I got a little bit of encouragement with my writing stuff a few days ago. I’ll tell you about it in a week or two. It’ll be good fun, I think.

This got me thinking about encouragement and what it means to me. The temptation to generalise is huge. It would be very easy to start going on about how, “we all need this” and “we all want that,” but I don’t really know what we all want or need, do I? I only know about me.

I need it though, I know that. A little encouragement from time to time, I need it. 

Or perhaps not. Perhaps that’s incorrect. Perhaps I don’t ‘need’ it, per se, it just helps me. 

I think that might be a key difference between me, the eejit who continues to write despite everything, and those who finally throw their arms up and stop. I think someone like me, who keeps grinding away at it, is like a camel or a cactus. Except, instead of water, we store up tiny droplets of encouragement in our humps and in our prickles. We can travel a long way on very very little.

That’s good, I suppose but, still, even the camel or the cactus will stumble or wither eventually, if the drought is long enough or the distance between oases too great.

So, yeah, I got this little droplet of encouragement out of the blue and now I’m all buzzy and rejuvenated again. I can write, I really can write, and people sometimes like what I do. I will grab my board and surf this wave as far as I can. Who knows? I might even make it to the shore this time.

It’s a shame that the encouragement effect diminishes over time, for me at least. I got some encouragement earlier in the year when my short play did well in the Claremorris fringe. I surfed that pretty well. But it got used up, like petrol in a car, until I was chugging on empty again, pig-headedly refusing to quit. 

One thing to learn from this is to give encouragement where you can. It is a lifeblood, a drop of liquid that can make your brown cactus flower or your camel make it over the next dune. Give encouragement.

But here’s the rub. We, the people who benefit from your encouragement, are connoisseurs of the stuff. We can smell a bad glass of it a mile off. Gratuitous encouragement, self-endearing encouragement, encouragement which seeks reciprocation, pity-encouragement. These things, however well meant, are simply poisonous to us. They are a hemlock which can land us in our beds for weeks, battered and unable to function.

Encouragement is a bit like love. You can’t make either up, however much you would like to. You can’t just pull it out of thin air. The moments when it can be given are quite rare and momentary. Again, like the surf waves, you have to catch those moments and use them.

That’s it. Use your encouragement when you get it, keep plodding on when you don’t, and don’t ever give it if you haven’t got it to give.

Live long and prosper.


Jim Murdoch said...

There is always the danger of going through the motions and I see a lot of that online, doing what we think is expected of us, playing the game. I’m naturally cynical and I find it hard to see the world any other way. I never quite trust sincerity. Often it feels synthetic. Especially from the gushers: “We must meet up for coffee. I’ll phone you.” I knew this girl once who said she wanted to be my friend and so I asked her, “What do friends do?” She’d never thought about it before. You just became friends as far as she was concerned. Facebook didn’t even exist back then but if it had she would’ve sent me a friend request and that’s where we would’ve hung out. I insisted that we do stuff together and we did and it all worked out fine—we became friends—but it took time and effort.

Some people are natural givers. Others are natural takers. I like to think I’m a giver and I give without any expectations of getting something back in return but here’s the rub: I’m genuinely puzzled when I get nothing back in return. It doesn’t make sense to me. Does not compute. A lot of takers assume that givers don’t have needs that they give out of a never-ending surplus but no one has a never-ending surplus. Givers, admittedly, don’t need much—they survive on the smallest amounts of encouragement—but they can’t survive on nothing and it’s unfair to think they can.

It’s like the horse in Animal Farm that plods on, getting up earlier, working later and then one day collapses and gets sent off to the knacker’s yard.

Encouragement and expectation are connected. I expect my wife to say nice things about my writing—I hand her the stuff and lurk close by to ensure she does—but the same doesn’t apply to people like you. I hope you’ll say something nice about my writing—it pleases the hell out of me when you do—but I don’t bank on it (that’s one way to pretty much guarantee disappointment and I’m not just talking about you here)—but it’s so much better when a complete stranger comes along and says something nice. Why should that be better than when a friend, someone you have a history with, says something nice? It’s all to do with novelty. And we’re suckers for it. Something new is always better than something old. Or at least it seems better which is why men end up chasing bits of skirt all over town because their breasts become somehow more attractive than their wives’ breasts, their kisses are sweeter and their lovemaking much more intense.

Encouragement diminishes. Appreciation also diminishes. Everything fades in time. The patina of reality continually needs a fresh coat of varnish.

So, let me just say that I’m genuinely pleased for you and also add that I’m a little jealous too. Just because I’m jealous doesn’t mean I can’t be pleased and genuinely pleased but I’m human too. I want what you have. I wouldn’t take what you have and deprive you of it—that wouldn’t be nice—but I’d like there to be enough to go round so we could both wallow in it for a few days anyway.

Ken Armstrong said...

Jim: The 'Animal Farm' analogy is great, wish I thought of it.

This is one hell of a great comment and there's so much in it I don't know where to start.

I think, for my part, I'm not good at encouragement because I don't value my own giving of it... does that make sense. "Who would get anything from being encouraged by me" type-of-thing. I often read stuff, often by you, and I like it and nod and move on, not really knowing what any more from me would add to the equation. It's a lesson to learn, I reckon.

I think you're a great writer, as I hope you know. Not a 'great writer' in the nice sense but someone who's work could potentially live much longer than their own span. You're right, of course, this is not a 'given' but I feel the telling and re-telling of it dilutes it somewhat. I get this from having being old I am pretty good, over-and-over again, to the point where I disregard that opinion almost completely... I'm not *that* good.

