Why Do I Write?

“Because I have to,” Joy Williams points out has become the fashionable response to that question of late.
But you know what? I write because I want to. Because I love it. Yes, sometimes I start writing and I cannot stop until the story in me has been released but ultimately I get a thrill out of writing. And I do not think there is anything wrong with saying that.

Are you not a true writer unless you have to write? No. You might be a passionate writer, a dedicated writer or even a paid writer (hence why you have to do it).

I often don’t feel like writing – some days it’s just not there. I can force myself to write and usually push out some work or story, but more often than not it isn’t anything special (that’s what editing is for).

There are even times when I set aside time to write and just can’t do it. Instead I work on research (for articles) or character/plot development (for fiction) and sometimes that is enough to make me feel like I’ve accomplished something. Other times I simply have to read something motivating or inspiring.

Having battled (and still managing) depression I can say that it is ok to not want to write sometimes but when you get that

But when inspiration strikes – when I want to write – wow! Watch me go!

Specialisation Anxiety

In the last few months I have had some success writing for parenting publications. When I first embarked on my journalism career I was not yet a parent, but it was on the horizon, and writing while the kids were at home was certainly in my plan. Specialising in parenting however was not. Of course, the advice write what you know abounds, and so I have found myself putting parenting to the front of my biography.

I do know parenting. I am a mother – I live it every day. Since becoming a freelance writer my brain has become an ideas generator for pitches, experiments, philosophies; all in the name of an article or blog post. And so I now find myself examining every little thing I do, to see if it is worthy of revealing to the public.

It is quite exhausting.

We are taught to specialise for the advantage it brings to our writing. It can be easier to be an expert in a segment than to do the extensive research required in a generalist approach. Publications will approach you for article commissions. Write in a field you already know something about so you don’t have to start from scratch.

But there are the disadvantages in specialising. You live that category. Even when you are ‘off’ you are still thinking about it, finding stories about it in the minutiae of life. When you specialise in something as personal as your own parenting, it is an exercise in psychoanalysis.

Fight the Urge

I had a nice little moment yesterday. I was ‘playing’ with my two year old in the back yard – and by that I mean he was playing and I was supervising – when I sat down next to him at the dirt pile and started digging with one of his excavators. I think we would have been there for about 15 minutes before I realised what I nice time I was having. It’s not often we get to actually play together; he’s still at the age where he wants constant interaction. But I sat there doing my own thing, digging down through the earth and piling it up next to me. Feeling the late afternoon breeze on my skin. The trees gently rustling and birds singing above us. And the smell! It had only rained the night before so the scent was incredibly rich. I looked over at my son and saw the intense concentration on his face. He looked up at me, smiled, and went back to what he was doing. It was a perfect moment in time.

And you know what I thought? I should get the camera.

No way, I was going to enjoy this one. But I wrestled with the thought. I found myself hoping my husband would see us out the window and have the same thought, but he never came. It took a huge amount of self control but I forced myself to forget about the picturesque scene and actually feel it. This one’s for the memory bank.

Another Writing-With-Kids Tip

When I went back to work part-time I found a little more time to write thanks to the 40 minute bus trip each way. I took up freewriting.

My days at home with a 12-22 month old were still exhausting and he required my constant attention and entertainment. I did write before bed on occasion but it ate into time with my husband that I was reluctant to give up. And my sleep. I don’t function well on reduced sleep.

As he approached his second birthday my son increased the amount he can entertain himself for. It took me a few weeks to see this opportunity but I have now leapt on it.

Mr-Almost-Two loves the backyard. So I’ve set myself up a cosy little corner under the tree with a full view of the backyard and rear of the house. It’s just a plastic chair next to his sandpit but it allows me to drink tea, scribble in my notebook , stick a spade in the sand, be on hand to give out cuddles and break up the toddler-cat wrestling matches.

I’ve stopped carrying my phone around with me and instead have my moleskine and pen tucked in my back pocket (pants with large pockets are a must). I don’t use a fancy pen or my favourite mug because I know there is a chance they will end up in the sandpit. You will often see me standing to write as my son tries to ‘water’ me.

I could say it’s too difficult. But it’s a lot easier than when you have a four month old.

The Pursuit of Happiness (for Introverts)

I recently watched Happy, the social documentary by Roko Belic. As the natural scientist that I am, I couldn’t help but focus on the statistics. It gathered various studies done on human happiness and wellbeing and posited the following:

Our happiness is determined by (approx.)

  • 50% Genetic Predisposition
  • 40% What We Do
  • 10% Our Environment

Genetically, some of us have a higher baseline of happiness that we sit on once external influences are removed. That’s something we can’t change.

