When autumn comes,
And the leaves fall from the trees
Like dead hands
Or discarded gloves
I wonder whether it is better
To live through this season
Or to die only to live more fully
Somebody waves at you,
And you wave back.
And then you see someone waving behind you.
Somebody at a concert looks back and says,
“It’s you! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
And you say:
“I’m really sorry; I just don’t recognize you.”
And the person gives you a very weird look
And tries to continue their conversation
With their long lost acquaintance a row back from you.
You finish a day of teaching classical singing.
You pull out from the staff car park,
Forget that the school patrol is out,
And roll down your window.
Your singing pupil, who is holding the stop sign,
Gapes as she hears her opera singing teacher
Driving away to rock music.
It is a picture that can, in a very real sense,
Change shape, colour, and texture depending on who views it.
It is a medium for thought and sacred communication.
It is one of the smallest things in the world that is capable of changing humans -
From the inside out.
We put food into our bodies, and we physically derive strength from it.
We put words into our bodies, and intellectually derive strength from them.
With words we were created.
With words we will be either undone or transported into eternal life.
The written word is God’s primary form of communication with us.
One Word can save our lives.
In recent times,
I have been startled at my own lack of brilliance
In music and literature,
Which just goes to show that I’ve been guilty of more ego
Than I care to admit.
(And little enough of that)
Has since taught me
True talent takes time to mature.
Talent is an attitude and a world view
As well as an ability.
It is the whole person.
I would call a child a prodigy
If they had a remarkable ability to learn and to listen and to think.
I would not call a child a prodigy
If they were merely able to play
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata
Or sing a Puccini aria.
The paralysed painter paints.
The deaf composer composes a symphony.
The blind man sees his way.
The autistic child plays entirely by ear.
The child unable to speak
Types a novel.
True talent exists in the mind.
It lives and breathes in its own atmosphere,
Expressed through the artist’s attitudes and beliefs,
And the determination to
Never give up.
Writing is something like self-persecution – a sort of self-flagellation, if you like. Sometimes, admittedly, it quite plainly ego stroking. But a lot of the time, the wonderful glow, the euphoric bubbling that you get over a brilliant idea is just not there. Writing becomes slog. Sort of like road working.
It’s at times like these that I ask myself why I write. I think it’s a good habit, every now and then, to ask yourself why you’re doing something. For instance, there are times when you discover yourself driving through heinous road works for the fifth time in a day, and you might ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?” This might lead to the discovery of a shortcut. Of course, by this time it is a little late, because you are already hemmed in by cars about a mile in every direction, but at least you know for next time. There are other times you may ask why you are doing something. You might have decided to go a camp where you know the majority of people are lunatics. And as you consider the strange behaviour of the people involved, you might ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?” And you may very well save your wits – and a can of deodorant and several articles of clothing, which you would likely have lost at the camp, into the bargain. Occasionally, when I am teaching, and a child spits on my arm or begins to howl very loudly, I ask myself: “Why am I doing this?” This is the only time when asking “why am I doing this?” is not a good idea, because with teaching, this question will probably only depress. Focus on the good stuff.
Anyway, with writing, when I ask “why am I doing this”, it actually helps motivate me. Writing helps me think. Thinking is something that does not come naturally to me. It’s always a good exercise to have to think before you say something. Writing also helps me process stuff that happens to me. I’m the type of person that, when something bad happens to me, I think: “Oh, that was bad.” And then I put it to the back of my mind, and it comes back in my nightmares. When I’m writing, often this sort of stuff will come out. It’s scary, but helpful. I finish the work, and that is the end of the event. Lastly, writing is a discipline. It makes me work hard at something.
What about you?
It happens to every writer at some point in their writing life. My policy has always been to pretend that it doesn’t exist, and normally that has enabled me to keep writing. You can’t be crippled by something nonexistent, after all. However, for the first time in my life, I’ve had to admit that I’ve been pretty stumped. It’s a rather scary experience if you haven’t been there before. But in some senses, it’s just a normal part of the writing cycle. A poet once said that the times when you weren’t writing are just as important as the times when you are. The experiences that you harvest during inactivity eventually refill your ‘creative well’, and you can toil on again. And ‘toiling’ is certainly the word! It feels like jogging uphill with an anvil strapped to your back. You don’t think you’ll ever make it. And yet, I am writing again – I managed to finish editing an anthology this week and for the first time ever, I’ve started a script. For anyone going through the same thing, here’s some tactics that I use to deal with it. Hopefully they help.
1. Don’t spend too long on one project. Once you’ve finished a novel, don’t start editing it immediately unless you’ve got a pressing deadline. Write something else, edit something else, do something else, and then come back to the old project fresh. This year, I spent the entire twelve months pretty much on the same series. And it did me in.
2. If you’ve made the mistake of spending too long on one project, it’s not too late to shift. If one style of writing isn’t working for you (novel writing, short story writing, etc), switch to a completely different one. I tried poetry and script writing. It’s probably awful, but it’s got me writing again.
