I was honoured to be asked to attend the launch of UC’s FIRST: Voyages anthology book – a place for uni students to get their first publication. The book was a ripper, so many great examples of emotion and truth on the page, so I was happy to speak to the crowd and give away whatever small amount of wisdom I have.
Below is my speech, typed, but I’m not a TED presenter, and I notoriously tangent, so this isn’t 100% exact what people heard on the night, but it’s as close as the history books will ever get. I hope you enjoy.
Hi, I have to start by saying:
Thank you to every person who contributed to this book. Thank you for stepping up, for putting yourself into ink, and firing yourself off into the world as yet another book of blood, because as Clive Barker says, that’s what we are, and wherever we’re opened, you better believe we’re red.
It is a heartbreaking and delightful and insane and passionate thing we do to put our words into the world, and it makes our lives better and worse than others, but it also means we are truly living our lives. So thank you, can we give everyone in this book a round of applause, please? :]
It’s invigorating to submerge into an anthology so rich full of passion and erudition. You don’t start a journey over mountains and through the shattered dust of stars by tiptoeing forward. No, you dive, man, you just have to because if you pause, you’re DOA. Writing is a passion, it’s a drug, and it’s a monkey on your back for the rest of your life. And you either learn what your monkey likes and you placate it forevermore, or you invest in good gardening equipment and you bury its body in various locations to live a very free, though much more mundane, life. These are your options.
Which is why I want to tell you to please keep writing. I mean, you’re obviously off to such an amazing start, why stop, right?
But know that writing isn’t going to ever get easier. Writing isn’t going to do what you planned. Writing is one big problem you keep in your skull most of your life, and sometimes it aches, and sometimes it itches, and sometimes it stops – which can be the most scary of all the symptoms. But writing will complete you. I know it will, because I see the talent in you. I know that fever, and I know the soothing balm of seeing your words in print. I know it feels good – even while it kinda feels terrifying, right?
I won’t ask for hands up, but I guarantee at least one contributor already hates their work, and others would love another pass to juuuust get it right. Someone has looked at someone else’s story and now violently hates them because they see how good that person’s story is – don’t be afraid of competition, it’ll make you sick, but it’ll also make you better, I promise. I know this, and I know it’s stupid. You’ll know it soon, too, but knowing isn’t a cure. I’m sorry.
You are all now officially writers, and the only way is up. Up, up, up, because, technically, even a 1 degree incline is up. And you have to stay the course, even when it feels like a downhill tumble. You have to write through the blizzards, and the afterparties, and droughts, and the mazes. You have to write, because you are writers, you know this, you’ve stated it right here in the book.
I declared I’d be a writer in Year 3. I wrote my first 2 short stories that year. The joy of completing them was wild. The thrill of reading them to my class was exhilarating. The shame of looking back years later and realising how bad they were: priceless.
Honestly, one was called Volcano and it was about a guy who decides to climb a volcano. So he packs his bag – I go into full list mode to detail all the muesli bars and snacks he takes with him, it’s like half a page. Then he starts walking. And keeps walking. And keeps walking. Then he sees a wolf. He says, “Hey, there’s a wolf.” To no one in particular, and hopefully not the wolf, unless I was writing existential animal identity crises back in 1990. Sorry, where was the story, oh, yeah, he keeps walking. Then he gets to the top. He looks in. He sees some lava. Then he walks home.
He doesn’t even touch a single goddamn preciously bagged snack from his bag in the entire story. Maddening.
And when people tell you that your first writing will suck, it’s easy to point to those juvenile words and say they were your formative years, as if I wrote anything of greatness when I was 18. Or 22. Or 25. Or last week.
So much crap over the years. But the common theme was I kept writing. Brian K Vaughan once wrote that you have to get 10,000 pages of utter shit out of your system before you start getting good. That’s when you start getting just good.
