Thursday, October 9, 2008

Author Guest Post - Jim Murdoch

Jim Murdoch is the author of four novels, the first of which, Living with the Truth, was published in May 2008 and has received excellent reviews, some of which can be read on his website. The sequel, Stranger than Fiction, is due out at the beginning of 2009. He also authors the popular literary blog, The Truth About Lies.

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What it means to be a writer
I began writing poetry in my early teens when quite a bit of it found its way into print. I continued pottering away until I reached about thirty whereupon everything dried up and I thought that was me. With several hundred poems to my credit I resigned myself to being ordinary for the rest of my life. This is not to suggest that it's a bad thing to be ordinary, far from it, it's simply that my life up until that point had not been ordinary and I wasn't sure how to go about it. I tried – no one can accuse me of not trying – but I found I wasn't happy being ordinary; it didn't satisfy me the way being not ordinary had.

You'll note here that I have carefully avoided the use of the word extraordinary because I didn't feel extra-anything. I was just different. Perhaps to underline this I should state that I was brought up in central Scotland, in Burns country to be precise, and although my antecedent's achievements were rightly lauded, if only on his birthday and as an excuse to consume too much whisky,  young boys at my school were not exactly falling over themselves to come out as poets. And so I didn't. Like many before me I kept my writing to myself. After school this didn't change. The kinds of people I found myself working beside were the kinds of people I studied beside.

Of course, all of this happened in the days before the Internet, indeed, before the days of home computing. I honestly don't think young poets finding their feet these days appreciate what a godsend it is to be able to make contact with other poets with such ease.

Anyway, I wrote until it all dried up and then I tried to get by not doing. Which brings me to the question: what is a writer? It's a simple enough question but I've had opportunity to bring this up with two young writers recently. Both have been suffering from bouts of writer's block and feel ashamed frankly to refer to themselves as writers because they're not writing at the moment. One even went as far as to suggest he start calling himself a wroter.

A writer is a person whose natural response to life is to write about it, the better to understand it; they think in literary terms. I wrote in a novel once: "Writers don’t have real lives, they have ongoing research," and that's something I believe. Any professional writer will tell you that being "an author" involved far more than simply sitting down and writing. And sitting around thinking about writing is a necessary part of the process.

I've often compared writing to weight training. You eat (take in information), rest (absorb the information), exercise (write) then rest (think about what you've written) and repeat until the task is done. When you're not engaged in one aspect of writing you're probably – even unconsciously – engaged in another.

So, I got to thirty and stopped putting pen to paper, but I never stopped taking in information. Four years later, fit to burst, it all poured out into not one but two novels. I sat down one day to see if I could write and the next thing I knew I'd filled several pages and showed no sign of stopping. But why, after years and years of nothing but poetry (followed by nothing but nothing), did I start to write prose? I have an answer for that too: the subject dictates the format. I can say that now looking back because after the novels I wrote a collection of short stories, two plays, two more novels and a lot more poetry and they all have their own voices.

And, since that time I've also had fairly lengthy periods where nothing was happening but I'm not afraid of them any more. Ah, if we all had 20:20 hindsight, eh? I can also say, now I'm almost fifty, that for the first time in my life I'm comfortable calling myself a writer. That's been a long time coming.

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15 comments :

  1. What a fantastic post. Thanks for sharing Mr. Murdoch's thoughts with us on what it means to be a writer.

    I've had droughts, and I try not to be too nervous about it, but sometimes I think those droughts are brought about by fear. Fear of failure and rejection.

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  2. That's certainly true, Serena. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  3. What a nice post and a refreshing viewpoint. Its nice to be reminded of how elusive the job of a "writer" is. A full time job, even when not actually producing words on paper.

    Thanks!

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  4. Serena, fear is a common enough reason people put forth for not writing. I can't say I've ever suffered from fear before the work was written. Afterward, yes, particularly when it came to submitting the work. Fear of rejection is something that never goes away, at least is hasn't for me. Only it's not really fear is it? It's simply that we don't like our work being turned down and it's hard not to take it personally.

    There are subjects you could say that I've been afraid to tackle usually because I didn't feel I was capable of doing the subject justice. I suppose there have been times when I have been afraid of what an exploration of that subject might reveal. On those occasions you have to move on. There's always something else that needs to get written about.

    And, Michele, yes it took me a very long time as I've written to look in the mirror and see a writer. It's a lot like looking in the mirror and finding out you're a man. There no one day when you go to bed and wake up all grown up and it's not as if you decide that on a certain day you'll become a man; it simply happens in its own good time. Of course I have regrets that things didn't happen sooner but becoming a poet is a natural thing as far as I'm concerned: you can't force nature.

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  5. Nice post Jim. I think to get to the stage where you can look in the mirror and see a writer is a huge achievement for someone as honest as you. I hope to find a writer in my own mirror one day too. And that's not a 'fish for compliments' - the whole world can praise you and call you a writer but the day he turns up in the mirror is nobody's business but our own.

    You were quite the flaming Scottish redhead then though, weren't you? :) Your blog-portrait doesn't quite get that. If the English had seen you leaping over the brook at them, eyes blazin' and kilt flyin', they would've run a bloody mile! :)

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  6. The problem with admitting that you're a writer, Ken, is that that's only a part of the process. It's like Daffyd from 'Little Britain' who has no problems announcing that he's gay but he doesn't seem to want to do anything about it. It's like my poem, 'Coming Out':

    COMING OUT

    "So you are a
    practicing poet ?"
    she asked,
    and I felt unclean
    and wanted my closet back.

