The trouble with writing

May 29, 2013 § 11 Comments

I think this is the fifth blog post I’ve started today. The previous four – all on different topics – bored me to tears, and I’m of the view that if they bore me, they’re likely to bore you. (As @fgriebenow quipped on Twitter, it’s possible I’m suffering from writer’s blog.)

But my frustration today does makes me think about the way many people consider writing – as something that’s difficult to do. Here’s one of my favourite quotes on the subject, and it sums it up nicely, I think:

“Writing is easy – all you do is stare at a blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler

I think the difficulty lies not so much in the writing itself, as with the subject matter. Because the truth is that writing is only difficult when you have nothing to say – as I have found out again today. If you can talk to someone about the subject you want to write about, you can write about it. Because writing is just a conversation on paper.

And it’s changeable! It’s not like you’re spending hours chipping your words out of a stone block with a chisel. Today it’s very easy to cut and paste, delete and replace, and generally play with your words without having to start all over again (although occasionally that is the only way). Falling in love with your ‘delete’ and ‘backspace’ keys is an essential part of learning to write.

If I’ve learned anything after over two decades of writing for a living, it’s this: about 95% of good writing lies in rewriting – you have to be prepared to tweak and cut and shuffle and rejig and change things. That’s the secret. You start by getting everything onto the page, and then the crafting begins.

And then, once you’ve crafted it all, you begin to pare back – the string of trite adjectives, the telling where you should be showing, the rhythm that isn’t quite right, the example that’s just one too many. That’s the hard part – not the writing, but the crafting. The questioning of every word on the page, to ensure that it has earned its place.

But the hardest part of writing, surely, is when you stop. Because that’s usually when you allow other people to read what you’ve written. And it’s hard because first, you’re often baring a bit of your soul. Second, if you’re serious about crafting your words, what happens is that every time you reread something you’ve written and put out there, you see something that you could have phrased better, or left out, or expanded on. It’s the nature of the beast.

But after all is said and done, the key to writing is simply to start. Just put some words on the page – you can always fix them if they’re bad. Look at me – I started with writer’s blog, and now I have a blog post.

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Rebellion

May 24, 2013 § 7 Comments

I think I’m finally becoming a teenager. It’s taken nearly 44 years, but there you have it.

Obviously I can’t be objective about this, but I think I was a fairly reasonable teenager the first time around. I didn’t smoke or drink (well, except for that one champagne breakfast atop Lion’s Head when I was 15) and for the most part, I did as I was told. I was home when I said I’d be home, I did all my homework, I achieved well at school. Hell, they even made me Deputy Head Girl, so I couldn’t have been a rebel.

And I’ve always been like that. I do what’s expected of me, always. If I commit myself to something, I throw myself in there, heart and soul. I am reliable to the point of being predictable and boring.

And then this week happened. I’m not sure why, but it’s been a week of small rebellions, and I’ve had a blast. Nothing drastic – I’m not snorting coke or anything. I’ve just allowed myself to break some of my own ridiculous rules, and it’s been fun.

Now don’t get me wrong (lest any of my clients are reading this). I’ve worked hard when I’ve needed to, and met all of my deadlines (I think.) but I’ve also skived off a fair amount.

On Tuesday, for example, I took myself off to a movie in the middle of the working day on a whim. There I was, with a handful of others in the darkened movie theatre, shamelessly perving at Josh Duhamel when I should have been working, like the rest of you.

On Wednesday I broke two of my own rules. Wednesday is supposed to be blogging day. This Wednesday I just didn’t have the time or the inclination. Hence here I am, on Friday night, blogging.

Also on Wednesday, I broke my rule of not going out on a ‘school night’. I toddled off to hear Wendy Oldfield and Lionel Bastos perform, knowing full well that I had to be up at sparrow’s fart the next day to travel to a workshop I was giving in the Magaliesberg. It was an awesome, inspiring evening that left me grinning like a Cheshire cat for ages afterwards, and it took quite some time for me to come down to a place where I was ready to sleep. I don’t regret it for one minute, but I did feel vaguely nauseous when I finally crawled into bed at 12.45am and had to set my alarm to go off at 4.55am.

And when I have been in my office, at odd occasions I’ve stopped working at the laptop and gone to the piano to nail down a chord or a lyric on a song I’m busy working on. It may never see the light of day or help to pay the rent, but it’s fun, so I’ve indulged when the urge has taken me.

And then today, during office hours, I spent two hours having coffee and a really good chat with my new friend, Richard, who is one of those people who just gets me. And those people are few and far between – I can probably count them on one hand. So I spent those hours chatting up a storm with him, and enjoyed every minute of it.

It doesn’t sound like much, I know. As I said – they were small rebellions. But for me it’s not about the act itself, it’s about the attitude behind it. And it’s been one of the happiest weeks I’ve had in a long time. Because for once, I didn’t listen to my brain. I listened to my heart.

And it felt good. Really good.

Crowd-sourced song

May 14, 2013 § 5 Comments

So, last week, I wrote a song. And today I polished it a little, typed out all the lyrics, and recorded it, with my one-strum guitar playing, onto my computer, just so I can remember how it goes.

It’s the first song I’ve written in about 14 years, since my dear friend and musical mentor, Neville de Klerk, died of cancer. One of the last songs I wrote before this one was the song I sang at his funeral, and something inside of me just couldn’t write anymore after that.

