitment by telling myself that I was running out of time to do something extraordinary. Writing doesn’t have to be all business—I think sometimes it should be a process as shifting and shapeless as a dream, something you reach for without knowing the outcome. You know what? Prepare to fail, but also, prepare to succeed.
Friday Brown was a different beast. I felt the fear of expectation and worried myself sick that my writing career now hinged on my all-important sophomoric novel. Instead of the euphoric high on which I wrote and published AIEW, Friday Brown was written haltingly—backwards, sideways, any which way but forwards, on a wave of self-doubt. I would stare at the cursor for hours, wondering how the hell I had learned so much and yet looked set to achieve so little.
In the end, two things came to my rescue: a deadline and resignation. Deadlines are the cattle-prod for the subconscious. I love a good deadline. Resignation set in and I accepted that I might disappoint a whole bunch of people who’d taken a chance on me; worse, I would have to confess that I’d lied to my editor about the book being on track, in good shape, and nearly ready for submission. I pounded the keyboard and, through sheer desperation, I made headway. The only reason I overcame my writer’s block/fear was that I was more afraid of humiliation than of not being able to live up to expectation (sorry if you were waiting for a more profound outcome to this battle with my Goliath). That said, there’s something about letting yourself free-fall, drenching yourself in story, that makes the words come easier. They’re not always good words, or in the right order, but momentum is powerful.
Just when I think I’ve got the skinny on what feeds my fear, along comes the devastating mutation, fear of mediocrity. This one sneaks up on me, taps me on the shoulder and when I turn around, it’s gone. It waits until I’ve written ten thousand words and shows up again. It tells me to delete them all because the book I’m writing now has to be more than the one I’ve written before. It has to be brilliant, complex, life-changing, powerful; if I’m not growing as a writer I might as well stop.
This fear has everything to do with my own expectations and nothing to do with anyone else’s. It’s a paralysis of my heart, not my mind, and it’s recurring. I’m still learning to overcome it and I do so by accepting that there will be a book nobody likes and it might as well be this one. Yes, sometimes defeatism and winning go hand in hand.
So, where am I now? I have a brand new writers’ block wearing the badge: fear of wankery. I know from speaking with other writers and creators that this is a common fear that leads to the dreaded block. It stems from self-consciousness and self-doubt—the common denominator to most fears—and is made raw and painful by publishing inadvertent tweets, soul-baring blog posts and self-congratulatory Facebook messages (which we’re encouraged to do in the name of promotion but they always feel wrong, wrong, wrong). We* are shy creatures, unsuited to social networking. On occasion we will reach out on the interwebs and get bitch-slapped for our trouble—this results in keyboard paralysis and self-admonition that lasts weeks. Basically, if you want books, be forgiving.
What do you think causes writers’ block?
*By ‘we’ I mean ‘I’.
Sticks and stones…
I don’t read too many bad reviews of my books. Not because they’re not out there (they are) but because I have three things buffering me against them: a kind publicist, a dearth of tech-savviness, and my own fear. I only stalk a few select blogs and they’re written by people I suspect fit the profile of my perfect reader—they get me, they get my work and chances are, if they love and recommend a book, I will love it, too.
But occasionally I’ll stumble upon a bad review, often because the razor-blades are hidden in the last few pars and I’ve lulled myself into a false sense of security after stroking myself with a few opening phrases like ‘award-winning’ and ‘ground-breaking’. Bad reviews are like unopened bills—ignore them all you like but the print only gets bigger and redder. The only thing for me to do is read on. Then comes the sick feeling, the drop in my stomach, like I’ve missed the bottom step.
I have been known to print and obsessively read good reviews over and over (in an industry where rewards are more nourishing to the soul than the pocket, I take my warm and fuzzies wherever I can). There’s an immense satisfaction in savouring the connection between writer and reader, and in appreciating a reader’s (sometimes different) interpretation of your own writing. In the afterglow of reading a good review I’m one fat cat. My work has been validated, my characters loved, my work understood. Life is golden. It’s time to kick back and pour the daiquiris.
But the after-burn of a bad review, that’s something else. For me, grief over one bad review lasts longer than the euphoria over a good one (well, five good reviews, if I’m being honest). First, I wallow. Next, I drink. Then I get mad.
I’ve been criticised for using too much profanity (I’ll give you that one), of writing too darkly, for not dealing out justice where it is expected. I’ve had letters from readers who say I left them hanging or I didn’t make things clear enough. Some are frankly pissed that they spent twenty bucks, plus postage, on a book that wasn’t enough for them. I’ve been told I don’t have an authentic teen voice because my characters are too smart (I will not give you that one).
I’m not angry with the reviewer—I’ve realised that I cannot control a reader’s reaction to my writing; nor can I change it by responding to criticism. I can’t fix mistakes already in print; I can only acknowledge them and do better. An unflattering review feels personal, even if it is about my book, but an amazing thing happens after I read a bad review. I get mad with me.
I tell myself (internally, of course, because I don’t talk to myself):
‘You’re not a brain surgeon. You’re not an aid-worker and you don’t give a shit about world peace (I do really, but I tend to tackle big issues with small donations and I can’t afford more than one World Vision child). Your work is obscure, unloved and it will never mean as much to anyone else as it does to you, but there is a greater obscurity and you’ve been there. It’s a book, not a presidential speech; a book, not your last opus. You are a miniscule blot. You are a bottom-feeding amoeba in a bloody big pond and people are paying you to go to work in your pyjamas and tell big, fat lies. You wanted this.’
And it’s true. The biggest kick I get out of writing isn’t the royalty-cheque or the slowly lengthening line for my author signature. And it isn’t the good reviews. It’s the constant battle with myself—my laziness, my lack of self-belief, my blank page—because failure is a huge motivator for me. After my initial self-pity, a bad review sends me my back to my desk swinging. It’s a bitter burst of creativity and it usually sends me to some dark places, too, but hey.
Bad reviews inspire me.