I thought I’d talk more about what informs my writing with this post. Apologies in advance for the length of it. I started this piece last year, but never got around to posting it for various reasons. I thought long and hard about my intentions with this blog. Should I brand myself and go in one particular direction? Do I just write about writing? Do I talk about my feelings and yucky stuff like that or do I babble about whatever takes my fancy? In the end I decided that, apart from this piece, the blog will be about babbling, about topics I find interesting and which I hope most people will find interesting too. It will be about the writing life, about writers generally and about the books they write and everything in between. It will also be an attempt at finding my voice; putting myself on terms, so to speak. I’m forcing my procrastinating tendencies to move out of the way or get shoved.
So, How Do I Start?
In “A Moveable Feast” Ernest Hemingway said you should begin by writing one true sentence (at a time). In fact, he elaborated: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” This was his advice to himself to help kickstart a story if he had trouble starting it. One true sentence, devoid of any bullshit and ornamental fakery. It applies to any writing, I think. Writing the truest sentence you know encompasses not only factual truth, but emotional truth also, and in conveying that truth the words you use must not be false or self-serving. Writing the truest sentence means taking the writer’s ego out of the equation, replacing it with a voice that serves the story and only the story. This is my understanding of what Hemingway meant and I’m comfortable with the analysis.
I’m no Hemingway. He was a beast. It will take me many years of writing and reading to even consider myself worthy of his shadow and even then, I wouldn’t be. In writing this post where I talk about myself, I tried to apply his principle and I did it in the truest way I could. Make no mistake, good writing requires a lot of skill, but writing the truest sentence you can requires only that you do your best with what you have, and to do it honestly while accepting that you still need to learn more. You never stop studying the craft of writing. Knowledge isn’t static and there is good news in that, because your skill level – your knowledge – is constantly evolving if you pay it enough attention.
I considered how much I should say, how I should say it, and what I should omit. I thought of all of this and decided to start writing and stop only when it felt finished. I’ve not stretched the truth and what I’ve written here comes from me, from a place in me not often visited. It is a risk, I know, exposing so much of myself to an unknown world, but there is an emotional truth in doing so and writing the truest sentence sometimes requires a sacrifice so that the story may be honest.
Once Were Writing…
I was 12 when I wrote my first short story. My teacher asked us to submit a story no longer than one page. I gave her eight pages. The plot, if you can call it that, involved a soldier in Vietnam out on patrol who is called back to protect his base from enemy attack. Having him chase back to camp to defend it against a “horde” of terrorists certainly wasn’t a deep story and it had no political message. It couldn’t have. I was only 12 and didn’t even know why there was a war in Vietnam. In my young mind it was perfectly acceptable for my hero to patrol the jungles of Vietnam alone in a jeep. In those eight pages he drove over and through “bad guys” while mowing down the ones left standing with his “machine gun”. He crashed through walls made of bamboo and forced his way in amidst enemy gunfire and explosions. Nothing could stop my hero and his trusty jeep. Adjectives were aplenty: bloody mess, bloody pulp, bloody tangled mess, and I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the carnage left in his wake, or rather, my vision of it. To keep the story “grounded” I allowed my hero to get wounded a couple of times. He survived and received a medal for bravery and the pretty nurse who attended him. She gave him a kiss and I thought it was hardcore because it was a full-lipped kiss. Back then, and at that age, I was still clueless when it came to sex and didn’t have an inkling of its true power, though a fascination with breasts had already started to manifest itself. It was a confusing time, but then, who wasn’t confused at that age during the eighties.
For my efforts I received an A+ and discovered I loved writing and so I wrote more. I plotted hundreds of stories on paper, even illustrated them, using every scrap of paper my grubby hands could get hold of. It started with stick figures and little dialogue balloons. The plot — usually as thin as the stick figures themselves — involved a good guy being chased by bad guys. It would normally include a cliff of some sort and almost always a tentacled monster waiting at the bottom.
My stick figures evolved over time and matured into muscle-bound warriors and scantily clad vixens. My cliffs became mountains and castles, spaceships and planets, and underwater kingdoms. I read as many comic books as I read paperbacks. I don’t remember everything I read back then, but it included Tarzan, Conan, John Carter, Doc Savage, and Mack Bolan, even the Hardy Boys. I also didn’t stick to one genre, but moved from sci-fi to Westerns to fantasy to crime to whatever I was in the mood for. I consumed comics and books. Sometimes to the detriment of my schoolwork. This over-indulgence came partly as a result of my surroundings and so I preferred living in the worlds created by my literary heroes. My teachers complained that I couldn’t always separate reality from fantasy, but they were wrong. I could, I just didn’t want to. The stories I read and the stories I wrote were my means of escape.
My dad introduced me to my literary heroes. He got me reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and Louis L’Amour and a dozen others. He taught me the difference between religion and faith, about honour and bravery, and about justice and injustice. He explained how grownups can be wrong a lot of the time and unfair. His advice helped me define my existence, it placed things into perspective for me, but most importantly, it gave me the building blocks I needed for living normally in an abnormal world. I came to understand that “normal” can be something internal, something mobile that you take with you wherever you go. The heroes in the books I read believed in honor. They were brave and loyal and I wanted to be like them and the heroes I created reflected that.
