Guest Post: Stay the Course

A guest post from my friend, Graham Carter, a reporter and editor from across the pond. He writes to answer the cries of us writers who have let our doubts get the better of us, and not a moment too soon. So read on, and feel inspired! Next week, a Worderella review of another Gaiman work.

Let’s talk drumming.

Yes, I know this is supposed to be all about writing, but there is an analogy here that I think all writers should be aware of, so stick with it (pun intended).

I am not a great drummer. I only took it up about six years ago, when I was 40, because I ran out of excuses for my lack of musical know-how. There I was, with my sticks in hand, eager to learn – and not a little excited. But the first thing that has to be said about drumming is it’s harder than it looks. Much harder. Much, much harder. Give it a try and you’ll find that trying to co-ordinate two arms, two feet and your brain, all in perfect harmony, often feels like some kind of witchcraft.

So I got myself a good teacher, watched recordings of Buddy Rich and other superhuman drummers in action, always kept my eyes fixed on the drummer whenever I went to a concert, and even went along to several drum ‘clinics’ where seriously good players would play, talk about drumming and show other
drummers some tricks of the trade. And I wasn’t afraid to work hard and practise.

Well, it didn’t work. Rather than be inspired to better things by all that excellence, I always ended up with the same thought at the back of my mind: “I’ll never be able to do that.” The better those other drummers got, the more I realised that – regardless of how keen I was and no matter how hard I tried – I simply did not have a talent for it in anything like the measure that those guys do. I was keen, but I was no natural.

So what has this to do with writing? Well, unlike drumming, writing does come easily to me. It comes so easily, in fact, that I hardly have to think about it to be able to produce something that has more cohesion, more fluency and more interest than the vast majority of the rest of the population of the planet will ever be capable of. It’s what I do, and as a professional journalist and editor of 20 years’ standing, I’ve also become
accustomed to working quickly and efficiently. Words are my friends, and I still love the fact that people will actually pay me to put them in the right order for them.

Fiction isn’t my thing, but I know how to string sentences together to get information across and make a point. And the point I need to make here is that most people – at least 99 per cent of the people you will ever meet, in fact – cannot write.

Never underestimate that fact.

Sure, they’re literate, but task them with writing anything remotely creative or vaguely complex, and they’ll flounder like a fish out of water. Words worry them. Sentences scare them. Paragraphs petrify them. Think about that for a moment while we go back to the drumming…

It was some time before I finally realised what I was doing wrong, and the solution was so simple that I am tempted to call it a revelation. It suddenly stuck me that my whole drumming education was built on how much better some drummers were than me, and it hadn’t really dawned on me that those staggeringly talented drummers I had been watching were only a tiny minority of all the drummers in the world. As far as my actual capabilities were concerned, I was reaching for pie in the sky, and I was so focused on how far there was to go, that I didn’t notice how far I’d come. It was time to switch to watching average drummers instead.

And it worked. Rather than telling myself: “I’ll never be able to do that,” now I come away from watching other, less esteemed, drummers with exactly the opposite viewpoint. “I can do that,” I tell myself – and I can. I will never be a great drummer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a good one. I’ve found my level, and I found it by looking downwards. In hindsight, it was always a mistake to look upwards all the time, and it’s perfectly clear to me now that I was never going to emulate my betters when they had truckloads of talent and I was a mere mortal.

So, should you start comparing yourself with lesser writers instead of the literary giants you’re trying to emulate? Is it time for you to aim lower?

Don¹t you dare!

Why not? Because you’re not just an average writer, like I’m an average drummer. You’re a natural.

I am certain of this, dear reader, even though I’ve never met you and may not have read a single word you’ve ever written. I don’t need to. I know it simply because you¹re reading this. You’ve come to this website, looking to hone your craft through contact and interaction with other writers. Like I did with my drumming, you’re hanging out with, and seeking inspiration from, people who find this kind of thing easy. But with you there’s one important difference: you stayed.

If you’re comfortable around here, with all this talk of great writing and great writers, then that means you’re still looking upwards. And if you’re looking upwards, it follows that you must be a natural. Only when somebody is a natural do they continue looking upwards for inspiration, rather than downwards, and only when they are a true natural are they able to do this without feeling intimidated.

What’s more, they do it involuntarily. Most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you weren’t one of those hordes of kids who loathed Shakespeare at school, were you? You sensed the greatness of it, didn’t you, long before you could understand what was great about it or even what greatness was? Somehow, you knew.

