Friday, June 24, 2005

The great Australian cheesecake: examining motivations for writing

How many of us have sat down to write the great Australian novel and simply had all thought, dreams, aspirations, grand designs wiped from our intellect? Me. Me. Me. Well, welcome to the club. A large, illustrious and prestigious institution with many millions swelling its ranks; called the ‘I could write the great Australian novel if only I had a great idea’ club. Most people, if they don’t have the will, stamina, love of character, reading or writing, may as well make a cheesecake instead.

Examine your reasons for wanting to write

The question you need to ask yourself is ‘Why am I doing this?’ When baking a cheesecake the answer is easy, you’re making it because it tastes good. But when it comes to writing, so many people sit in tortured angst, faces strangely illuminated by their blank screens. Why?

Wanna-be authors

It is rare to find a person who has started and finished writing a novel. This is one of the many reasons why I will not begin to edit a work unless I know the writer has completed at least the first draft. I am enraged whenever I hear someone half-sloshed at a soiree say ‘I could have written a better novel than that. Honestly, what passes as fiction nowadays…’ Well if you think it’s so easy, lets see you put your pen where your pucker is.

If you examine your motivations and all you can find is ‘I want to be published’, or ‘I want to be rich and famous like Stephen King’ then hang up your pen and paper now. It ain’t going to happen. Not if that’s the only reason you’re doing it. This is like saying ‘I am making a cheesecake because I want to be Donna Hay’. It’s all back to front. I’m sure Donna, if I can presume to speak for her, learned to love cooking before she became famous for all those wonderful recipes. And if she loves cooking, she sure must love to eat. I am baffled by people who say they want to write, but have no time, or inclination, to read.

Is it worth writing?

When writing a novel (just like making a cheesecake), you have to have the right ingredients (read characters, plot, theme, skill), and you have to try one recipe or another, until you find the one that reads well (or tastes good). When you are writing ask yourself ‘Can I stick with this? Is this something I absolutely love talking about?’ Is this story something you will corner a person with at a party, entertaining them into the wee small hours with your thickness of plot and whimsy of character? Or do you absolutely hate the monster you’ve created?

Are you prepared to go the hard yards?

I get very upset by people who say ‘I’m a writer’ and then when you ask them what they write they say ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I’m working on a manuscript’ and then you discover they’ve only written six pages. If you call yourself a writer simply because you picked up a pen and wrote with it, I’d be entitled to put ‘carpenter’ on my resume, simply because I’d banged a nail into a wall.

Most people learn to read and write in kindergarten. Their teacher stands above them correcting the length or slant of the letter. A kindergarten teacher’s praise for full stops and correct spelling is not enough to make you a writer. Writing is like any job, it takes hard work, perseverance and crafting. I have never made cheesecake, so the first time I make it, it will not be for a dinner party with 20 guests. The first time I will make it for myself. Then the second for my partner, the third for my neighbours and maybe the fourth time, just maybe, if it works out, I will present it to my dinner guests. How many people write once, then say they want to publish? It takes a brilliant and extremely sensitive mind to create something which is publishable the first time around, and of the hundreds of first time books I have read, I have yet to see a first draft of a first book published.

Could you tolerate your characters as flatmates or neighbours?

Could you live with the characters if they were your next-door neighbours? Alternatively, if they are nasty characters, would you be entertained by peeking into their living room through your binoculars? If not, why do you wish to subject other people to these beings if you are not empathetic or entertained by them yourself?

I spent the greater part of two weeks with the characters of Martin Amis’ The Information. Awful, horrendous people, who slept with each other’s wives and slandered each other’s works. Sure, I could handle spending two weeks with them, but if I had to spend several years writing about them as Mr Amis surely did, I think I would have topped that novel with my own rather dramatic leap off a very high ledge.

If you’re writing a thesis you may, by the end of the year or three just think ‘I hate this b&%!@rd of a work. I never, ever, want to see, or touch this thing again.’ You’ve paid your university fees, attended classes and want to have a PhD after your name, so your motivations are slightly different. But when it comes to a novel, you really do have to be comfortable with your characters and happy for them to go on living a life once you have set them free into the reading public’s stratosphere. After all a novel lives on after your death (then again with modern day binding...), a cheesecake, if it’s any good, lasts only a few minutes.


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