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On Writing

It is with some trepidation that I confront my task of writing this week’s blog. As you can see from the title, I have decided to expound on writing. Whilst I have co-authored a couple of books and written one outright, I won’t mislead you by pretending I’m a best selling author. Disappointingly, sales of my latest book have languished. So what credentials do I have, you might ask, to commit to such an undertaking? The only real credentials I have are impertinence and gall! But as I scan through the topics of blogs previously written, they were the only credentials I had for expounding on many other topics that I have attempted.
My entry into writing was quite accidental. I had over the years written many papers for conferences and even a few pieces for journals. The topics were generally about management and leadership. My good friend Dr Phil Harker approached me with a manuscript he had prepared to augment a leadership program a large national organisation had asked him to present. The arrangement however fell through. He asked me if I would like to write some material to complement what he had already produced. I agreed and our book “Humanity at Work” was subsequently published in 1998. It received an accolade from the Australian Institute of Management as one of the ten best books they had reviewed that year.
This had proved an easy task for me because I was able just to convert many of the papers I had previously written into chapters for the book. Sometime later, I was approached by a publisher to update and augment the material in “Humanity at Work” and the revised work was published in 2002 as “The Myth of Nine to Five”.
I have always had an interest in writing. In my earlier years I had written quite an amount of poetry and some stories for my children which we had enjoyed together. But, except for the odd magazine article mentioned above, this was my first experience of being published. When I terminated my career as an executive, I felt it might be satisfying to do something more creative. Consequently I began to write fiction.
Over the last seven or eight years I have written three manuscripts concerning the adventures of a Buddhist with the most unlikely name of Augustus. It has been my practice to send these manuscripts to a few of my friends and family, whose judgment I can rely on, for comment. They have been largely well-received. However people commented favourably on the little parables I had written which were learning mechanisms used by Augustus’s teacher. As a result I extracted out all the parables and augmented them with a few more I subsequently devised and sought to have them published as a collection. Although I had titled the work “Two Pressed Flowers and a Lock of Hair” (a reference to one of the parables) it was finally published under the title of “Augustus Finds Serenity.” I am now working with A & A Book Publishing with a view to publishing one of the other Augustus stories. This blog site was provided to me by the publisher to create a greater awareness of “Augustus Finds Serenity” and of me as the author.
I suppose, when it comes to writing, most people ask, “How do you get your inspiration?”
Well, it was all very well for Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All he had to do, it seems, was take some opium and go to bed! From this combination apparently came one of the most imaginative verses in English literature – “Kubla Kahn”. Do you remember it from your school days? It begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Well, I don’t have opium, but I can assure you the best wines and the finest single malt whiskies don’t seem to have an equivalent impact – on me at least!
But all writers know there are those moments when our output is effortless and inspiration flows like water from the Amazon. We feel we have tapped an inner resource that occasionally surfaces at the bidding of our muse. We can sit at the keyboard and our lucid thoughts and insightful imagination creates an outpouring of words that startle us with their beauty and their insight. I have experienced those moments myself – but the lesson is, it is a total illusion! In the cold light of day, these creations are no better than what we turn out through necessity and plod. And this is a dangerous illusion because when it has you in its spell you put aside your plodding efforts and wait for such moments to occur.
Anthony Trollope, the great Victorian novelist is reputed to have said, “Hangovers apart, writers like most artisans. are about as good one day as they are the next.” The seeming difference is a result of euphoria, alcohol or imagination.” The lesson is, don’t wait for inspiration. Get in front of the keyboard and plod away.

On the other hand this is a great device for excusing laziness. John Kenneth Galbraith, the great American economist and author, wrote, “All professions have their own way of justifying laziness. Harvard Professors are deeply impressed by the jewelled fragility of their minds. Like the thinnest metal, these are subject terribly to fatigue. More than six hours of teaching a week is fatal – and an impairment of academic freedom. So at any given moment, the average professor is resting his mind in preparation for the next orgiastic act of insight or revelation.” Similarly writers, who churn out nary a word, defend their actions as waiting for the next bout of inspiration. My advice to budding authors is, “Don’t wait for the golden moment – things may well get worse!”