A Slippery Soapbox…
Living a normal life, in the truest sense of the word, is a gift, not an entitlement. There are too many people in this world who are suffering for any one person to feel entitled. I understood then as I do now, that the idea or concept of a “normal life” is a pipe dream for a large number of people in the world. What can be considered “normal” is relative and will always differ from country to country, from culture to culture, even from person to person. If you equate “normal” with freedom, then normal becomes extraordinary.
At date of writing this post, 59 countries are still involved in wars worldwide and there are no signs that these conflicts will end anytime soon. Consider the conflict currently in Syria where it was reported that children were used as human shields on government tanks. How can this still happen today and why are we allowing it? Wars are not the only freedom killer. Economic equality is enjoyed by far fewer people than we would like to acknowledge. The State of World Liberty Project tested 159 countries and judged them on individual freedom, economic freedom, and government size and taxation, and gave an overall rating of 56.9 out of a 100. The United States and New Zealand received ratings of 81.96 and 81.24, respectively. Not the highest, but in the top ten. The countries on the bottom of the list with ratings less than 30, were the usual suspects: Zimbabwe, Cuba, North Korea, Libya etc. The point I’m so laboriously trying to make here is that freedom and normalcy in all its guises are not so freely available everywhere. We tend to take our freedoms for granted.
I certainly did when, as a child, I wanted a “normal life”. My life was already better than most. I just didn’t understand it then. I had opportunity to read books — a luxury I took for granted. It is indeed an extraordinary life if you are able to afford books and still get time to read them and get lost in the worlds they create. In those countries where the enjoyment of reading is considered trivial with all the violence and suffering that occupies daily life, the real loss is hope. Author Christopher Morley said: “When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life“.
I believe that.
Although I may have wanted a normal life, my wish for a better life stemmed from ideas generated by my reading. Reading made me question my surroundings, my government, the everyday-violence. It made me question my life and the false values propagated by those in power. Reading gave me hope. Fate may have put me where I was, but my blessings included a dad who appreciated the written word and who understood its power and magic and made sure I did too. He clarified my confusion and instilled in me a sense of honour — an honour I could relate to because of the stories I read. Though he was part of my life for a short while only before sickness took him, he was there when it mattered the most, when I needed him the most. I will forever be thankful for that. From the ashes of a selfish confused boy, rose a man who fiercely opposes that which threatens equality and justice. I may joke about it sometimes, but my eventual career as a lawyer, in retrospect, appears to have been inevitable.
A Medley Of Happenings And Writing Off Writing...
During a brief period in High school I wanted to be a comic artist, but that didn’t pan out for various reasons. Years later I would create my own serial character for a small-town newspaper. That was fun, but the newspaper folded after three issues and with it, my very brief career as a cartoonist. For a fleeting while there I also considered a career as a reporter, even going so far as to work for a national newspaper, but that was over and done with as quickly as you can blink twice with one eye.
After High school I ended up going to the army for a year. I got fit, learned how to shoot a variety of firearms, use hand grenades, set mines and other explosives, and dig trenches. Admittedly, some parts I enjoyed very much, but for the most, it was the longest 12 months of my life. Going through military training taught me a lot about myself. There were times when I wanted to give up, when I thought I couldn’t go on, where my lungs were at bursting point and I’m so out of breath it felt like I was inhaling sandpaper. Muscles got all twisted up and knotted with exhaustion and didn’t function right. This endurance training continued until it reached a stage where you’re so completely exhausted, so dehydrated, your body stops producing sweat and goosebumps start appearing on your skin, which feels strange, because your whole body burns like a furnace inside. But, I endured. The trainers knew what the human body was capable of and capitalised on it.
After spending a year in the army I had to get away from the discipline and limitations of a constraint life and ended up working on a kibbutz in Israel. I met a lot of people from different countries, made lots of friends and learned a lot about life, woman and vodka. I loved the experience and the freedom was so completely different to what I was used to, I dove headlong into it, enjoying a wonderful year of carnal bliss. This turned out to be the shortest 12 months of my life.
After I got back I still found it difficult to settle down. I wandered aimlessly from one dead end job to another, always looking for something more, something else. The problem was that I didn’t know what. I had started writing while in Israel and wanted to continue, but alas, it didn’t take long for my muse to leave again. I had trouble finishing the projects I started. I began writing poetry which served as a quick release of sorts, though writing one sometimes took days to complete. With my muse gone, I wanted to travel again and I found a job as a travelling salesman in Namibia and Zimbabwe. Not the safest thing to do, but it turned out exciting enough, especially Zimbabwe where we almost got shot by Mugabe’s soldiers the first night we were there. We had gotten lost after leaving a club in Harare and ended up almost crashing into the boom gates that closed off the street that lead to Mugabe’s house. It didn’t help that we were slightly inebriated. At least now I can write with authority on how it feels to have an AK-47 stuck in your face or have one of those mounted light machine guns pointed at you. Quite sobering.