3. “Stop while you’re ahead,” to quote Mr. Hemingway. When your writing is going really well, stop for the day. Save the passion for tomorrow. Ration your passion. I’ve taken this to new levels before, purposefully leaving a sentence unfinished. When you come back to it in your next writing session, you view it with fresh eyes.
4. Listen to music. This is a personal favourite; it might not work for everyone. I always find that if I’m already listening to a CD, I can’t go Youtube exploring because there’s already something playing. There’s a sense of continuity about systematically going through a bunch of CDs, and I’ve done it for years with good results. I normally make it my aim to write for the duration of the CD when I’m lacking motivation. Somehow it works. It does depend on the genre though – certain types of heavy metal I find too distracting. Opera, baroque, medieval, celtic, classical, romantic, and classical contemporary all work for me however. Bach is particularly good.
5. Keep reading. Never stop reading. Ever. You die of thirst if you don’t drink water.
6. Watch an inspirational movie. This shouldn’t become a habit, because otherwise it cuts into work time. But sometimes if you watch a movie in a similar genre to which you are writing, it kick starts your motor again. You see ideas you like, and all of a sudden, you’ve come up with a new angle. And then you’re on fire again.
7. Have a no-multiple-projects/no-editing-while-writing policy. Do not start another project. And then another. And then another. You may think things will get better if you start five new things. In actual fact, it is depressing having a lot of half-finished things lying around. Ask anyone who has never finished a novel in their life but loves to write, and they will tell you that they start new things all the time. Please be boring. It pays to finish something, and it feels just wonderful. That said, I never come to a project going “I will finish this, and it will be amazing”. I always have the same feeling: one of being entirely overwhelmed. Yet, I do think to myself: “I’m never going to quit, even if it kills me.” So far, I’ve survived, and (if I’m counting right), I’ve finished fifteen books – and all of them except a poetry anthology are somewhere between 15,000 and 110,000 words. The other secret is not to stop and edit while you are writing. There is no surer way to kill passion. Be content to be awful for a couple of months and just finish the thing. Then you can tear it apart a bit later.
All these tips are really not just for writers. They’re for artists in general. Don’t get stagnant. Don’t give up. You will make it in the end.
‘Treble clef’: known as the ‘trouble clef’ to all children under seven.
‘Dotted minim’: code for ‘dotty minion’. I learnt this from a pupil I taught.
‘Crotchet’: the musical form of ‘crochet’.
‘Piano’: (The volume of) the big black instrument.
‘Forte’: (The volume of) opera singers.
‘Forte fortissimo’: The dramatic soprano.
‘Tempo’: the pace of a piece. The following are mostly ‘tempo’ markings.
‘Moderato’: moderately boring.
‘Largo’: largely boring.
‘Lento’: excruciatingly boring.
‘Andante’: the speed at which your grandma jogs.
‘Allegretto’: the speed at which middle-aged people jog.
‘Allegro’: the speed at which young people jog.
‘Presto’: the speed at which maniacs drive.
‘Presto prestissimo’: the speed of the Millennium Falcon. Also known to musicians as RIP.
‘Ritardando’: There’s a cop behind you.
‘Beschleunigter Geschwindigkeit’: Possibly the only musical term invented for Monty Python.
‘Abbandonatamente’: Abandon ship. The musical terms have gotten too long.
‘Fermata’: Take a break from reading this poem.
‘Da capo’: Go back to the beginning.
I just realised the other day that “Jingle Bells”, as a Christmas carol, has no relevance for New Zealanders. It barely mentions Christmas, and it talks about sleighs and snow instead – which all of us see in New Zealand round Christmas time, right? The only reason the carol works is because it contains elements we associate with the time of year Christmas comes round – overseas, that is. So I thought a bit about what New Zealanders would associate with Christmas, and came up with a variant.
Dashing through the sand
With towel and jandelled feet,
Over dunes we go
Laughing at the heat.
The crashing of the waves
Is making spirits bright.
O what fun it is to sing a surfing song tonight.
Surf’s up now, surf’s up now,
O what fun it is to be carried shoreward by the tide, hey!
Surf’s up now, surf’s up now,
O what fun it is to be carried shoreward by the tide.
Q. Do you believe in fairies? ‘Cos I do. Fairies are really real.
A. Yes, I believe in ferries. I saw some at Wellington Harbour.
They were big. I rode on one.
Q. Wow – she carried you?
A. Yes. She did.
Q. Why do tooth fairies not like to be seen?
A. They are very ugly. They find it embarrassing.
Q. Poor things! Poor tooth fairies!
Imagine being ugly.
Do tooth fairies die?
A. Only sometimes.
Planes fly very fast.
You know how bugs go splat on the windscreens of
Fast moving cars…?
(Parent): Yes, thank you. That’s enough.