Arki was a taxi driver, but in his heart he was a writer. He knew he was a writer because the words never stopped racing in his mind until they were out. Neither did the joyous feeling they stirred in him.
Everyday Arki would think up his words and send them into the world. He didn’t need a computer. He didn’t need paper. All he needed was to flash his words onto the windscreen of his cab, onto the night shining road, onto the cars that sped along beside him. He didn’t care where his words landed. All he cared about was that they landed.
He didn’t need his words to change anyone else’s life, either, because they changed his, and that was enough. In changing his life, they fixed a permanent light in his eyes that everyone who crossed his path could see and feel.
Joe, the frequent flyer who dressed for business and laughed like a monkey, slapped him on the back and called him, The happy driver. Jennifer, the lonely lawyer with sad eyes and a happy smile, insisted on a hug once they’d reached the office of a morning—just to say thank you. He’d wrapped his arms around her this morning and wondered if her eyes were closed and wishing to ‘catch’ some of his happy.
Arki had grown up with the burning need to change the world in some grand way. But as he drove along the road to home, thinking of his wife curled up on the couch and his baby boy, nose whistling in his cot, he smiled. He had changed the world in greater ways than he’d ever imagined.
It was time to tackle a difficult read—a bold move, on my behalf. I’d grown up reading only for pleasure and, up until that point in my life, I’d not felt the need to be challenged by books. Reality could be a bitter pill to swallow as it was; did I really want it shoved in my face? Did I want to be huffing and puffing at the dictionary every ten words? No. I didn’t.
But I would do it anyway.
I decided on an Australian literary fiction novel that had a shiny gold sticker on it: an award winner. Surely this would challenge me. I lasted fifty pages before I turned to my husband—who was lounging on the couch opposite me with his own book— and made the big announcement.
‘The struggle is real,’ I said, and it was. Oh, my goodness it was.
Wordy passages of profound thought. Dull family portraits, the monotony of everyday life. A bit of love. A bit of hate. A bit of everything and nothing all at once. I raised my eyebrow and decorated the google search bar on my phone with the words I’d come to know way too well over the past few days, ‘Define (insert word here).’
‘It’s okay to stop reading,’ my husband said, smiling up at me from his book—which he was loving, by the way. And so, it seemed I had a choice. I could go on, allow myself the potential to expand as a reader (and, perhaps, as a human) or I could give up and go find another book. A lovely, lovely book!
Oh, man. I knew what the answer had to be. I needed to read on, I’d kick myself if I didn’t.
The dominoes fell about a quarter of the way through when I had the uncanny sense that the book was becoming more. I frowned into it, gently rocking back and forth on our beloved flower armchair (the same one that’s rocked both our precious babes to sleep, on countless occasions) when I realised what had happened. For the very first time, I had seen me within the pages of a book. Not just the outer crust of me. The inner creaks, the bones, the blood; and all the horrendous aches and pains life had thrown my way.
It felt awful. It felt so bloody awful that I just did not know how I could possibly last through another moment of such soul-scraping reality. Surely, I’d have to put the book down. But I didn’t. I kept reading. And then the book was finished. Just like that, I’d been changed because I dared to go to a place, within the world of literature, that frightened me.
There lies the beauty and the beast that is literary fiction—the grace of the art, the rawness of humanity; these are books coloured by the real-lives of writers who dare to expose life’s simple truths so that us readers might come to know ourselves, and our world, differently.
Michelle De Kretser is one of Australia’s best when it comes to finding the truth and telling it in the form of a novel. As I sat in the audience of her Q and A session on Saturday—only days after she won her second Miles Franklin Award—I was taken right back to the book that changed me. My burst into the world of literary fiction and the humanity that connected me to it, and it to me.
Michelle’s characters are ordinary, flawed people—at least, the ones I’ve met so far— and they are so alive with the human traits we all share. It was fascinating to hear her explain the way she draws the lives of these imperfect individuals, crafts them into little gems that reflect the lives of us, the readers.