    Admitting you're gay is one thing but marching down the street at the head of a Gay Pride parade is quite something else.

    Not being ashamed of being a writer and being proud of being a writer are two very different things. And it's amazing how easily you can let yourself be put down. My dad called my first novel 'that story our Jimmy wrote' and I felt petty when I told him it was "a novel" because what's a novel other than a long story?

    Being a guy who writes and 'a writer' are not the same. I can swim but I'm not 'a swimmer'. The difference is that one is something you do; the other is something you are. The former can get fitted in around your life, the latter IS your life and the rest has to wrangle for its place.

    As for the red hair… Yes, I was quite the carrot top when I was young. Even the beard is more grey these days and what's left of the hair on my head is dark brown – how the hell did that happen? It really peeves me. I was fond of my hair colour.

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  7. "A writer is a person whose natural response to life is to write about it" - I like the clarity of this.

    I hope 'Living with the Truth' gets the wide acclaim it deserves. It's a very good novel and I look forward to reading the others.
    x

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  8. Nice post Jim (as always). I love the idea that 'Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research' although at the same time, I'd hate to live my life thinking of it only in terms of how events can be incorporated in a story.
    I think you're at the point now - and have been for a long time - where you really can head up a parade of 'out' writers without any self-consciousness.

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  9. "So you're a / practicing poet?" - I love this, I think I'll start calling myself a practicising poet. I think it's even harder to call yourself a 'poet' than a 'writer' - all that bardic baggage.
    Great post Jim and refreshingly honest as usual.

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  10. Thank the Universe I'm not the only one that thinks in terms of "ongoing research". I can't help it!

    A writer is what you ARE...not what you DO. There's a big difference, and not everyone gets it.

    Great post, Jim. As usual.

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  11. Your mention of youth not realizing their good fortune in having the Internet is so true. I often think of all I might have done, but didn't know how to do. With the Internet you can find all manner of information, whatever your question. And the people who provide that information is greater than I ever would have dreamed.

    I don't know where I'll end up as a poet/writer, but I do know that I would not have written as much as I have without the Internet. Actually, without the people I have met via the Internet.

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  12. Rachel, if there is one thing that I am for in my writing it is clarity. I don't think you always have to call a spade a spade, you need to have respect for your audience, but sometimes, especially where the truth is an important one, like this is, you don't want to mess with your words. And, yes, I hope that in time 'Living with the Truth' finds a wider audience than it has so far. I'm going to have one last crack at 'Stranger than Fiction' and then it's off to be proofread. And I'm thinking about bringing about a combined e-book and see if we can pull in a few that way.

    Catherine, of course writers have lives but there's nothing that goes in that isn't fodder for some story. No one will pick up on all the biographical details in my books – they're too well buried – but what we write is what we are and what we have seen and heard about. And, yes, I may well be 'out' as a writer and not ashamed but I doubt you'll see me at the head of any parades. I may be a writer but I'm still a very private individual. Perhaps if all of this had happened when I was younger.

    And, you know, Sorlil, every time I hear those words I still squirm. And I think you're right but not for the reasons you've given. I think people are more tolerant of writers. Even if you haven't published anything, if you say you've written a novel people are a lot less derisory in their remarks than if you've just dashed off a few poems. Poetry IS something people expect you to grow out of. It's like the dramatisations of the P D James Inspector Dalgleish novels, every time I see his poetry mentioned I a) note how uncomfortable he is and b) don't believe how much approval he gets – everyone's read him at least if they don't have all his books. Nah, doesn't wash with me.

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  13. Netta, I don't know about you but as I walk around I look at what's happening around me and I find myself narrating what's going on as if I'm beginning a book or a story. It's why I never get this 'white page syndrome'. Starting is the easiest thing. It's knowing whether that first page or so is worth carrying on with, that's the trick.

    And, Susan, of yes, I can remember a world without home PCs and now I have five…actually that may be six because my old one in the cupboard probably still works. The interesting thing is I had to go and do some research in the library last week, first time in years, and I actually enjoyed it but that really has been the first time in years I haven't been able to locate what I was looking for. I've downloaded hundreds of articles, essays, PhDs and even entire books on Beckett for example. But I remember the first time I entered 'poetry' into a search engine and finding out what was out there and my first thought was, "Home." There were poets out there, real flesh and blood poets, and I could get to talk to them without leaving my home. Incredible!

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  14. Interesting post, Jim. Sometimes writers suffer a handicap which stalls their development, maybe it comes from the gene which helps them create fiction and three-dimensional characters. They are sometimes too able to adopt many different persona, then spend much of their lives trying to figure out which one is their own.

    It's a blessing you never lost sight of your "writer" persona, even if you hid it in the closet so many years.

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  15. Yes, Terry, I was just reading a post over on Art Durkee's site about what life was like for him growing up. And here I thought Scotland was bad. I guess it doesn't matter where you live there will always be those who make being you hard. And I don't necessarily mean being you-the-artist but you-the-person. There is, of course, the counter argument that it is battling the adversity that turns us into who we are.

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