And now, when you read Shakespeare or Tolkien or Austen or whoever your hero is, you’re not thinking: “I’ll never be able to do that.” You¹re thinking: “I can do that.” And there will be times – there probably already have been – when you will.

So never doubt it. When you’re having a bad day, just remind yourself of the fact that when it comes to writing, you’re not like all the rest. You’re different because you are stretching for things that most people have given up trying to reach – and they may already be within your grasp.

Graham Carter is a freelance journalist and editor who lives in Swindon, England, with his wife, Julie, and their two teenage children. He currently writes a weekly column for the Swindon Advertiser about the trials and tribulations of being over 40, and his blog (www.grahamcarter.net) is a more random collection of thoughts arising from everyday life.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Stay the Course

  1. I have to confess that while I appreciate that lots of people are inspired by her, I am not a great Jane Austen fan (and that’s a bit of an understatement, actually). I was forced to read Northanger Abbey when I was at school, and found it filled with unbelievable and unbelievably shallow characters.

    There were at least two obvious reasons for my resistance to her. I was male (still am) and couldn’t associate with what I then considered exclusively ‘girlie’ literature (and maybe still do), but I was also spoilt by the quality of the other stuff we were studying at the same time – Shakespeare, Hardy, Orwell, etc.

    I still suspect there is a third reason – that she’s really not as good as she’s cracked up to be – and I’m trying to work up enough enthusiasm to give her a second chance. But it’s not easy.

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  2. I have to confess that while I appreciate that lots of people are inspired by her, I am not a great Jane Austen fan (and that’s a bit of an understatement, actually). I was forced to read Northanger Abbey when I was at school, and found it filled with unbelievable and unbelievably shallow characters.

    There were at least two obvious reasons for my resistance to her. I was male (still am) and couldn’t associate with what I then considered exclusively ‘girlie’ literature (and maybe still do), but I was also spoilt by the quality of the other stuff we were studying at the same time – Shakespeare, Hardy, Orwell, etc.

    I still suspect there is a third reason – that she’s really not as good as she’s cracked up to be – and I’m trying to work up enough enthusiasm to give her a second chance. But it’s not easy.

    Like

  3. I think with Northanger Abbey, you have to keep in mind that the book was a satire of the hugely popular gothic romances of the time. The point was to be shallow and unbelievable because that was the point of the other books.

    And in all honesty, it’s not a big deal if you don’t like Austen, most men don’t for one reason or another (simple rebellion may be one reason, since women love her so much). There is something very personable and real about how Austen writes for women. Men won’t get that, not being women themselves.

    There is always the possibility Austen isn’t as good as she’s proclaimed to be. The same thing happens to modern authors. Dan Brown? I found his writing amateur and sensationalist, while the rest of the nation drooled over him. J.K. Rowling? I liked the books, but I never thought they were as intensely thrilling as some of my peers. Everyone has an opinion, and some people only have an opinion because it is the popular one. To each his own, I say.

    I like Austen not only because of her books, but also because of her life story. The context in which she writes is as important to me as the novels themselves, and not due to a romantic view of the past. Life was hard for women. Oftentimes, it still is. But Austen makes me smile through my own hard moments, and I remember how life for her was, and figure I can do at least as well as she did. So there are my own reasons for liking her. Other readers will, of course, have differing reasons for liking/disliking her, and that’s what makes a great conversation.

    Like

  4. I think with Northanger Abbey, you have to keep in mind that the book was a satire of the hugely popular gothic romances of the time. The point was to be shallow and unbelievable because that was the point of the other books.

    And in all honesty, it’s not a big deal if you don’t like Austen, most men don’t for one reason or another (simple rebellion may be one reason, since women love her so much). There is something very personable and real about how Austen writes for women. Men won’t get that, not being women themselves.

    There is always the possibility Austen isn’t as good as she’s proclaimed to be. The same thing happens to modern authors. Dan Brown? I found his writing amateur and sensationalist, while the rest of the nation drooled over him. J.K. Rowling? I liked the books, but I never thought they were as intensely thrilling as some of my peers. Everyone has an opinion, and some people only have an opinion because it is the popular one. To each his own, I say.

    I like Austen not only because of her books, but also because of her life story. The context in which she writes is as important to me as the novels themselves, and not due to a romantic view of the past. Life was hard for women. Oftentimes, it still is. But Austen makes me smile through my own hard moments, and I remember how life for her was, and figure I can do at least as well as she did. So there are my own reasons for liking her. Other readers will, of course, have differing reasons for liking/disliking her, and that’s what makes a great conversation.

    Like

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