It was very easy to be inspired by Michelle and her cheeky confidence. She spoke about all the crap of life as though the fixes were obvious, that underneath the complications of modern living, lies simplicity. People. Just trying to be.
All the beautiful textures and colours of the world, and there they are— in the minds of our most cherished writers, on the pages of our most precious books. Surely, to be human is to share our lives and hearts with others. To take a chance. To show each other our scars and to help each other heal from them. Because life hurts so much better when we roll with the punches, together, don’t you think? To me, that’s the beauty of literature. And I get the feeling that Michelle De Kretser just might feel the same way.
Recently, a friend asked me if I’d ever experienced a ‘sliding doors’ moment. I didn’t even have to think about what my answer would be. I rattled off a moment from the past where a right turn, instead of the left that I took, would have drastically changed the course of my life.
I suspect that yesterday I experienced another one of these perfectly orchestrated twists of fate. Because maybe, rather than simply blaming poor time management skills, I was actually meant to be late to my first Melbourne Writers Festival event. Maybe I was meant to walk in on John Marsden right at the very moment he was unzipping his skin and revealing the inner scars that have no doubt been etched into the lives of each of his characters.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, John is an Australian author, perhaps most famous for the young adult series, ‘Tomorrow, When the War Began’. I was first introduced to the ‘Tomorrow series’ when I was about sixteen and, as luck would have it, the first four or five books had already been published by then. I gobbled them up with barely the urge to sleep or eat.
But let’s talk about the John Marsden of today. The John Marsden whose talk at the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival I was quite late for, because I’m a goose who just happened to lose track of time on the wrong day.
I scurried out to the garage—car keys jangling, jacket half on, kissing the air around my husband and children—and I was off. I won’t talk too much about the drive there, but I will say the traffic was maddening and added ten more minutes onto my estimated time of arrival. (We should just skim over the moment I flicked the gear stick into reverse, instead of first gear, don’t you think?)
Upon arriving at the venue I apologised to the lovely girl manning the front desk. She smiled and directed me to an empty seat, with sympathetic eyes and very little fuss. One of the marvellous gifts of this writer’s festival of ours are the volunteers. Their passion for books and arts always shows, and how lovely it is to see (especially when you’re very bloody late. Omg.)
As I listened to the conversation unfold between John and his interviewer, I was struck by the quiet nature of the man. John Marsden, not the writer, but the ordinary, imperfect being, baring his soul to a room of strangers.
There was no talk of the books that fed my creative soul throughout my youth—I was clearly late enough to have missed that boat. But I found myself sitting there thinking: perhaps I am hearing exactly what I was meant to hear. Perhaps if I’d been there from the start, I’d have missed the relevance of a writer’s humanity in this whole reading/writing shindig.
Do you believe in fate?
Because, after yesterday’s frantic dash and subsequent late entry to Marsden town, I really think that maybe I do.
I am the proud owner of a cunning new plan. I’ve just unwrapped it, and there it is, slowly spinning on the Lazy Susan of my mind, while I sit wondering why on earth it took me so long to think up such a genius plan.
The thing is this. A few months ago I was gifted a five-session pass to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival. And like the lovely, bouncy book nerd that I am, I opened my arms wide and I ran, across a light-flooded field of daffodils, to my bookshelf, where I found several of the books I’d need to read in preparation for the big event. (Okay, so there were no daffodils. But how wonderful if there was!)
Anyway. The writers festival. The non-existent daffodils. The Bookshelf. Cutting a long story short, I found myself staring into a week of all things bookish, and here I am: the morning of, and It’s struck me.
I must share this with the people of blog land.
Because, for me, this blog has always been about sharing bits and pieces of my life, connecting with like-minded people, smashing our days and our hearts together and seeing what magic comes of it all.
What might happen if I take you to this festival of dreams with me? In what way might I take you—I don’t even know. Knowing me, it’ll likely include the words ‘magic’ or ‘wonder’ or ‘butterflies’. (And If you’re giggling into your hand, you either know me personally or have read a vast majority of my posts so far. Aww, besties. xx)
I’ll keep the events I’m attending a secret until I post about them (because surprises are THE best) but what I will tell you is that there’ll be at least five posts from me over the next seven days. I’ll likely sprinkle a few photos onto my Instagram page along the way to make it a little more fun, also (you’re all very welcome to join me there if you’d like).
