Getting Out Of Your Own Way

Guest post by Tamara Hunter

Writing – you love it. You either call yourself a writer or you want to be one.

But how often do you actually sit down and write? What are the reasons you invent not to write? Do you even know – or do you just file it under P? P for Procrastination, that is. P for putting it off for a better time – a time when there’s no housework, no kids interrupting, nothing on TV; a time when you feel more inspired, more energetic, have a fully formed idea to work with; a time when there’s more time available.

Now, take your reasons, turn them over and around and inside out – and ask yourself why you’re really not writing. Look more deeply, says author Jon Bauer, and chances are you’ll find something more confronting behind all the faffing.

Bauer, whose debut novel is Rocks in the Belly, calls it getting out of your own way. He held a workshop on the subject at the Perth Writers Festival and spoke to Waxings beforehand.

Bauer says everything we do represents a confrontation with ourselves, one way or the other. Bringing up a child, doing the washing, having a relationship – all pit us, to some degree, against ourselves.

“But nothing that I’ve found, apart from relating to others, has confronted me with myself as much as writing has,” he says. “You face the obstacles you put in your own way, you face the voices, the insecurities, the doubts – all the reasons there are to give up in the search of what it is you’re trying to achieve.”

Bauer says anyone can be shown the stylistic and skill-based elements of writing, like characterisation, plot or structure. But they’ll struggle to get to the end of that novel, short story, or wherever it is they’re headed in life if they can’t be honest with themselves about the biggest obstacles to their own success – why they’re doing it, what happens to them when they are doing it, and all the ways there are to stop doing it.

“There are lots of things which deter you and push you away and there are lots of ways in which we think our reasons are genuine and well founded, and absolutely time is an issue, and absolutely all these things…and they just aren’t,” says Bauer. “You’ve got to consciously face why it would be that you don’t want the time.”

Maybe it’s fear that you won’t be good enough, or maybe it’s fear of success. Maybe you think you need to be perfect, or you’re worried about what others will think, or you think you don’t have anything wonderful to say – the reasons are different for everyone.

Whatever the reason, Bauer believes awareness is key to eliminating obstacles.

“I seem to be full of twee sayings but that which you hear you don’t listen to,” he says. “It is revolutionary to come face to face, in awareness and kindness, with what it is that you put in your own way, and as soon as you have that in awareness it just loses all power. And so people will be able to sail through obstacles that they were once butting into – they just will.”

He says ultimately the best way to judge whether people really do want to write is to see what they produce. While there are plenty of people who profess to want to write, only a small percentage of them ever jump all the hurdles and achieve their goals.

“I would make the maybe slightly harsh suggestion that those that don’t, don’t really want to,” he says. “Not enough. Not enough to face the pain of it. Not enough to actually face themselves and go really close to their idea of whether they’re actually good enough anyway.”

He’s worried about sounding hard, but Bauer seems anything but. He comes across as funny, self-effacing and compassionate, his answers thoughtful and steeped in his personal experience of self-confrontation. When his own book was finally published, he was surprised to find himself feeling the opposite of great.

“When my book came out I found out that a lot more of me than I realised was interested in validation,” he says. “I thought that having a book come out was going to solve a lot more of my problems than it did. And I wasn’t even aware of those needs that I had for that book until I felt the grief after it had come out and those things hadn’t happened.

“I wanted it to fix all my financial problems and I wanted it to plug that hole that we all feel in our middles. I guess I just thought it was going to make me feel finished, or satisfied.”

He’s not ungrateful – he’s proud and sees there are some wonderful things about being published. Even so: “It’s just not that great. Actually, I’m having to systematically untangle myself from that process. I’m having to systematically work at stepping away from it again and stepping back to where I was.

“Many writers talk about this, and I can see why – not that I’m Mr Big – but those days when I was just doing it for its own sake, and never really thinking – people were pushing me to get published and I just didn’t think I was really ready: glorious days, glorious days. My message to (people in that position) would be you’re really lucky. And if you’re enjoying it you’re a success, that’s it. The rest will follow.”

