Have you ever had the experience where you read something, and think ‘Oh my God. That is EXACTLY what I was thinking. That person must know me. We must be, like, TWINS.’
I have that experience on a fairly regular basis when I read a column by Perth writer Ros Thomas, every Saturday morning in the West Australian.
Although she is a few years older than me, and her eldest child is a teenager and a boy, and she is actually qualified to call herself a writer (she was a journalist for more than two decades), I often feel that her words could be my very own, and the experiences she writes about, could be something that happened to me only days prior. It’s kinda spooky, but it gives me the (false) impression that I KNOW her, or (even more creepy), that she knows me. Which she doesn’t.
She smiled at me once though and looked in my direction. I went with a friend to one of her book launches, because my friend actually knows her, and was kind enough to introduce me. And then they went back to talking about stuff that I wasn’t involved in. But that was okay, because I was so excited to just see her in person. When you read someone’s words regularly, you begin to form ideas of what they look like and sound like, more than the tiny little photo in the corner of the magazine ever gives away.
When she began to talk to the assembled group about some of her favourite columns and how she came to be a writer, I did what I always do when people around me are being smart – I began to write down everything she said. Part of me (the overly optimistic and possibly delusional part) sometimes thinks that she is me in five or ten years time, and that her writing success could be mine if I continue down this road. She is a mum with three kids who is also a writer. So am I! She just happens to have a book deal. So I was eager to soak up everything she had to say.
At one stage I felt that she was describing me when she said that sometimes she jumps out of bed to write down a funny thought, that she is constantly writing notes, ideas and overheard conversations on bits of paper. I wanted to put my hand up and tell her I keep a white board in the shower in case I get a really good idea when I am washing my hair (but I didn’t).
So, fellow writers, here are some of the pearls that this fantastic – and very humble and real – writer had to say:
- Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself. It will keep you authentic and on track.
- Writing is a discipline. Force yourself to sit at your desk even if you are not inspired, eventually something will come.
- Do a lot of research. Even for a simple story, there are more facts or background that can help improve a story and make it even richer.
- Be forensic in your observations. Go back to a place where a thought or story came into your head. Take pictures. Look at the colours, the smell, the texture. Make it authentic. If you are secure in your mental imagery, it will make you a better writer.
- Remember the musicality and rhythm of language. Your writing must be able to be read effortlessly.
- The hardest thing to get right is dialogue. If you are writing about a conversation you had, get it on paper as soon as possible.
At the end of the session we had the opportunity to buy a copy of her book and have it signed. I desperately wanted to ask her an intelligent question, but I could only babble my name. I wanted to tell her how she told my stories, and asked my questions and (occasionally) lived my life. But as I listened to other people in the queue, I realised that they all felt the same way. They felt an attachment to this woman as well, whether they were young or old or male or female. Mostly female though.
It was a timely reminder of the value of being common, and I certainly don’t mean that in a derogatory way. By common, I mean recognisable, universal and familiar. It is our shared experiences which bring us together, whether we are reading a column in a newspaper or a blog on the internet. Being told I am common is the comment I value the most by my own readers – ‘you have written exactly what I have been thinking’ or ‘I am so glad I am not the only one who does that.’
Ros Thomas put into words a common experience. She just does it very beautifully, and effortlessly. I wasn’t able to tell her any of this, but I’m sure she already knows.
When I got home and looked at the book she had signed, I saw she had written ‘it was lovely to meet you’, and I thought to myself: thanks to the power of words, we already know each other.