So! What do you think of my cunning plan? Let’s do this, is what I think! It’ll be all sorts of wonderful, won’t it? We’ll be bookish besties for an entire week.
I’ll be honest with you. I-am-cranky. There. I’ve said it.
And now I don’t even know what words are going to end up in this sentence because my fingers are just banging away without me even thinking, without me even caring about what comes out of this cranky mind of mine.
In the spirit of maintaining some of the glass half fullness that I believe to be a more accurate representation of me, I thought I might take this opportunity to gather in my little nerdy corner and make the most of this mood. To close my eyes. To breathe. To think all the lovely nerdy thoughts. And to have a little nerdy party.
You guys wanna come? We could hang out in the corner for a while, have a little chat about how language and tone indicate mood in a piece of writing? More specifically, we could analyse some little pieces of cranky me above, and try to dissect and plump up some of my cranky, writerly ways? (Omg. Fun, huh?)
Yes! Let’s DO this!
I suppose there were a few indications at the start of this little post of mine that may have given cranky me away.
Readers (ahem, humans) are creatures of habit, tradition, and pattern
In my experience, the sentence I’ll be honest with you often leads to something negative. So, even though the words themselves might seem kind of innocent—depending on the context in which they are being used—in this case, we all knew what I was really saying. (Hint.I am cranky!)
Example: ‘Omg, Brooke. I’ll be honest with you. These nerdy parties of yours are such mega buzz kills.’ (Sure, you guys. I know you secretly love them. Wink face emoji.)
Impact. Start with a bang
In fact, if I was really serious about bringing a reader into my cranky world, I’d have completely chopped out the I’ll be honest with you, and gotten straight to the point:
I-am-cranky. Boom. Like a punch in the face.
Imagine if that was the first sentence? Right away the reader would have been invested in my story. They’d have been curious. By starting with the words, I-am-cranky…I may have raised their eyebrows, a little. I may have prompted them to say, ‘But Brooke. Tell us why!’
Sentence length and flow
Humans really are creatures of symbolism and expectation, don’t you think? We often learn cool tricks without really even being aware we are doing so. One of those sneakily learned tricks is our ability to translate the flow of language.
You might have noticed my first few sentences were short and snappy, splattered onto the page like spitballs shot from the end of a pen? I suppose it’s dependent on many factors (such as culture or context) but often times, short sentences and singular words can indicate aggression. Anger. Hostility. (Ahem, crankiness.)
And then there’s the opposite side of the cranky coin. Long, rambling, breathy sentences. There’s something like one of those if you go back and have a look at paragraph two: a long sentence snapped in half with a single comma, delicately laced with the odd italic to really hit the cranky ball out to left field. (Btw. If we’re going to be really nerdy about it, bold seems a better way to emphasis angry words, to me. It’s just that italics is so much prettier, don’t you think?)
Well! I hope you enjoyed my little nerdy cranky party. I sure did! In fact, have you noticed? I’m not cranky anymore! Just look at all the joyful exclamation marks a simple nerdy party can bring to this life of mine.
Yes. I really do think I should have more of these nerdy parties. Especially if I ever get the cranks up again.
It’s a phrase that makes my arm hairs stand up every time I say it, every time I think it. Kill your Darlings. Who would do such a thing? Who would even think up such a horrid plan? Well…writers, that’s who. And today— on this most darling day seventeen— I thought it might be nice to chat a little bit about what it means to Kill your Darlings.
I really could not tell you where the phrase Kill your Darlings came from. If I’m to believe the darling brain-dump that is the internet, then, apparently, the phrase was coined by American writer, William Faulkner, who said, ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings.’
Now, you might be thinking: Gee whizz, Brooke. That was a man with some real anger issues. Well…yeah. You may be right (because you know how much I love words, and who on earth would put the words ‘kill’ and ‘darling’ in the same sentence! Omg. I can’t even.)