There is also reputedly, a flocking instinct among authors. Those who are waiting for inspiration congregate with others who are so disposed. As a result they reinforce each other’s requirement for inspiration. They are immobilised like fundamentalist Christians waiting for Armageddon.

Readers probably think that authors just pour out remarkable prose spontaneously. Well let me assure you that there is little spontaneity in writing. Most of what we write gets revised and probably that which we write when we think we are inspired gets revised most! Surprisingly, writing is difficult work. If you’re not Shakespeare (and even here I can’t be sure) you are destined to revise and revise your writings. Reputedly Ralph D Paine, the publisher of Fortune Magazine in the 1960’s said, “Anyone who said writing is easy is either a bad writer or an unregenerate liar.”

Yet experience prepares the mind. Subconsciously once at the keyboard you draw on all the resources of your experience and memory. Whatever the subject matter, your mind connects you to related material all ripe for exploitation and enhancement. I have a very large library and although I can’t remember all the material contained therein, despite my passing years, I am still usually able to say to myself, “Didn’t such and such make a commentary on this?” A little research then confirms the connection and you then have another point of view with which to enrich your words. And if you have ever read the magnificent “The Road to Xanadu” by John Livingstone Lowes, you would appreciate that even though Coleridge may have benefited from a few drops of laudanum he could never have written such an inspired work without access to a huge store of information garnered by his research. We may conjecture about the mechanism of accessing it, but the poem could never have been composed without the construction of a vast repository of history, fantasy and imagination developed by his extensive reading and research.

My most constructive critic, (whose Identity I won’t reveal to you, because she is a reluctant critic), pointed out to me the different style I needed when moving from writing about fact to fiction. It seems a simple thing but when you write fact the whole deal is to be explicit as you can be in ensuring the audience gets the message. When you write fiction you must let the story itself, through its metaphors and gentle persuasion convince the reader of the particular truth you are trying to impart. So, I apologise to my readers that sometimes in my fiction writing I am too direct and don’t allow you to find your own way to the message.

She also pointed out to me how I have favourite words which seem to dominate the text. Unfortunately, she is right, and I now have to trawl my manuscripts to find alternatives to those words I use habitually. (My publisher assures me this is a typical problem with authors.)

The other lesson to learn is brevity. Use adjectives sparingly and adverbs even more so. When inspired by the muse, and we pour out a flood of words, it is wise, when more circumspect, to come back and edit what is written. It is surprising how much you can remove without detracting from either the meaning or the beauty of your prose. In fact the most beautiful works are striking because of their frugality with words. One of the most famous speeches of all time was Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address. It comprises a mere 268 ordinary but hugely meaningful words. (It is a shame he wasn’t able to coach Kevin Rudd!)

But maybe we lose something in condensation and simplification. One of the endearing characteristics of the Old Testament is its convoluted language, redundancy and ambiguity. This has imbued it with the endearing characteristic that if you can’t get confirmation of your beliefs in one passage you merely have to read on and sooner or later you will. The other quality of works of such complexity is that if you have gone to the trouble of studying it, you are in such small and exalted company that you have a vested interest in protecting its validity. (I could have said the same about the Koran or indeed about the MCC’s Laws of Cricket!)

Of course the other problem with being a budding author is finding role models. When I think of some of my heroes such as Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and so on, unfortunately they were all renowned tipplers. In desperation I have tried increasing my alcohol consumption but all it does is make my spelling worse!

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  1. 15 Comment(s)

  2.   By edward gifford on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    Hi Ted, Don’t stop writing. You have a profound mind, insightful ideas about life and humanity and discipline to make it happen! Whereas many of us talk about our next book and never produce it. And who cares about the overuse of “equanimity” anyway? As someone who has read most of your manuscripts I commend you for your insight, hard work, perseverance and considerable ability (despite your tendency to be your harshest critic). I’m looking forward to reading your next script Ted. Long live Augustus, long live creativity and long live humility!