So I’m delighted by this one – I even like it, which is unusual. It makes me smile as I sing it, and I think with a better singer (and guitar player) it might make you smile too. What I like most about it, is that to some extent, the lyrics are crowd-sourced. I started writing it, and I was playing with words; trying to use the kinds of words you don’t often find in songs because they’re longer and have many syllables, and can be difficult to find rhymes for. I chose words that ended in the suffix “-ated” and asked my Twitter friends to help me come up with a few more. They did a great job, and here, then, is the result.  Please pardon the alternative title – that’s just how I think of it.

And no, I’m not singing it for you. You’ll have to content yourself with the lyrics.

COMPLICATED (aka THE FUCK OFF SONG)

So you say that it’s complicated

That our love is overrated

And nothing ever came from standing still

It’s not what you had anticipated

Loving me leaves you suffocated

For too long you’ve been here against your will

Chorus:

Well then go – please don’t feel obligated

Truth be told, that leaves me quite elated

It’s time for me to spread my wings and fly

Yes, I said go, life goes on unabated

I don’t need you to feel appreciated

The time has come it seems to say good-bye

Don’t you know I’m opinionated

I’m not a girl to be dominated

I’ve always been inclined to speak my mind

You tried to make me domesticated

Don’t you see that’s just antiquated

I’ve put up with a lot, I think you’ll find

CHORUS

Bridge:

But when you’re gone I’ll be liberated

All my cares will be eradicated

There were days, I overcompensated

Time to say good-bye

Finding me

May 8, 2013 § 10 Comments

I had a little revelation last week. Well, it was a big revelation, actually, with a whole lot of sub-revelations, one of which was simply this: over the last 15 years or so I have really let go of my creative side. I’ve neglected it; stashed it away in boxes and drawers to languish forgotten, derelict and dusty with disuse.

I’ve done a good job of it too. I’d almost forgotten that I once had the ability to write songs and poems that moved people. That I have a musical ear that picks up tunes and chords pretty easily. That I can sing a harmony to almost anything without having to try very hard. But all of that has been buried over the years for a number of reasons, not least of which is that some of the lines in my life have become blurred.

The fact is, I write every day of my life – it’s my job as a freelance journalist. And while some might see what I do as a creative pursuit (which I suppose, to some extent it is) it feels like a transaction for me. Most of the stuff I produce I can write in my sleep, and it sometimes feels as if I do. And it’s difficult to feel a sense of craft in a world where newspaper and magazine feature articles have become shorter and shorter, and oftentimes – I feel – dumbed down for a generation that likes its information in bite-sized chunks.

I no longer write for the pure joy of writing; of committing words to a page and watching them take on a life of their own. There have been glimpses, sure – a poem on this blog, snatches of melody in my head; a song half-written that now lies beside my bed waiting to be completed. But I haven’t made the effort, really. I haven’t made a permanent space for any of that in my life for far too long.

And what I realised last week was just how much my sense of self is tied into the creative side of me. That in letting go of my creativity, I also let go of a vital part of myself. I literally let my self go.

The miracle in all of this is that just as I was reaching that point – because it has been a process – the right people have started showing up in my life, people who’ve seen the self-doubt I wear like an invisibility cloak and who are slowly helping me to peel it from my shoulders. I’m not one for aphorisms, but I guess this student is finally ready, and the teachers are appearing. And I am overwhelmingly grateful for the chats over coffee, the thoughtful emails, the willingness to listen to the songs of  rank amateur, and the words of encouragement and inspiration that come my way when I need them most.

I’m also aware that it’s a process. I’m aware that it’s going to take time and patience, and a shift in priorities and the way I think about myself, my abilities and my life.

But that’s okay – because I’m lucky. I don’t need much to find myself again. All I need is time and the simplest of elements – a pen, some paper, my piano and my (steel)pan. That’s all, and it’s enough.

Business buzzwords

May 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve spent the afternoon giving feedback on some assignments – business writing assignments issued at a course I recently taught for Allaboutwriting. The course was for a group of communication officers at one of South Africa’s major banks, and it’s very interesting to see how the corporate lingo filters through in their writing, even in an assignment that requires a conversational, less formal tone.

So we have ‘stakeholder’, ‘engagement’ and… surprise, surprise… ‘stakeholder engagement’. We don’t know who these stakeholders are or what engagement entails – dinner and a movie, or just a diamond ring when you pop the question? (And isn’t that taking customer service just a step too far?)

‘Strategic’ is another buzzword people love to fling about with gay abandon. Everything is strategic today, even when it’s not. Why, I do believe I’ve even read about ‘strategic stakeholder engagement’ recently,’ whatever that is.

And then there’s ‘concretizing’ and ‘leverage’ and ‘capacity’ and ‘synergy’ – these words have just been so overused and misused (what on earth does concretizing entail?) that no-one really knows what they mean. I tried to rewrite two sentences for one of my students to demonstrate that plain language really could say the same thing more simply and more elegantly, but I struggled to translate his corporate language because I really wasn’t sure what he meant. And therein lies the problem.

Good communication is about ensuring that the message you send is exactly the same as the message received. That means it must be accurate and crystal clear with no room for ambiguity. Using buzzwords is far more likely to obscure your message – which is why politicians love them so much.

As I was writing this, a junk email for a business conference arrived in my inbox, with these words: “Kindly find attached information pertaining to…” Why so many words? (Also, there was no attachment.) But what’s wrong with saying, “Here’s the information about…”

It’s not about dumbing things down – I’m not saying you shouldn’t use ‘big’ words ever, or that you need to write in words of one syllable. But you should always consider your audience. Do you want them to understand what you mean the first time they read what you’ve written, or do you want them to furrow their brow slightly and hit ‘delete’ when they don’t know what the hell you’re on about?

Plain language really can make the difference.

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