But research has shown that approximately 40% of our happiness is able to be dictated by ourselves. The pursuit of happiness can be the biggest single factor in achieving it.

I think I am predisposed to a natural low state of happiness. It is harder for me to find stability. As an introvert it is perhaps a little trickier to pursue happiness according to the guidelines, as many of the proven happiness boosting activities are social-based and anxiety-inducing but it’s a matter of finding the right ones.

-Experiencing flow and doing something you’re good at (ie. Get a hobby!)

-Exercise and meditation (even a little can help)

-Contributing to someone else’s happiness (volunteering is a great way to do this)

-Reflection and practising gratitude (keeping a journal or using Instagram #gratitude)

As a freelancer I have found the shut-in nature of my job does lead to feelings of isolation, even when I prefer it that way. Going out of my way to look after my mental health can be a real effort sometimes but the side effects can be quite debilitating, for both me and my family.

Rather than the usual advice of ‘get out more!’ I found this documentary incredibly helpful and motivating.

Lessons on NaNoWriMo 2013

NaNoWriMo has not run to my expectations this year. It was my second actual attempt at it and this year I had a plan – a plot, a scene structure and some character outlines thanks to my creative writing course and the motivation it gave me.

I had planned to write 2000 words on my designated writing days and 500 on the other days.

The first two days (‘other’ days) I had my writing time – after the kiddo had gone to bed – and I struggled to get to 200. The next two days I didn’t get anything down.

On one of my writing days I did a bit more plotting and character development but no writing. And I had a few hours on the weekend when Junior went out with his grandparents but I chose to watch a movie with my husband instead.

I think Nano is perhaps too intimidating. I had innocently set myself the goal of simply writing every day with a word count as a guide but I think my current life (read: toddler with sleep problems) doesn’t allow me to write daily. Even if it did I don’t know if my brain works like that.

Why didn’t I write on my writing days? I don’t know. I mean, I did some work writing but maybe the failure of my Nano effort so early has dampened my enthusiasm. Reading all the comments of people in my Nano group who are doing so well has made me feel bad – not encouraged me.

Is NaNoWriMo for the more established writer, someone who at least knows how she works best? I thought it was about the challenge but maybe it is too soon after all.

I often have the thought that forcing it out doesn’t do my writing justice. Of course I have trouble with motivation but this may not be the way to do it.

On Joss Whedon as a Feminist

Clem Bastow wrote a piece criticising Joss Whedon’s identity as a feminist.

Disclaimer: I am a fan of Joss Whedon’s work. Simply by having Whedon’s name attached to it, a movie or TV show has now become 75% more attractive to me.

Whedon claims that gender equality is a natural state and that the concept of oppression of women is imposed upon us as a society. He says this is not what feminists are teaching us; that they are teaching us we enter the world already holding such beliefs. Bastow disagrees with Whedon, citing the hundreds of years of the downtrodden (women, religions, homosexuals) fighting for their liberation – prove that oppression is indeed a natural behaviour.

I must disagree. How is equality NOT a natural state? An observation of the local playground will show you babies and toddlers acting without prejudice. Do boys naturally quash the desires of girls? Well actually they do – once they are a little older and have had the influences of family, caregivers and yes (!) the media make their mark upon them.

Bastow goes on point out that Whedon wants more female superheroes on the big screen, and asks him to do something about it.

Now let’s just break this down. Whedon has spent the majority of his career working in TV. It is only recently that he has started working on movies, namely Serenity (a follow up to his cancelled TV series Firefly); Cabin in the Woods; The Avengers and the poorly-distributed Much Ado About Nothing. When he has worked in movies he has regularly had his scripts thrown out for his more ‘daring’ work.

Now about his TV work. You have heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yes? If that isn’t a strong female lead then I’m not sure what is.

He does write very strong female characters. Do they have to be the lead? Case in point: Kaylee from Firefly/Serenity. Even as a soft and emotional female she shows strength as the ship’s mechanic. The crew rely on her and clearly respect her competence as someone who knows her sh*t when it comes to sky boats.

My question is, isn’t feminism about equality – not about women being stronger or better?

I have found in Whedon’s productions that his cast are so well-written that although there may be a commonly-agreed main character, each of the others stand so well on their own. Whedon’s strength is the ensemble cast. Given that, he has challenged the typecast gender roles. Tough chicks, sensitive guys, geeky girls, sexy men – all roles that could easily go both ways in his productions and really not change the story at all.

When I find the character that I latch onto for myself (and with Whedon, I always do) I experience the action in their shoes regardless of gender. That to me proves that Whedon is a feminist (or whatever he wants to call it). He doesn’t write males or females – he writes characters.

