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February 27, 2012 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Things You Already Know, But Just Need To Be Told

Trying is hard.

You’ll have heard all this before. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. We have all been indoctrinated with the myth of the epiphany. That, in one moment, everything can change. Books, TV, and films all tell us that our lives are linear, causal narratives. This is a convenient fiction. You are not the full stop at the end of a run-on sentence of existence. You are a rubber band ball of accumulated and accumulating experience, the lint you pull out of the dryer not the dry clothes. But you know that. That doesn’t stop you ending each night with the list of major improvements you will make to your life the next morning. Trying is hard, and it’s much comfier to aspire to a false ease than accept the true hardship of doing things.

Do you want to know why you never feel like you do well enough? It’s because you think you are special. You think you are the one person who can subvert the rules and be good straight away. If I could remove one thing from reality it’d be the Q & A section of any public appearance by a writer. To be more specific, if there was one thing I could simply stop ever occurring it would be the wholly predictable first question. ‘What advice do you have for aspiring writers?’ It seems like a normal question but the answer is always the same. Write every day and finish what you write. It’s good, accurate advice. The veracity or will of the advice is not the problem. Even the fact that it is always the same is not the problem. The reason that I dread its asking is because the person asking knows that is what they are going to be told.

A friend of mine did a survey for their honours thesis about various sundry things around artistic process and 90 per cent of respondents said they were writers. I cannot help but feel that a lot of those people are mislabelling themselves. Comic book writer and living symbol of the damage the Internet can do to one’s social skills Warren Ellis, when questioned about ‘writer’s block’ said “This is when a writer cannot write, yes? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore.” If you are asking for advice on writing rather than doing it, you are not a writer. When the Qer asks the writer for advice, they are hoping to be told that there is some magic trick. Some one quick way to be good at writing. We all want that to be true. This doesn’t just apply to writing. We all want to be magically good at something straight away.

Clown-haired non-fictionist and the third Google auto-fill result for ‘Malc’ Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become a true master of something. He talks about the Beatles’ years playing in Liverpool and Hamburg nightclubs and about how Bill Gates spent the evenings from the age of 13 to 18 on the single computer his school had. As much as you dismiss his claims as Louis-Theroux- arts-degree brain science for the lazy, Gladwell has a point. No one ever was good at anything straight away. No one is even good at walking to begin with.

You know how attractive the inside of your brain is. If you just fantasise then you can’t fail. But if you want to do something you have to do it. Over and over. You will fail. It will hurt but not as much as you thought. But you are smart enough to learn from your failures. Then you will get good. You know this.


About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

Comments (6)

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  1. Anon says:

    Thanks, I actually really needed that.

  2. Electrum Greenstone says:

    ” Today is the graduation ceremony for your Study Phase I […]


    But why am I telling you this? Why am I telling you this on this particular day, for this particular occasion, at this particular place?


    Among the 30 some students inaugurated in 1887, only 2 graduated, in 1892. One became a country doctor in Malaysia, and the other, thinking that “healing men” is not as important as “curing the country,” gave up the medical profession for something else.


    [I]f so much has been accomplished by your “village elders” like Patrick Manson and Sun Yat Sen, is there anything left for your generation, for you, to dream, to dare, to devote yourselves to?


    It is pretty safe to say that you are, or will be, the elite of the society.

    But exactly what kind of society do you find yourselves in?


    [W]hat will you fight against, and what will you insist on?

    I hope you don’t have ready answers for me, because if you do, I would be suspicious. What one fights against and what one insists on, taken in its totality, are called personal beliefs. Personal beliefs are not declared. They are practiced in the minute details of life. They are revealed in the smallest decisions of daily routine.>/a>


    He hardly spoke, and when he did speak, with a very soft voice, it was either Japanese or the Fukien dialect, which we could not understand a word of. He checked the little boy, pressed the medicine into my mother’s hand, coached her in the unintelligible language how to care for the young, and refused to accept fees. And thereafter, throughout our childhood, he declined any fees from us. “

  3. Whilst I applaud your criticism of the ‘epiphany’, I do have one minor nitpick. You say that “[i]f you are asking for advice on writing rather than doing it, you are not a writer”, and you quote Warren Ellis saying that a writer with writer’s block “isn’t a writer anymore”. Yor logic implies that an aspiring writer will only ever ask advice for one reason – the search for the ‘epiphany’.

    As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction with several publications under my belt, I still ask people for advice on writing. It would be arrogant of me to think that I know everything there is to know about writing, or that the secret to good writing lies solely within my own efforts. I also still get writer’s block as much as I did when I first put pen to paper. Sometimes it’s a case of needing to push on regardless, as you’ve indicated – other times, however, the object of the ‘block’ only resolves itself after I step away from the page. Artistic creation isn’t a nine to five job – it’s something that ebbs and flows, but is constantly churning away in the background.

    Obviously, I can’t extrapolate my experiences as a general rule – but then again, neither can you.


    • Uther Dean says:

      Fair call, Matthew.

      I should have made it clearer that I was referring to people (and there are a lot of them) who ask for advice but never do anything with it. The asking for advice becomes an act of fantasy around what you would do, rather than a tool to improve what you are doing. Like, I use this example only because it’s one I’ve seen in the fields in which I move a lot, people who spend weeks researching and fantasizing over what screen-writing software they are going to use rather than actually just writing a screenplay and worrying about format later. It is wise to ask for advice for something you are doing. But you should be doing it first. If that makes sense?

  4. Hi Uther,

    Yes, that makes sense, and I do agree with the overall premise of your article. As you’ve stated, professional writers/artists etc are always advising that the best way to create is to just do it, and I agree that many people wish there was a magic wand that would make it easier. Hell, some days I also wish there was a magic wand – hence why I’m so fond of the phrase “I don’t like writing, I like having written” :)

    I hope post-Salient-editing life is going well!


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