He echoes Ray Bradbury in lamenting how so much of life now is about things not done for their own sake.

“Writing is one of those rare places where even though it might not necessarily be paying the bills, it’s one of those beautiful things in life we can do for its own sake – one of those unproductive, wonderful things like dancing, or whatever it is where you do it for its own sake,” Bauer says.

“There’s a strong rip in writing that’s pulling you out to this need to be published, this need to be perfect, this need to be validated, this need to be all those things. And you have to swim against that rip all the time because, back on the shore, you’re validated already. The writing validates you naturally, because you’re finding yourself and you’re enjoying it. You’re already validated.

“The block is in your own shame and your own observation of yourself and that can be ignored. Any victory you make over that in your writing will spill over into your life.”

Bauer says the key is simply to write – good writing, bad writing, any writing. Anyone with talent – and that’s most of us, he ventures to say – will find at least the nub of something good in what they put down, even if the rest is dross. There’ll be a sentence, a phrase, an idea or a theme which is worth exploring. Rather than thinking it’s awful and using it as a reason to stop, someone who’s serious about writing will do the work needed to bring it up to scratch.

“You don’t go to the shower and expect to turn the tap on and hot water to come immediately. It’s almost as if some people keep going to the taps and turning it on but it’s not hot so they turn it off again, and they go to it and turn it on and it’s still not hot and they expect it to be hot without them running it and working at it and getting through that bad work and that bad writing and those mistakes.

“One teacher I had kept drumming it into us that people expect to write a novel in one or two or three drafts, and actually it’s a huge amount of redrafting. One of the reasons people stop is they go – this is awful!

“Now, I’m 75,000 words into my next book and a lot of it is awful, but some of it is great and some of it will be great and I can see themes and scenes that are already going to be in the final novel – but they will need an awful lot of work.

“As you go along you know that some of those things that are erupting out of you are sticking, and a lot of it will fall away. I mean, of those 80,000 words I would imagine 20 per cent will be in the final draft and that 20 per cent will have been worked on 100 times. But imagine if you did write it and came back to it and realised that it had gone off when you’d turned your back, and so you gave up.”

He believes there’s no such thing as a bad novel – only those which should have had more work or more maturation on the part of the writer.

“A lot of books come out too soon. A lot of people sign a two-book deal and they have to rush their second book. And I know this is again a twee saying, but there’s no such thing as a bad book – it’s just unfinished.”


Jon Bauer is a novelist and writer of short stories and plays for radio and stage. He came to writing at the relatively late age of 30 and achieved prominence after having two short stories placed in the top 50 of the Bridport Prize – a feat which has never been repeated. He was born in England but has permanent residency in Australia under a Distinguished Talent Visa. His first novel is Rocks in the Belly. Bauer lives in Victoria and is working on two more novels.

More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival >

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4 Responses to Getting Out Of Your Own Way

  1. Ara Jansen says:

    I love what Jon says about writing just for the sake of it. In a world where just being famous seems to have actually (and scarily) become a profession, there are no longer enough things we do just for the sake and pleasure of it – and with no goal other than the act itself. Surely writing which is done for the sake of it is writing at its most joyful. This story should be encouragement to us all.

    • Carina Tan-Van Baren says:

      I agree Ara. That’s where we all start isn’t it – wanting to write because we enjoy it? The trick is remembering that and not getting side-tracked.

  2. tamarahunter says:

    It’s true that it’s all too easy to find reasons not to write, and yet it’s such a pleasure when you make the space and just do it.

    I love that Jon urges you to give yourself permission to write, even if it’s bad writing. A blank page and you, poised over the keyboard or the pen…you never know what might pop out!

  3. Greg Doolan says:

    The analogy of turning on the tap and finding instant hot water is a good one. Unless you’re a freak of a talent, becoming good at something takes time, practice, persistence, dedication, etc, etc… I remember – well, more or less – a quote from a well know golfer who was asked by a commentator how much luck played a part of his game, after that golfer had pulled off an incredible shot. The golfer replied along the lines of: well you know the more I practice the luckier I seem to get.

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