Why do we write?

When I was at university some fellow writers and I compared the importance of brain surgeons over writers. Although I do not deny the brilliance of brain surgery, I was quite disappointed in the majority opinion to elevate these mere mortals to a higher plane than writers. I don’t deny they may save a few lives but so do our bus drivers—wether they are aerial or terrestrial in transit.

Writers however (and some other artists) can do more than save a few lives.

  • we are the legislators of tomorrow (source unknown)
  • we provide feedback and test-run changes in society
  • and we can inspire generations into action and illicit positive change in society.

If a piece of writing does not add to our collective consciousness, or alter our behaviour—even in some minor way—it is pointless.  But this need not get too high and mighty:

Not everything we write is going to bring down a government, it could simply be a nostalgic drama that reminds us to value each moment of our life; prompting us to stop our writing, or turn the television off, and play hide-n-seek with our kids.

“W” is for Why we write

releasing your and your character’s VOICE

Photo Credit: Ian Kahn

In the writing world there are two types of VOICE:

  1. Your authorial style, that is unique if
  2. The style of speech and thought pattern or processes of a character

Authorial VOICE

We all have our favorite writers and it is this that we often  recognise from the first sentence of a work. It is more than a style of Point of View (POV) and many author’s work can be recognised from blind readings; Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer I’ve found to have a unique authorial voice.

At University and in writer’s groups I found it useful to imitate the voice of an author I admired. This exercise is like the Form/No-Form training in martial arts but eventually you must relax the form you are imitating until your own appears and it becomes something only you could have written.

It can be as enlightening to turn this exercise on its head and attempt to imitate a writer you dislike, let yourself go and become that writer; you’ll recognise some habits from your writing that you need to drop.

Character Voice

Characters, too, should have a unique voice. I’ve found that I must inhabit the character’s mind to achieve this though. I try to have a minimum of one hour put aside to write in isolation so that I have the time to reacquaint myself with the character and then inhabit them comfortably.

For antagonist or evil characters it is challenging to enter their minds but also to exit their minds unscathed.

I find songs a great source for words to use in character dialog; songs are like haiku (the better ones at least) where every word, every syllable, should be there only on merit. Most of us are lazy in our speech and we often use the incorrect word because it just pops out. If not overdone this can provide a character with a unique voice.

The same two elements of writing apply for a blog; the words should drop out of your head or heart and on to the page, only editing typographical errors.

“V” is for Voice

Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

Paul Dempsey doesn’t write love songs

Paul Dempsey is the front man and singer/songwriter for the Australian rock group Something for Kate (SFK).

His most recent release is the solo album “Everything is true“, on which he played every instrument and provided all the vocals.

“Dempsey is a gifted observer of the human condition…a truly beautiful collection.” – The Daly Telegraph

Dempsey’s songwriting is superb and unique, it stands apart in an industry full of three-minute lust songs.

“The tally for genius lyrics per second is positively baffling…eleven excellent reasons to acquaint yourself with one of Australia’s finest songwriters.”Beat said of his latest solo effort

Dempsey is a veracious reader too and the breadth of his literary consumption appears to feed his songwriting; everything from literary classics, 1960’s Sci-Fi from Philip K Dick, to A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines  by Janna Levin, and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

“For me…a half a dozen words, the rights words, arranged a certain way…when you get one line that manages to posses some sort of insight into an aspect of your life is so satifying.” PD on Face The Music Songwriting Segment with Paul Dempsey presented by The Push

When asked once about the breadth of subjects in his songs he said that he actively avoids writing love songs, that the genre has been done to death so why put just another love song out there. There are so many more interesting things to write about.

once in a lifetime she says

the waking life stitched together in your head

well, what if it’s only worth

the bundle of nerves it’s written on?

and i don’t need these arms anymore

i don’t need this heart now, to love

i don’t need this skin and bones at all

Ramona was a waitress

Dempsey is currently in the studio recording Something For Kate’s next album, expected to be released later this year.

Paul Dempsey, Stephanie Ashworth, and Clint Hyndman – Something For Kate

“P” is for Paul Dempsey

Seppuku – a must have for writers of Japanese characters


General Akashi Gidayu preparing to carry out Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582

The concept of Seppuku is so ingrained in the culture and psyche of the Japanese people that, as a western writer, you cannot expect to be able to write believable Japanese characters while it remains abhorrent to you.

I remember when this occurred for me; it was a combination of “a moment of satori” with the realisation of a satirical attack—beginning with an “aha” and ending with me choking on the thought as the illusionary barriers that my subconscious had used to hide, and possibly protect my mind, from the truth. It was while reading a novel set in feudal Japan – loosely based around the Forty-Seven Ronin.

With many concepts that I have encountered in philosophical and martial arts studies it cannot be taught or learnt in isolation it can only be transmitted at the intersection of two minds, with the greater challenge for the recipient; it almost becomes them discovering the concept anew.