Good writers say their craft is a grueling process

July 30, 2010

Did you know there are over 126,000,000 blogs on the internet?

I’ve been exploring the blogging world for some tips on how to stand out from the pack and build a loyal band of followers. During my investigation, I’ve been stunned at the volume of people who are desperate to be writers.  Most people have rags-to-riches visions of being “discovered” and catapulted to fame as the next Elizabeth Gilbert or JK Rowling.  The thing most bloggers don’t realize is this – Elizabeth Gilbert and JK Rowling are good writers and most bloggers are not.

Most bloggers have literary incontinence.  They spew out the first thing that enters their mind without any careful thought or attention to detail.  Blogging has become a diary-type platform where people vent emotions and opinions that they would never do with a live audience.  It is cathartic without the downsides of accountability and self-control.  I find that ploughing through the 126,000,000 blogs is like navigating my way through a massive shit storm.

I think there are 2 types of people who blog:

  1. There are those people who are genuinely talented and have something worthy to contribute.  Their blogs build a following without dependence on a publisher to notice them first.  Finding a good blogger like this is similar o hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
  2. This is the group of people who are not good writers and their blogs are simply noise that clutters cyberspace.  I imagine they fantasize that they are dull office workers by day and inspired savants by night.  They can cope with a mundane existence because they feel they have a hidden treasure chest of unappreciated talent that’s just waiting to be discovered. They see writing as an easy and romantic career to fall back on.  This type of blogger is in the majority.

I think it’s ok to beaver away at writing even if you’re not a literary genius.  Writing is helping me make sense of the world and is my word ladder to lift myself out of the pit my career dramas have thrown me into.  It just makes me sad the way people cling to the romantic fantasy that it is easy to be a writer and it’s a good profession to fall back on if your other ones don’t work out.  People don’t realize that although the creative process can be exhilarating, it is also grueling.

This is what some of my favourite writers have to say about their craft:

Malcolm Gladwell:

These are pieces I sweated over.  I don’t sit down and it just flows out.  The first 8 drafts are terrible.  It never comes easily.  What has changed over the years, is not that the level of struggle has changed, but that the struggle has become more fun.

Dan Pink:

Truth be told, writing a book doesn’t yield many moments of exhilaration.

Charlie Brooker describes writing in tears in his underpants on his birthday:

I often don’t like the process of writing.  It annoys me that it is so difficult.  I often feel a real struggle to get things out.  It’s like having a massive stammer or like having a 10 foot thick layer of perspex between me and what I am trying to get across.  That’s the misery I go through when I write.

George Orwell:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.


The dumbing down of Julie

July 27, 2010

I would like to welcome my first ever email subscriber.  Please can I have a big round of applause for my biggest fan … my mother.


Sorry Mom, there is no applause because you are my one and only reader.

My celebrity worship has finally reached its demented peak. This weekend I spent five hours mesmerised by celebrity reality shows on my laptop.  I watched one episode about Katie Price (“What Katie Did Next” on ITV) and the rest were of Peter Andre’s show (“Peter Andre:  The Next Chapter”).  Katie Price and Peter Andre used to be married.  Last year they had a very public and scandalous divorce that was front-page headlines.  Katie has since remarried a guy called Alex Reid whose profession is ‘cagefighter’, whatever that entails.

These programmes are very intimate.  The cameraman is their shadow while they go about their daily lives.  The camera follows them to meetings and social events, it watches them kiss their kids good night, sign contracts for a new house, get remarried and so on.

Peter and Katie are ultra trailer trash but for some reason, the British public loves them both (which says a few things about the British public).  British cabinet ministers often fret about the ‘dumbing down of Britain’ and, with shows like this, I can see why they are concerned. I have been trying to work out what has made Katie Price and Peter Andre so famous in the UK.  They are forever writing books, modeling, singing, launching fragrances and presenting tv shows.  They seem to be jack-of-all-trades but master of none and are probably famous simply because the British tabloids have built them up to be so.

These shows are pure escapism and, while I watch them, I chortle away like I haven’t a care in the world. I am mesmerized by them in the same way that I was fascinated by bugs that we studied through the microscope in Matric Biology .  I explain away this utter waste of my time by saying it is a study of human nature and is great fodder for my psychological studies.

Their lives are total chaos and I find the disorder hilarious.  Katie Price is a hoot because she has had so much Botox and she can’t move her forehead and her lips are so full of collagen so she now looks like a duck.  She contradicts herself constantly.  I most enjoyed the part where she said she is sick of the public’s obsession with intimate details of her life.  She then proceeded to tell the camera that she was on her periods and was hoping to get ‘Reidinated’ and have a baby with her new husband, Alex Reid.

The funniest bit of Peter Andre’s show was when he was on a book promotion tour around the country.  One fat guy in a wheelchair blubbed about how it was the highlight of his life when he met Peter Andre.  Another lady suffered from agrophobia which is a fear of people and public places.  She braved her paranoia to meet her idol but then, while she was in the queue, she had a panic attack.  The drama that ensued was both cringeworthy and hilarious that I had to press pause to compose myself.