Lastly, I completely get the 'jealousy' bit. I get that too and I admire, as ever, your honesty and truth in mentioning it. This is a key to why your writing may remain a 'thing' for future years to consider. This encouragement of mine is only small but we take what we can get, eh? :)

Thanks for the comment mate.

Claire Boyles said...

thanks Ken, I need encouragement to keep on doing what I do. Without it, I would definitely stop. You were one of the people who inspired me through your encouragement to keep writing. That's one of the reasons I keep an eyes out for your blog posts. That, and the fact that they're usually very well written and thought provoking.

Encouragement is so important, and I do my best to take time, when I can to say thanks, I enjoyed that.

so thanks, I enjoyed that, please keep writing :)

Anonymous said...

You've been a great encouragement to me Ken ;) and not just with pats on the head. With honesty and even a gentle slap on the wrist ;) All for my benefit.
And of course you know I 'm a fan ;) x

Ken Armstrong said...

Claire: I'll keep writing Claire, until I drop. Thanks for the positivity.

AM: Thanks. You've got the writing chops, I reckon. Keep pushing and don't ever be easy on yourself... just like I won't. :)

hope said...

You HAVE to keep writing because I need to have wonderful stuff to read. :)

Amazing what a pat on the back will do to refuel the tanks, as it were. Have a pat...and a hug too. ;)

Jim Murdoch said...

I think the real problem here, Ken, is that we can’t get inside anyone else’s head and so we make assumptions. We assume that a man we think is great sees himself as great because how could he possible see himself any differently? As writers we spend so much time inside our own heads you would think we didn’t need anyone’s approval bar our own. God said it was good and it was good. Was it nice that the angels burst into spontaneous applause? Yes, but not necessary. We, however, are not gods or if we are we are gods in the Greco-Roman and not the Judeo-Christian tradition. We have powers, the ability to create and destroy with a flick of our pen, but we are also flawed; Nature’s attempt at balancing the books I suppose. I wonder if Beckett or Pinter ever looked in the mirror in the morning and saw a great man looking back at them, bleary-eyed and in need of a shave and a cup of coffee. That’s the problem with MENSA: it has a test to see if you’re a regular ol’ genius but not one to test for the literary variety.

I was looking for a quote just now. What you said reminded me of something I’d read but Google wasn’t playing ball. I was trying to watch TV and the bird was screaming which didn’t help. It was an exchange—that I could remember—but I couldn’t remember who was talking. One person was asking if they were good; the other confirmed it. It was a bit like when Jesus kept asking Peter if he loved him. And then it dawned on me. It was something I’d written. From my short story ‘Funny Strange’:

         “Edna? Was I funny, love?”
         “Yes, dear.”
         “Was I really funny?”
         “Yes, dear. You were really funny.”
         “I really made ’em laugh, didn’t I?”
         “Yes, dear. You made ’em laugh. You always make ’em laugh an’ always will make ’em laugh. Now will you please get changed so we can go an’eat?”

When people tell me I’m good—not many say I’m great but it’s nice that you did—I’m tempted to ask them, “Why? Why am I good? What’s so good about me? Prove to me I’m good. I think you’re just saying it. Why are you saying it? What’s in it for you? Can I trust you? Why should I trust you? How do you know what’s good? What do you mean by ‘good’? Is my ‘good’ the same as your ‘good’?”

And if I did they’d reply something along the lines of: “How many ways do you need me to say it? You were good. In my opinion you were good. You were good like medicine is good. You swallow it and it does you good. You do me good.”

To which I might reply: “That good, eh? I can live with that.”

I don’t understand why more people don’t quote from their own writing. Puzzles the hell out of me. I’ll probably spend an hour on this comment. I have sentences I’ve spent longer on than that. Why would I not quote from them, the ones where I got the words spot on? I suspect it’s because we tend to quote from the greats and if we quote from ourselves it looks like we’re suggesting that we’re in their league and that smacks of arrogance. It’s okay to be great as long as you’re humble about it.

I don’t think I am great. I have my moments, my moments of greatness, but they come and go. I’m grateful they come at all. And I suspect the same is true for the truly greats. Their moments may last minutes or hours or even days if they’re lucky buggers and then it’s back to the humdrumness of everyday life. I’m glad you thought my comment was great. I can’t actually remember anything about it other than the Animal Farm comment and I only remember that because you reminded me of it. Not so great, eh?

Ken Armstrong said...

Hope: You are too good to me... but I appreciated it. Thanks. :)

Jim: I think we are all subject to the human condition, self doubt, loathing even, is a part of that. I bet Samuel had it more than most.

I stand over it. Your insight and craft makes you damned good but it's the laser beam of selfless truth that pushes that further.

I can only wish you what you might wish yourself cos I'm not sure what that is. I don't think literary superstardom would sit very well with you. You've got the gal and the bird and the choccie biccies as well as the tools and the will to write on. That's pretty good, I reckon.

Strike that... pretty great. :)

ND Mitchell said...

I like reading your stuff Ken and don't always comment, but felt I should here. Thanks for writing it down-it's interesting and often makes me think. Cheers!

Karen Redman said...

Hi Ken, I read your blog every week but am sometimes remiss about leaving a comment ... even if it is only to say "thank you". And I DO thank you because I invariably enjoy what you write or it provides me with "thinking material". And, yes, encouragement is so, so important in almost every area of our lives. It is encouragement that helps us to continue. x