The rest of the sales tour paled in comparison with that first night, but I was on fire and had started a story about an alcoholic assassin and his battle with sobriety. I returned to South Africa and continued to write, starting maybe a dozen novels and short stories, but the fire soon grew smaller leaving a tepid little flame, barely warm enough to give off a glow. I wrote sporadically while continuing to move from job to job, working as a leasing agent here, a waiter there, even ended up in a hippie-style village creating stained glass terrariums (don’t ask). Somewhere during this period it must have dawned on me that maybe I wasn’t a real writer. That maybe I liked the idea of writing more than the act itself or maybe I was just not good enough. The stuff I had written by then sucked lemons. I had lost confidence in my ability to write. But the truth was, I didn’t take my writing serious enough. If I had, I would have worked harder, written more and honed my skill further. I would have persisted. By not taking my writing serious, I have insulted my muse and she had abandoned me.
Lawyering Up And Magicking Down…
The events leading up to my decision to study law are interesting and odd enough, and maybe I will talk about it one day, but the idea of a legal career had been percolating for a number of years, though I never gave it any headline attention. I enjoyed law school and I enjoyed practicing law. There is something nobel to the profession from an idealistic point of view. I was able to help people and seeing what you do bring change to a stranger’s life, no matter how small, is satisfying. Not the smug kind, but a happiness that is untainted by ego.
Preparing affidavits and writing closing arguments were the closest I came to creative writing during my years as a lawyer. I had stopped drawing and writing all together. But thankfully, I never stopped reading. I still consumed books by the truckloads and my interests now included A.J. Quinnell, Robert B. Parker, Mickey Spillane, John Grisham, Scott Turrow, Robert Harris, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Hammond Innes, Desmond Bagley, Ken Follett, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman Morris West, Ed Greenwood, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist and so on and so forth. The list will be a really long one if I have to list everyone I read.
Time flew. A decade went by. My love for the written word never subsided and in the back of my mind in a small little dark room plans were being hatched for my return to writing. I still longed for it, but I tried not to think about it, focussing instead on running my law practice. In the meantime, I met the woman of my dreams and she magicked me into marrying her and to this day I remain under her spell. She gave me two awesome children. Children have a way of taking your frame of reference and using it as a rattle. The result is a complete rearrangement of priorities, with ego dropping all the way down to the bottom. Life can’t be more perfect. Absent death, nothing brings life into perspective more tersely than having children. They become your main concern, your main obsession.
My life thus far cannot be called an uneventful one. I’ve worked in some strange places and enjoyed exciting adventures. There is some sadness in looking back on one’s life, sadness only in that time moves on, it bears forward without stopping and if you don’t recap, you might discover that you’ve been robbed of some of your memories. So it is good to take stock every now and again. Writing this piece certainly helped. It made me think back to the details I’ve neglected, to the memories I’ve not visited in a while.
Concluding This Mess And Perving At The Muse…
I did not intend this to read like a damn memoir or be this long, I apologise. The idea was to provide some background to my motivation for, and struggles with, writing and to provide some context to my passion for books, and to do it in a humble, sobering way without ornamental fakery.
Reading has been part of most of my life. I love books. It is a love that demands sharing and discussion. It demands celebration. There is something divine about an arrangement of words that can draw emotion out of a reader, whether it is anger or sadness, joy or frustration. A good book can leave you satisfied and your thoughts preoccupied long after you finished it. It is a gift to tell a story in such a convincing way that people would celebrate you for it, for making them fall in love with your characters and for making them want more. To enthrall readers with your words is an art and the ability to do that truly, is something to aspire to.
After years of aimless misdirection in which I had at least tried to live life I am now happily settled. Though I carry with me old scars and dull aches, a consequence of rolling with the punches that life throws at you, I’ve attained a median of maturity that still hasn’t lost its belief in dreams and magical worlds where it is perfectly plausible for a warrior to fight a giant and a dragon with only a short sword and a magical shield, where love can conquer a kingdom and the embittered princess that rules it, or where honour and bravery are still alive and kicking evil’s butt.
Thus, today’s post is about what will be, not what could have been. It’s about the promise of a good story, about the gift of hope it brings and the endless possibilities of tomorrow. I’ve taken a year off to write and hone my skill. I will continue to write even if that old enemy of mine tells me to stop. I will continue to write even if my confidence fails and wants to bail on me. I will keep writing, no matter what. One true sentence at a time. My muse is back. She is stronger than ever and there is a overbearingness to her that I hadn’t notice before. She is showing a lot of cleavage and it is hard to ignore her.
4 thoughts on “The Education of An Aimless Man”
Great post. So much of it could have been said of me. Very introspective.
Thanks, Doug. In writing Seals I had to break through a barrier that had been hardened and made durable by years of crap. I had to head-butt my way through. It helped that my muse is flaunting her assets.