No one understands my fascination with these shows, including Alastair.  He was seriously annoyed that I watched so many episodes.  He hates me joking around by pretending to be a classless chav when I say ‘innit, ‘innit’ or ‘allo allo’.  I think he is petrified I will turn into one of them.  When I hear him coming up the stairs, I pause it and pretend to do something more useful like check my finances, do my filing or study.  Next thing you know, I will be hiding in the cupboard with my headphones.  Then I will know I’ve truly tipped over the edge.

Why, who and what

July 23, 2010

For the past year, I have been temping at a visionary global charity.  I have never worked in a company with such friendly, talented people and a leadership team that inspires genuine respect.  I love being part of an organization that is growing in spite of the recession and is making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Why then do I often say a little prayer on the bus and ask God to help me get through the day?  Why do I count the hours to lunch and then home time?  Why I am the first to leave the building at 17h30 on the dot like the building is on fire?  If I arrive in South Kensington earlier than 9h30, why do I then sit at Pret a Manger to kill time until work officially starts?

I recently listened to a podcast by my mentor Marcus Buckingham and now I understand why.

The perfect job must satisfy 3 things – the WHY, the WHO and the WHAT.  My current role satisfies my WHY and WHO because I love it that I am part of a vision that is making the world a better place and the people I work with are kind and authentic.  The only box that is not ticked is the WHAT one.  Marcus Buckingham says the WHAT in a job trumps the WHO and WHY.  You can work in a great organisation with amazing people but if your daily tasks are not playing to your strengths and passions, then you are likely to be dissatisfied.

For a while I have felt guilty and fed up with myself for being so fussy.  I have wondered what the hell is wrong with me that I can work for God himself and still not appreciate my job.  I thought I was a lost case.  At least now I know that the daily tasks of your job override even the most lovely people and most inspiring vision.

Beautiful Britain?

July 13, 2010

I have a friend called Andrew whose father lives in High Wycombe in the UK.  He recently told me his dad was planning a holiday in Cape Town and was particularly excited at the thought of seeing ‘beautiful people’ again.

I nodded and said, ‘Yes.  British people are … um .. how can I put it?  They’re …’

‘F**king ugly.’  Andrew interjected.

For some reason, British people are not particularly attractive.  Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and some Brits can be very stylish but, in my humble opinion, this is the exception rather than the rule.  I wonder if the weather influences people’s appearance.  Most Brits are plainly groomed in a way that makes them mirror their dreary, dull surroundings.  After a bad day, I’ve often looked at passengers on the bus and wanted to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘you look just like I feel.’

When I had a job in the city (aaah, the good old days), I had to walk from one end of Waterloo station to the other every morning.  To amuse myself, I often inspected hoards of commuters to pick out someone I was vaguely attracted to and would be prepared to smooch.  The pickings were slim to none.  My husband did the same experiment and he struggled too.

When I lived in Johannesburg, I always spruced myself up before I left the house.  I never set foot out my door without at least some mascara and lipstick.  After 4 years in the UK, I no longer give a toss.  I now wash my hair once every 3-4 days instead of every 2 days in SA.  I rarely shave my legs.  My eyeshadows and blushes have hardened from lack of use.  I cycle through the same four casual outfits and buy new clothes once in a blue moon.  I would never have been caught dead in Fourways Mall, Johannesburg the way I look in Tesco, London.

I’ve just had an epiphany – maybe I’m on the slow slide to chavdom. First my appearances deteriorated and then the job disappeared.  Before I know it, I’ll be on benefits, have a tattoo, watch EastEnders, drink beer, pierce my babies’ ears and wear stretch pants.

Innit scary?

O Canada! O Canada!

July 11, 2010

We’ve booked our tickets for a holiday to Canada in December.  Hooray.  That is a little light at the end of the tunnel that will help me get through the autumn.

I really love North America.  I prefer Canada as it has a flavour of both America and the UK.  Toronto looks exactly like the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.  It reminds me of a giant Fourways.  Could I live in a freezing Fourways?  Maybe.  I could only survive if I had very warm clothes, a decent sunny house and a good quality snow blower.

After some in-depth analysis, I have decided Al and I are drawn to Canada mainly because we are tired of London – tired of the risk averse, introverted, process driven British culture.  The constant gloomy weather often tips me over the edge.

This sounds bad but I am tired of the diversity in London – the cultural kaleidoscope – that makes me wonder which country I live in.  Sometimes I feel like I live in Poland and India rather that England.  I have just finished reading a book based in Tudor England and no aspect of my life in London reminds me of those roots. I don’t really feel a sense of belonging.  When you first move to London, it is so exciting and different but after a while, you need to belong somewhere and maybe that is why the South Africans in London hanker after home so much.   I am aware that the problem could also lie in my attitude as I have regressed into a glass-half-empty sort of person.

