On Writing – What Really Matters

On writing. Something like this...

I used to be famous for posting things on Twitter such as “You should be writing” and “Get off Twitter and write.” I’m sorry to do a complete about-turn, change my tune and put down the whip that I loved to crack but that’s not my mantra anymore. Not since Covid-19 hit. My mantra now is “Get off Twitter and tell someone you love them.” Nothing like a pandemic to bring home what’s truly important. In Stephen King’s rather wonderful book on writing called – you guessed it – On Writing, he speaks about moving his desk to the corner of the room.

When he got so outrageously successful, as well as becoming an alcoholic and a drug addict, he moved his new fancy desk into the centre of the loft conversion and began to think he was pretty special. That is until his family staged an intervention and told him that actually he was a bit of an asshole. He quit the booze and the drugs and moved his desk back to the corner of the room where it belonged.

“Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Stephen King On Writing.
Fetching Water
Fetching Water

Perhaps you don’t even have a desk or an office and work in coffee shops, the same thing applies – don’t let your writing (or whatever work you do) take centre stage because guess what? It’s really not that important (unless you are a technician who works for Joburg Water. Then your work is Very Important. We are now on day two of no water in our suburb ☹)

I am a self-confessed workaholic, and a people pleaser and it’s something I have to keep in check otherwise I would literally never take a break. I have worked over weekends for as long as I can remember – it is truly strange for me to take an entire weekend off. I was always saying I would do things when I had a moment – trouble is that both your health and your family’s needs cannot be put off until you have a moment. And now, with Covid, we’re not sure if we will have THAT moment, all we have is THIS moment, so best not to put the important stuff off. I was always pretty good about being there for my family, but my health not so much.

Cue the pandemic and suddenly Pammy was getting her (increasingly voluptuous) ass off Twitter and walking three times a day.

Obviously, I can’t afford to turn down work, not in the current economic situation, none of us can. I am working six days a week, sometimes seven but I’ve made an important mental shift. Screenwriting and editing deadlines need to be met both daily and weekly, but beyond that whether this novel I’m writing gets finished this year or next year doesn’t matter. I used to be evangelical about everyone sticking to their deadlines and writing every day, my feeling now is that you should get out there and live your lives.

Perhaps that’s easy for me to say because I have had books published, but I suspect for all of us, our work would be a lot better if we didn’t take ourselves and our writing quite so seriously, if we rediscovered the joy of writing. I’ve been working on a joint project with three other authors, and I cannot tell you how the words just FLOW and what a happy time I’ve had, both working on the book and collaborating with this fabulous group of women.

Being dramatic on a Zoom call. Notice the worn out keyboard...
Being dramatic on a Zoom call. Notice the worn out keyboard…

I never imagined a time when I would find it difficult to read, unable to concentrate on a book, finding no joy in the new books of my favourite authors (it really is me, not them) and not writing at least 5000 words a week on a new book. Well, that’s what Covid-19 has done. And I guess it’s made me step back and focus on what really matters and although books have always been a big part of my life, human connection is what I crave now more than ever.

Three books that I have managed to read have brought all of this home to me.
Autopsy by local forensic pathologist Ryan Blumenthal
Autopsy by local forensic pathologist Ryan Blumenthal

The first one: Julie Andrews’ latest memoir Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years. No, I have no idea why I bought it either. I mean I saw Dame Jules on a rerun of the Graham Norton show, all of a sudden I started singing “I am sixteen going on seventeen” into an empty beer bottle (a very empty beer bottle) and hey presto I had downloaded the book on my kindle and I started reading it.

What did I learn from the book? That the pressures of being in the creative industries only increase with success, so if as writers it’s fame and fortune we’re after, we really shouldn’t bother, it doesn’t sound like that much fun.

Then I started reading Autopsy by local forensic pathologist, Ryan Blumenthal. He speaks about people not knowing that it’s their last day on earth, he can still smell the perfume on corpses who were out for the evening. The poignancy of that hit me.

And finally I read this little book on Kindle called It’s Not About You, where the author, Tom Rath (who has a life threatening disease) mentions how the best most fulfilling life is one of service, and that knowing when you’re about to pop off is no bad thing as it makes you appreciate every day.

That’s what has become so important to me during this time is to make sure that I am making a difference.

And no, not in any grand way. In my little interactions every day, starting with my family.

  • Have I spoken to them with kindness?
  • Did I really listen or was I so busy on my phone (most likely on Twitter) that I did not hear them?
  • Have I treated a writer/student with kindness even though they did not apply my notes, asked the same questions fifty-seven times and handed their script in late?
  • Did I speak with kindness to the people from Joburg Water? Or did I make a special trip down to where they have dug up a quarter of the suburb to hurl objects and abuse at them? (I really, really didn’t. I wanted to, but I didn’t.)

The list goes on, and you can see I’m not going to be winning any great humanitarian awards here. But if I think about how one cross interaction with someone can ruin my day, I feel like a kind word can go a long way to making the world a better place. I can remember being in a meeting once and I made a joke and the executive producer told me to ‘shut up’ and not in a jokey way. No, in a real STFU way. This happened years ago but I can still feel the humiliation of that moment like it was yesterday. I doubt he would even remember it.

On Writing
On Writing
One thing meditation has taught me is that kindness starts with yourself.

If you are not kind to yourself, you cannot be kind to anyone else. So be aware of that nasty, judgmental voice in your head that I spoke about last week (mine sounds like Sister Veneranda – a fiercesome nun who taught me in grade 6 who would grab your ear with her fingernails and attempt to give you a new piercing). Don’t let your inner voice sound like Sister Veneranda, change the way you speak to yourself.

I realise that once this pandemic is over – and I know it doesn’t feel like it – but one day it WILL be over, I will once again plunge myself headfirst into my bookish community and start yelling at people to get off Twitter and write, but I think that like Steve King, my desk will no longer be in the centre of the room. Being a writer will not be the thing I value most about myself, or the thing I’m proudest of. I hope that at the end of this, I will have proved to be a good person, that I get the badge for “person we enjoyed being in lockdown with” and someone whose words – above all else – brought joy and comfort to people when they needed it the most.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.” Stephen King On Writing
Broadchurch Series

Series recommendation: Broadchurch. Good old-style Brit murder mystery with the utterly fabulous Olivia Coleman. Lord, but that woman can ACT! It’s an oldie but a goodie with such a twist at the end. Wowza. I’m not sure why we never watched it before but we’ve been gobbling it up.

Thanks to Amy Heydenrych for the recommendation and may I recommend Amy’s books: Shame On You and The Pact. They are both unputdownable psychological thrillers – if you haven’t yet read them, you’re in for a treat. Happy reading! xxx

On Writing. Books by Amy Heydenrych
Books by Amy Heydenrych