  3.   By Father Robin on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    Why ‘confront’?

  4.   By Father Robin on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    Who?

  5.   By Father Robin on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    And who draws the battle lines?

  6.   By Father Robin on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    p.s.

    Spelling is not an issue if James Joyce is being Kwoghted.

  7.   By tedscott on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    Thank you for your encouragement, Edward.

  8.   By Father Robin on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

    And mine.

  9.   By Father Robin on Mar 7, 2010 | Reply

    On Writing »
    ‘The only real credentials I have are impertinence and gall!

    In my earlier years I had written quite an amount of poetry and some stories for my children which we had enjoyed together.

    I began to write fiction.

    Over the last seven or eight years I have written three manuscripts concerning the adventures of a Buddhist with the most unlikely name of Augustus.

    As a result I extracted out all the parables and augmented them with a few more I subsequently devised and sought to have them published as a collection. Although I had titled the work “Two Pressed Flowers and a Lock of Hair” (a reference to one of the parables) it was finally published under the title of “Augustus Finds Serenity.”

    I am now working with A & A Book Publishing with a view to publishing one of the other Augustus stories.

    Most of what we write gets revised and probably that which we write when we think we are inspired gets revised most!

    My most constructive critic pointed out to me the different style I needed when moving from writing about fact to fiction. It seems a simple thing but when you write fact the whole deal is to be (as) explicit as you can be in ensuring the audience gets the message. When you write fiction you must let the story itself, through its metaphors and gentle persuasion, convince the reader of the particular truth you are trying to impart.

    So, I apologise to my readers that sometimes in my fiction writing I am too direct and don’t allow you to find your own way to the message.

    The other lesson to learn is brevity.

    When inspired by the muse, and we pour out a flood of words, it is wise, when more circumspect, to come back and edit what is written. It is surprising how much you can remove without detracting from either the meaning or the beauty of your prose. In fact the most beautiful works are striking because of their frugality with words.

    Of course the other problem with being a budding author is finding role models. When I think of some of my heroes such as Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and so on, unfortunately they were all renowned tipplers. In desperation I have tried increasing my alcohol consumption but all it does is make my spelling worse!’

    Ted Scott.

    Amen. But hang in there.

    Comments from the Blonde Buddhist will be in the mail soon.

  10.   By Father Robin on Mar 7, 2010 | Reply

    Mostly concerning brevity in writing.

  11.   By Ted Scott on Mar 8, 2010 | Reply

    Thanks for the lesson, Father! Can’t wait to hear from the Blonde Buddhist!

  12.   By a savage on Mar 8, 2010 | Reply

    Ted, I loved the depth and simplicity of ‘Augustus Finds Serenity’ and have passed it on to friends and family who felt the same (sorry, I probably haven’t helped sales). Language and literature so often seems contrived (and intellectualised by academic preciousness). There’s warmth in the easy understanding that your parables offer. It is a paradox that many authors try to communicate profound meaning in unnecessarily complex ways. Your writing brings great hope.

  13.   By Ted Scott on Mar 9, 2010 | Reply

    Thank you Anne – that’s a lovely compliment. I am resigned to the fact that I’m unlikely to be able to make money writing. Fortunately, the sort of feedback you have provided makes it all worthwhile anyway!

  14.   By a savage on Mar 9, 2010 | Reply

    Ted – don’t worry – money isn’t worth anything (don’t believe the economists, they are delusioned). The value is in the contribution that you’re making to the healthy physics of the universe.

  15.   By Father Robin on Mar 11, 2010 | Reply

    Incidentally, my 1981 version of ‘The Guiness Book of Records’ (on the subject of brevity (which may not of course be up to date)) states:

    ‘The shortest correspondence on record was that between Victor Marie Hugo (1802-85) and his publisher Hurst and Blackett in 1862.

    The author was on holiday and anxious to know how his new novel ‘Les Miserables’ was selling.

    He wrote ‘?’

    The reply was ‘!’’

    Good communication.

  16.   By Father Robin on Mar 11, 2010 | Reply

    Guinness.

    I obviously don’t drink enough.

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