I love grocery shopping in Canada.  It is a sensory experience of note.  Every item pleads for your attention and as you walk through the aisles, the colours of the cereals, pickles, jams, biscuits and other groceries jump out at you.  You can almost hear the products screaming ‘buy me, buy me’.  I feel like I am at the SPCA of groceries.  That’s why I always end up spending so much.  Last time we were in Canada, I wanted to take home some things that we don’t get in the UK.  Alastair (my husband) left me in Loblaws and when he returned I had filled a grocery cart.  He shook his head and made me put everything back on the shelves with my tail between my legs.  He said we can buy jam and cereals in London, for goodness sake.

One thing I did buy was a big pack of luminous yellow cheesy chips.  I wanted to experiment and see if they glow in the dark.  They did.  I also bought a pack of Kellogg’s bran that was shaped like little bunny poos.  I tried it for a laugh but they tasted of cardboard.

The biggest thing Canadians have to fret about is nuts.  They are very nut-phobic.  Last Christmas Al and I walked past a school near his sister’s house.  I saw big signs on the windows and they had STOP all over them.  They looked a bit like the skull and cross bones Chubb security signs we get in SA.  Anyway, we investigated further and the signs said ‘STOP No nuts allowed.  Do not come any further if you have nuts.’  That cracked me up because they are not worried about trespassers or hold ups – they are just worried about simple things like nuts and allergies.  What a pleasure!

Canada is so perfect that is it bordering on fake.  I wonder if Canadians have an appreciation for poverty, pain and suffering that most of the human race has to endure in the rest of the world.  Maybe they are the fortunate ones who get to live on the set of the Truman Show where the biggest thing to worry about is a rogue nut.

Christmas in Canada – here we come!

Worrying what other people think of us

July 6, 2010

Any psychologist will tell you that one of the keys to a healthy self-esteem is that we shouldn’t worry so much about what others think of us.  We all know from past experiences that permanently worrying about others’ opinions of us is a draining, soul-corroding battle.

The paradox is this – so much of our progress in life, particularly our careers, depends on what others think of us. Business is personal and all about relationships and the way we connect with others.  A lot of business progress depends on the rapport people have with us.  Does an interviewer like you enough to give you a job?  Do you boss and colleagues like you and your performance enough to give you a decent bonus?  When you network with others, do they like you enough to give you business or recommend you to others?  During my recent job hunt, I’ve found it difficult to maintain a healthy self-esteem when I am so dependent on a favourable impression from others so they then refer me for interviews or give me a job.

I wish I were like a fish.  Fish that swim in sea water are not affected by the saltiness of their environment.  They filter it out.  It seems funny that we often add salt and vinegar to fish and chips when the fish has spent its whole life in sea water.  In theory, it should be salty enough already.  It is difficult to maintain a sense of who I am and why I’m here in the midst of job rejections and opinionated, naïve recruiters who simply see me as a CV and a series of bullet points about work I have done in the past. We all need to become more like fish.  We must be better at filtering out unconstructive, ‘salty’ criticism and understand our constant, intrinsic value.

Ferdinard Rabie was the winner of the first South African Big Brother.  He made a comment in an interview that I have never forgotten.  We need more of him in us.  He said,

I know what I want to do in the future and I know where I want to go.  And I’m going there and I’m way ahead of track.  So every time people want to point a finger at me, I just go “Fuck you” because, to be honest, they don’t like what I’m doing but I do.

Ferdy is the extreme and we can’t be bombastic assholes.  But some people, like me, are the opposite extreme and we don’t believe in ourselves when we encounter obstacles or negative people.  We need to look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and say his words to ourselves as a kind of encouraging mantra.

This is the key to effective change management

July 1, 2010

Companies spend millions on the nebulous concept called change management.  You can buy books on change management, do a university degree in change and consulting firms charge a fortune for their “expertise” on the subject.

Human beings are instinctively afraid of change and prefer the comfort of the status quo.  A lucrative industry (pre-recession days) developed to help companies understand why their employees are so reluctant to change and what they can do to make new systems and procedures more sustainable.

Scrap all that rubbish.  This is the basic foundation that most strategy consultants will not tell you:

People support vision not need.

Change works best when you frame it in a way that people adjust their behaviour not because they have to, but because they want to.  Need is inherently negative but vision is positive and inspiring.   Responding to a need feels like you are simply plugging a hole whereas vision implies growth, stretch and opportunity.

Sandy Millar, former vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, believes vision is like the sign on a bus.  It tells passengers and passersby where the bus is heading.  Based on that information, people decide whether they want to hop on or not.  The ultimate destination should rarely change but the route may vary.  How does your change initiative move people toward the destination at the front of your corporate bus?

If you are not sure what the vision is or how the change contributes to it, then you should ask yourself why you are making the change in the first place.

The caveat to this is that you have the right people on the bus in the first place.  You should tell them the destination from the outset and make sure they buy into it before they even set foot in your company.  The vision should pervade everything you do and the core of it should be positive, inspiring, outward focused and about more than just making money.