So keep writing. Because I went from writing fanfic to really awesome break up poetry to four novels of questionable quality to online comics journalism to hot takes on twitter in 2009 before the Nazis and the trolls occupied the underside of every bridge and then I went and I got my first publication out into the world and then started getting good. Just good. And it still wasn’t as good as what you’ve done here.
But I kept at it. I wrote a baker’s dozen of short stories, I wrote about 60 issues of various comic projects that never went anywhere. I wrote so much, and finally the tide started to shift. Soon I was signing my first publication deal with a publisher in the States for my first comic miniseries. Then I was winning the Aurealis Award and Ledger Bronze Award for my comic about suicide and emotion eating monsters. I was selected in a group of 8 people out of 1500 people to be in a comic writing class run by DC comics.
I’m currently sitting on 3 comic book deals with a US publisher, and in the midst of my sixth successful comic Kickstarter campaign, and I’m writing every damn night. I’ll go home and write tonight. Because not only is that what it takes, but that’s what I want. That’s what I need. I’m a writer, it’s no shock I go home to write.
So, please, write. That’s the obvious lesson everyone imparts. But let me gift you two more horses and you can elect to look in their mouths or not.
You will fail. A story will suddenly dry up. Or a story will not find an audience. Or a story will suuuuuck. Or you’ll have the chance to finally pitch the Ninja Turtles and you’ll drop the ball…or y’know, some other vague possibility not ripped from the headlines inside my brain.
You will think you’re crap – which is just as dangerous as the family members who tell you you’re amazing – and sometimes you will be crap, and you won’t know sometimes, and you’ll have doubt, and you’ll worry and overthink, and stress, and miss parties, and learn what a sore neck really feels like. Writing is going to add some hardship to your life.
But a real writer finds the greatest hardship to be not writing. So…yeah, I don’t have any great solution to that, sorry, welcome to the club, it’s gonna kill ya :]
Each failure in the club is there to teach you a lesson. Whether it’s story structure, or humility, or taking editorial notes, or swinging for the bleachers, or selling out – learn why the failure happened, and factor it into the new 2.0 version of yourself, the true Writing Intelligence Supreme of 2020.
Just remember why you write – because it’s a way to take the truth you know, and marinade it, and make something more out of it.
I’ll tell you about two of the best things I ever wrote. One was in Year 10, it was a recount of the morning we found my father’s dead body. Looking back it was the sort of bunt hit an angsty teenager writes because he knows it’ll get him on base, but I also wrote it because this was a truth I’d lived with for a decade and I needed a way to get it out of my head. So I did, and my teacher loved it, and wanted it for the school’s annual magazine, and I politely declined. Because it was out of my head, but I didn’t need it into the heads of others. Not yet, anyway.
But nearly two decades after that, I wrote a story about a writer who sits down to write his suicide note and gets writer’s block. Which is a pretty shit thing to do to a character, but it’s great narrative fuel. And this was me tackling the same themes I’d sophomorically slapped on the page in Year 10, but now I had a way to use my truth as an ingredient, and not as the recipe and whole dish. I’d mastered subtext and theme and subtlety, and so I explored my feelings about suicide again, also with added decades of reflection to even better understand it.
I truly believe that’s why NEGATIVE SPACE sold so well, and won awards, and became my entry into what modest limelight I’ve afforded myself. It’s a book with truth in it. A truth only I could write.
You’ll no doubt have already heard that you should “write what you know.” Which I always took to mean, well, Stephen King writes alcoholic teachers-cum-writers, and John Grisham writes lawyers, and Dan Brown writes intellectual middle aged white dudes absolutely sizzling in turtleneck sweaters. I thought it meant write what you know how to do, which is essentially writing who you are.
This is not what that advice means.
Write what you know should focus on the word KNOW – what you know is your truth – you need to write your truth. Which is why fiction is so amazing – every person has their own truth. One person can know and believe the world is a wonderful place while another person can believe the world sucks and will most definitely try to smash you into pieces. Both of those truths can exist, because they stem from experience.