But. The whole idea behind his grizzly phrase— I totally get it. And it really is a necessary evil when it comes to crafting a story that will make both writers and readers all shiny and jolly inside.
Traditionally, the phrase Kill your Darlings means that, in order to make your work great, you will need to leave your ego at the door. Ego is a me thing, after all, not a we thing (and books and stories should be all about we things, don’t you think?) That means smothering the ego. Deleting any sentences, paragraphs or words that make you smile but probably no one else.
When I’m writing, my little ego minions often step in with a standing ovation, a spirit-fed stoke of my writerly fire. And these tiny little ego minions…well, I kind of think they’re awesome. Because when they do come at me with their sweet words of encouragement—their little yellow arms waving giant pom-poms to celebrate all my wonderful— that’s when I know: this little ego fed darling just may need to meet the trash can. I flag it. And then, more often than not, I kill it.
I also have a wider idea of what the phrase Kill your Darlings might mean. Yes, I absolutely agree that the ego fed darlings of my work must be killed from time-to-time, particularly if they jar with the story, character or voice. But I also think the phrase is a good one to remember during the overall editing process—the finished draft is done and now, like Dumbledore’s Phoenix, it must die to become beautiful, once again. Unnecessary words must be cut and ego fed sentences must be well and truly buried, because in writing…less really does seem to be more.
I know, I know. Why would you do something so vicious to one of your darlings? How could killing it possibly make things better? Well. Here’s where I admit the truth. I don’t know how that magic works. All I know is that whenever I Kill my Darlings…they become better.
It’s good to see you! Thanks for coming, by the way. No one else will be attending the party, sadly. Some were too shy to come. The rest: burning the candle at both ends, they said. Too busy for a party, they said. So that leaves…you. And me.
But, hey, that’s okay! When I really think about it I’m thrilled no one else is coming. I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Now seems like the perfect time. (Wait, do I hear crickets?)
Oh, sorry! How rude of me, please: take a seat.
Now. Writerly Me. I’ll start with a little story about how the two of us met.
When I first began writing creatively— you were there, humming away under my skin; a cute little engine you were, pumping ideas through me and onto those frightening white pages. So, yes. I knew you were there.
But I didn’t really know you then, did I? I didn’t recognise you, or the role you played in my writing. Luckily, that didn’t matter because you knew me. And you knew I needed your help to write. So, you kept coming back. Thank goodness.
The more stories I wrote, the clearer your voice became. You spoke for me: all I had to do was turn up at the desk and write what you told me to. In fact, you insisted.
‘Please,’ you said to me. ‘Just turn up. Write. Do nothing else.’ Remember that? You were pretty adamant about that part. (How’s your bum feeling, by the way? Sorry. These chairs are not okay.)
Anyway, you told me to stop thinking so much. Thinking does not belong in the world of pure imagination, you said. This was something I’d learnt the hard way. So much staring at the blank page; so much sifting through words, choosing only those that were pretty, or important, or…right.
Writerly Me, I think I finally get it. There is no right, is there? I will never know what kind of books Tom, or Jenny, or Joe Reader like. But I do know what kind of books I like. It’s quite simple, really. If the words that land on my page feel like warm chocolate milk to me, chances are those very words will feel like warm chocolate milk to someone else. (What? No, you can’t have a warm chocolate milk! This is still a party, you know.)
Trust that the magic will happen. You gave me those words, didn’t you? Yes. I thought so. You were spot on, there. Writing—creating anything, for that matter—is a kind of magic. So when I’m scared to face that blank page again, or when I wonder if all my previous stories were just one great big fluke, I think of you. I think of that magic wand of yours, how you flap it about and magic up a story, how you help me sprinkle that same magic all over the page.
Thank you, Writerly Self. No, really. Thank you. For coming to the party. For reminding me to trust in your magic. All writers are different, you taught me that. And although thinking and planning may belong at some other writer’s desk…they don’t belong at mine.