“We do not write because we are happy; we are happy because we write.”
– Use Your Words, Catherine Deveney
Ever since, I’ve been writing every single day without fail. So when I heard she was holding a Gunnas Writing Masterclass in Sydney, I knew I just had to go. I had to meet the woman who completely changed my mindset about writing.
It was an expensive investment for a casually-employed 24-year-old such as myself, but boy you just can’t put a price on inspiration.
Let me set the scene for you: 20 or so people, middle-aged or older, well into their careers or recently retired. Me – a little lamb, doe-eyed and amazed at all these men and women with incredible stories to tell. All sat around a giant table on the second floor of a hipster bistro/restaurant in Surry Hills. A brewing storm outside. Thunder. Eventually the sky unleashes it’s turmoil and the thick heavy rain pelts against the window. We’re all just sitting there, listening to the thunder and rain, writing. Catherine Deveny blesses us all with her words of wisdom. Coffee, lunch and dessert provided.
It was freaking awesome.
Here are some things I learned at her Masterclass.
1. Lower your expectations
I feel like this is one of the biggest things that’s stopped me in the past from sitting down and taking a good jab at things. It’s what stopped me from applying for jobs. It’s what stopped me from getting out my canvas and paint. It’s what stopped me from starting my novel. I expect way too much from myself and I’m left bitterly disappointed when I can’t reach those expectations.
I think it’s like an engrained mindset due to the privilege I’ve had growing up. Being able to go to school and being forced into the competitive nature of it all – grades, ranks, ATARs. I think of my proudest achievements as coming first in my art class or getting a high distinction in an essay I wrote for Environmental Studies… and when I flunk an assessment or lose a competition I question my ability to make great art.
Don’t expect to have something great come out of something you’ve done. Just be freaking happy you’ve done it.
2. Don’t feel the pressure to live up to your parent’s broken dreams
Asian kids – I’m especially talking to you. I get it, our parents have sacrificed so much in order for us to be able to get a great education, get into university and get a job as a lawyer/doctor/engineer. They think that status and money = a good life because that’s the life they’ve never had.
Heck, when my parents arrived in Australia they worked two jobs each, rotating their work hours so that at least one of them could be at home to look after my brother and I. They were working 24/7 at shitty factory jobs to get by. I’ve had this insurmountable pressure for most of my life that I had to be successful and to live out my parent’s dreams (it’s even worse that my brother has gone on to live his own life and all the pressure has fallen on me now).
What I am grateful for is that eventually my parents accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or a doctor. They accepted that I liked to write and they were immensely proud of me when my HSC artwork got into Art Express. They were prouder that I had been accepted into university to do a DOUBLE DEGREE in Communications and International Studies without having to go to a selective and/or private school like their friend’s children.
But they still had expectations – that I was going to be a journalist on TV, that I was going to work for big banks and corporations, that I was going to be the CEO of Woolworths by climbing the ladder (I had a part-time job as a check-out chick throughout the latter years of high school).
All these little comments made me want to make my parents proud of me… but you know what? There are different ways to make them proud and living out their expectations may be one way, but wouldn’t you rather live out your own dreams and be successful at that?
3. Stop doing everything for everyone and do things for yourself
I started writing for fun when I was in primary school. I used to get a couple of A4 sheets of paper, fold them and staple them in the middle so it turned into a little book. I turned them into magazines. I would write articles about animals, create yes-and-no quizzes to find out who your future boyfriend would be and stuck random photos of celebrities into my self-made magazine. I’d share it around with the class when I was done. It was so fun.
I also wrote really lame Sailor Moon and Harry Potter plays for my friends to act out. Then, in my last year of primary school (I was about 11 years old), I started writing my first novel. It was called “Rockstar Girls” or something like that. It was about five girls in a band. I even drew my own cover for my novel. I did all these things because I wanted to, for myself. It was a nice little escapism. Somewhere between then and now, I kind of lost that. I started writing stories knowing that my classmates would read them and I started catering to that. Oh, I have to finish this page so that I can give it to Nimat to read.
Extension English was the worst. There is nothing like getting the fun of writing sucked out of you by your teacher. I decided I wanted to write a romantic short story. My teacher told me to get some Mills & Boons books to get inspiration from them. BLEUGH. I did it, because he was my teacher. He told me to set up a structure for my story. I set up a structure. He told me to get a folder and put all my research in there. I did that. By the time I finished writing this short story, I hated it with every ounce of my being. It wasn’t me. Every paragraph had been combed to fit what he believed was passable for a HSC marker. I did everything he wanted me to, conformed my short story into the lamest piece of shit I’ve ever written and got the shittiest HSC mark for it. I never wrote a story again after that.
The point is, you’re never going to be proud of the work you do if you’re not doing it for yourself. If you’re trying to conform to other people’s expectations and standards, you’re going to be a miserable sod. Do it for yourself. Do it because you freaking love writing lame Sailor Moon plays.
4. Don’t take on more than two projects at a time
I’m a multi-project kind of person. I like to think that I can tackle everything and get 110% out of everything. Here’s another example from my time in high school:
For my senior year, I had to do four major works – my short story for Extension English, my architecture project for Industrial Technology, a digital photomedia piece for Visual Arts and three performances for Music. There I was in my last year of high school, absolutely freaking sleep-deprived and baggy-eyed, dealing with bullshit from school bullies and feeling emotionally distressed because my dad was sick.
I remember I spent an entire night slaving away at my PC on SketchUp, making a model of the Norwegian Resort & Spa I had designed. I didn’t sleep, but the next day I had to go to school to meet up with my Extension English teacher and update him on my lame short story. I had to organise my band members to come practice Bohemian Rhapsody with me (because of course, out of every song in the entire world, I decided I wanted to perform that for my HSC). On top of that, I had to organise a photoshoot for my Visual Art body of work.
I found that I just couldn’t put 100% into everything and some things were suffering. I dropped music (mostly because I had a falling-out with my band, but also because my music teacher sucked so bad and didn’t care about her students). It was such a liberating thing to be free of a project… but with 3 other ones to focus on, I was still drained. I ended up doing really well with my Industrial Technology project and my artwork was selected for Art Express. You all know how my short story for Extension English turned out. Let’s just bury that deep in the pits of hell.
Even to this day, I have this sense that I want to do everything all at once. But I just can’t. Some things suffer. It’s better to put 100% of you into one thing than 30% of you into three things. Wait, that doesn’t add up to 100, does it? I failed math, by the way #DefyingAsianStereotypes.
5. Great things happen in bite size pieces
You don’t have to create a masterpiece in one sitting. All it takes is a few minutes a day, every day. After reading Catherine’s book Use Your Words, I’ve committed 30 minutes from Monday to Friday just writing. 30 minutes! That’s shorter than a Sherlock Holmes episode. I do it first thing in the morning as soon as I wake up. Even if my stomach is rumbling, even if I need a shower, even if I have an important email to chase up. I wake up groggily and get myself to my computer. I just write for 30 minutes. Sometimes I get so into the zone that by the time I know it, two hours have gone by.
I’ve done this for the past two weeks. I now have 8,000 words written. Boom.
I don’t know how to express how Catherine Deveny has changed my life. But she has. I’m thankful that I stumbled upon her book at Dymocks one fateful day. If I hadn’t I would still be at 0 words, halted by the idea that I’m not good enough or that I have some weird expectation to live up to.
Here, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Catherine:
“Writing changes the world. It connects people. Writing – writing your own words and reading other people’s – saves lives.”
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