The best advice you can give someone is to find their own voice… and never to take advice. Peter Sherwood reports
A deadline and nothing to write about: It happens. So, I’ll write about that, about being devoid of inspiration and too lethargic to care. When I lived for months on a remote Greek island to write the great novel, I ended up spending more time in the local taverna drinking cheap retsina (I think they also used it to clean grease marks off the tables) than putting pen to paper.
Writing doesn’t require revelation. It demands solitary hard work, which was never on my bucket list. How do you explain that to a budding 14-year-old writer as I was asked to do recently? You don’t. Instead, you pile on the wisdom and experience and hope something rubs off by osmosis. You pose philosophical questions and cavalierly fling around ancient aphorisms like crumbs to the pigeons. (Note from Sherwood to Sherwood: Do not make this like school).
As our chat continued, I imparted merry metaphysical mysteries praying (as hypocritical as prayer is for one with no religion) that a little enlightenment might accidentally befall this sensitive youngster and I’d be a hero.
‘Nothing to write about’ is of course a Big Lie and best translates into ‘can’t be bothered.’ Some of my best stuff (if I do say so myself because no one else will) was squeezed out by the pressure of potential penury, as I envisioned lunch next week in a charity soup kitchen. All it takes is sufficient fear to send the mind hurtling down into the world of the subconscious and beyond to unearth hidden gems.
So, when I told my adolescent that we can know what we don’t know I wasn’t just trying to be clever, confusing and superior – and you can believe that if you choose.
Continuing on an esoteric note, I tried sending her down a path less travelled (another original cliché) by quoting Alan Watts’ brilliant “Life is not a journey.” Clever stuff like that might start her thinking deeply, or make her write me off as mad. Then I told her the only way to learn to write is… to write, which to her youthful ear might be heard as the only way to learn to speak French is to… speak French, which contains a great truth. (I’m not bilingual but I figure that if 270 million people around the world speak the language how difficult can it be?).
Now for the clincher: If she can quickly decipher the following puzzling phrase then my work is finished, along with any need for her to slog studiously through intuition and intellect for some enlightenment beyond her tender years. Or she might just chuckle and tell me not to be so silly. It took only a few minutes for her to get the drift of what I’d said which was: “Don’t believe anything I say.”
Not genius stuff, I agree, but perhaps enough to be memorably clear on her need to find her own unique voice, a key to success in writing and in life. Happily, she got it. Or maybe she already knew. I wish I had, at 14, or even 40.
A Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 20+ years. The former head of an international public relations firm, he is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.