Unfortunately the management machine that Bastow referred to have not been happy with Whedon’s efforts and he has regularly had to fight to get his way. Thankfully his ability to connect with audiences is finally being recognised and he is being given more opportunities and greater control over his productions.

So thank you Joss Whedon for being a Noted Male Feminist of the 21st Century. We may want to fight for ourselves but we need men to fight for us too.

Life without Internet

Last month my home internet was disconnected for 18 days. Eighteen days.

I am a home-based freelancer. I rely on my home internet connection. Earlier this year I reduced my mobile data limit because I barely used it. Last month I used it up in a matter of days, even with rationing. I took my wi-fi only iPad (3G not necessary around here) to the library for work and used the public PCs but with time and content restrictions there is only so much you can do away from home.

It was nights and the days I was at home with my son that I really noticed it. I still picked up my phone to check updates and remembered – no internet.

And then something started to happen. I stopped caring about Instagram updates. About people’s kids and renovations and weekend plans on Facebook. The times I had access and checked the social accounts for a few minutes, I found myself scrolling through the news with boredom.

I did miss my news source, Twitter. Mainstream news runs so much slower and I am able to find information on the things I am actually interested in through my Twitter contacts.

It was actually quite nice being able to leave my phone behind and play with my son without the nagging in the back of my head that I was missing out. I stopped taking carefully set up photos for future uploading, and stopped mentally composing status posts.

I felt less stressed, a nice change from the constant anxiety I live with.

I know this has been written about by many people covering myriad topics and although I have found the subject interesting I have never really taken it to heart. Experiencing it for myself I was able to see the benefits in switching off.

I did however feel nervous. I was disconnected. It was a huge inconvenience in terms of work and every day life – I rely so much on being able to look up something I don’t know.

Once the internet was reconnected I went to my old sites and felt empty. There was new content but I didn’t care. There was nothing there for me. Nothing had changed on Facebook. So I changed my habits. I became involved in an online writing group. I started reading that science news site I’ve been meaning to check out. I’ve become aware of when I am wasting time online, and I stop what I’m doing immediately.

Maybe a forced detox was good for me.

BWF: Real Science and Science Fiction

The standout panel for the festival was a meeting of science fiction authors and science communicators, discussing the impact the two have upon each other.

Are scientists influenced by science fiction? Of course! Was the resounding answer. How many desks at NASA, CERN and some of our other greatest scientific facilities would have a TARDIS, Klingon Bird of Prey or Tie-Fighter sitting on them? How many computer and mobile phone engineers would have been the early-day communicators used in Star Trek and William Gibson’s novels and dreamed about building their own?

Science fiction gives scientists a warrant to think big, says science journalist and non-fiction author Antony Fenell (sp).

But how much does writing science fiction rely on an understanding of and currency with scientific research? Not that much, say the authors.

Because science fiction is about social change.

A book about flying cars and hologrammatic gadgets might be interesting for a little while, but it is the people engaging with their environment that holds a reader.

In this post-capitalist society it may be difficult to see where we are headed. We have had religious, artistic, educational, industrial and economic revolutions. We have had world wars – are we ever going to see another one? It seems like the world is simply focused on economy, and even that isn’t working. What are we going to do – just keep upgrading out iPhones?

The speakers urged us to move on from the current phase science fiction is in of destruction and apocalypse and to look to what the next big social change will be. This makes for the most compelling material as both a writer and a reader.

Science at BWF

This year at the Brisbane Writers Festival there were a number of sessions centred around the discussion of science and its communication to the public.

I am not a scientist. My background in the field finishes at high school and picks up again with the not-so-factual field of science fiction.

But I love science. I would much rather read about the latest development in the lab than what’s happening in Hollywood.

One of my favourite science communicators Dr Karl Kruszelnicki gave his usual energetic presentation of facts interspersed with some excellent tips for writers. His crusade, he says, is to fight the forces of ignorance. To liberate people from what holds them back. This is the very reason I want to write about science despite my lacking background.

The approach is simple. You need to be able to tell your idea to the slightly inebriated guy at the pub. If he is still interested, you have a story.

Quirky stories are best – as the media tend to only be interested in breakthroughs or weird science – and this is where you can sneak in some informative material.

However he warned against perpetuating incorrect or misinformed sources. Google Scholar is the bible. If you can’t go to the original source, don’t write the story. It is also a good idea to wait for experts to respond to the findings; peer review is crucial.

Dr Karl’s story formula:

Say something amazing.

Present analysis.

Follow with the punchline.