Your job is to find your truth, by living a life, by doing dumb things, by avoiding those now discovered dumb things and choosing the smarter things. A life lived, is a brain informed, is a writer with something to say. And if you can say it in a way no one has read before, then you’re gonna be fine. You have to work out how to make your truth palatable.
Which I know you can do because so many of you mastered this in the book.
The truth of what a railway line means in the many stations you stop in through your life. The truth that you’re only gonna get better, and that knowledge can’t be applied retroactively – not even with time travel. The truth that your wits will keep you alive, but only if you let your wits navigate for you as well as react for you, even centuries ago on a sinking ship. The truth that the devil’s right, even if only about the fact his opposition is wrong. The truth that souls are precious and need rescuing, but you can only ever do what you can. The truth that the ocean represents all we should fear in this world, and yet we dive back into it constantly. The truth that it only takes one person to do absolutely everything they possibly can for humanity to be saved. The truth that your tolerance will always be met with intolerance and sometimes you see what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an immovable object. The truth that the world is constantly twisted up in sex and shame and stupidity and all you can do is accept your place in it and hope you get better at it all.
Those were some of the amazing truths I took away from this book and they floored me, each one, each time. A fabulous way to read a book, so thank you.
I do want to highlight 3 specific stories that really stuck with me, and all because they offered a truth, and in a different way. One with clarity, one through obfuscation, and one through a warped sense of acceptance. These three stories are everything I love to read, on personal and technical levels, and I want to call each person up to receive a gift voucher as a small token of appreciation for sharing these words with us.
DAD was an utterly amazing gutpunch, so can Jasmine Braybrooks please come up.
This illustration of a parent changed is done with such honesty and humanity that it never feels brutal, nor salacious. This is a spirit laid bare on the page and I kept thinking that these intimate nothings etched out in careful words are going to give Michael Chabon a run for his money one day. Thank you for letting us all read this.
READ RECEIPT REQUESTED was a gripping and funny and ultimately horrifying story, so can Susie Ellis please come up.
This story feels funny, and genuinely is funny, and I was entranced from the first word to the last. Your style and pacing are near-flawless as you toe the Hitchcockian line of absurdity and tension. But, in the end, this story is horrifying because beyond the cute charm, it’s a story about society, about how easy it is for idiotic men to rule on a whim, and about how easy it is for women to disappear. It’s the best kind of statement, in that it never states it at all. But it’s there, and that’s a gift, so thank you for sharing it with us all.
And the final story I want to mention is ANNIE & I, a short pitstop into a mentality of strange acceptance by Jerzy Beaumont.
It would be easy to write this story off as a mere twist reveal at the end, were it not for how amazingly acute and true it is in every line. The twist unpacks a whole new narrative and once you know who Annie is, the line “and when we make love we do it like iron maidens; the nails are in-side.” becomes this haunting and harrowing and yet still somewhat hopeful proclamation.
I hope a million people read this story because it’s the sort of thing that shows you how to access your truth, and how to manage it, and how to touch it fondly and often until you no longer have any fear in what it can hold or do. This story is the kind of thing that will stick with readers for a lifetime and beyond, and that’s the greatest outcome any fiction can ever aim for, so thank you so much for creating a better world with this story in it.
Please join me in giving applause to all three recipients of these gift cards tonight.
Now, I want to leave you with one last piece of wisdom, so I’m actually going to steal it from one of you.
Write every day, about things that matter to you, across all genres. They say every statue is in the marble waiting to be unearthed, and the same is true of every story around us. You job is to go out, touch, observe, carve, polish, stand back and think, start again, and discover the world so you might best synthesise it. There’s a lot of stuff out there, to write about, to ignore, to immerse yourself in, to know, and forget, and you’re all just the right age to do it all and use it later in your next great works.
Or, better put by Lara Hazel Thompson as she muses on how you, writers, might see the world moving forward – “These people, my friends, recently became really fucking boring, so I’ve taken to details.”
Take to every detail you can find, you’ll find a story for all of them eventually, I promise.