I do lose myself in the activity of writing; I’m often surprised it’s [already] 2 pm when it felt like minutes at my desk. The driving force is the mission behind the story. In the case of On The Road With Kids, thinking I had something more important to share than a travel yarn, about being a dad, hubby, chasing dreams, even mortality, drove me forward on the days when it seemed a bit hard.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
I’d never written a book before; it seemed like something other people would do. I scratched away for a long time but the turning point came when I decided to actually take it and myself seriously. In sports terms, I turned ‘pro’, in my mind at least. I studied other writers, prose and dialogue, joined the QWC and the ASA, went to many writer workshops and masterclasses. This gave me confidence that if I persevered and was open to learning, I could get there.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I am now working on my second book and had forgotten how long and dark the tunnel can seem in the early stages of the process. Motivation comes in spurts. Discipline, which I don’t always succeed at, comes back to being a ‘pro’—turning up, treating it like a job, getting in the nets and practising. If you were at work you wouldn’t have the option to clean the fridge or watch Judge Judy, so it’s best not to do that, even though that Judy is such a wise woman. I also once read that a writer should get out of their PJ’s if they want to be disciplined and treat writing seriously, but I am certain that Ugg Boots are OK.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
The biggest change has been the infiltration of the cyber world into my daily life. I now use internet-blocking software while writing to disable my natural inclination to be distracted. I do find that a block of time in the mornings works best for me.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
For years my writer wife Mandy and I shared an office, telling each other to stop being noisy, such as when tapping keyboards. We always dreamed of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. So last year I built an attic room above our carport, accessed via a ladder, and featuring cute wooden beams and floors. (I visited the Brontë home in England years ago and stole the idea from their attic). It’s my space, away from the rest of the family, and has made a huge difference to my productivity, except for when the kids hijack it, which was really my own fault for putting beanbags in the room. My timber desk is generally messy, but I keep numerous files relating to the book I am writing – sticking any thoughts, ideas, research or articles in them under various themes the story may cover.
What are your essential writing tools?
Letters, dictaphone, idea files as discussed, photos, pen and paper for first drafts, the Currumbin surf club mornings, my own writing space, time, software to block the internet, and the internet for research. Plus a healthy positive attitude. I find saying ‘It’s all shit’ is not very helpful as a writing tool.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
I would have liked to know what a dangling participle was. When a manuscript assessor told me I was guilty of these, I checked to see if my fly was down.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I read all genres, enjoying crime fiction for escapism. Sometimes I get caught in a book and catch myself analysing the structure and methods of dialogue. For learning, I love the zaniness of Kurt Vonnegut and just about everything JK does. Of course, this is not so good when you just want to enjoy the ride. When I really get into a story, I will read it slowly, savouring it like a fine wine.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
I think the term ‘writer’s block’ is sometimes misused. You see this in the movies: some dude at a desk on a Greek island waiting for magic to strike before he can start smashing out creative, awesome words. If I wait for this sense of ‘being in the zone’, I will write for about forty minutes per year. Avoiding ‘block’ is about not buying into it; it’s about harnessing the steely determination to keep turning up at the page or screen when you don’t feel like it. I now have faith that words will come if I just keep moving the pen.
Some days I start by writing stuff like: ‘I have no idea what to write but am writing this any way to see if an idea comes’…and so forth.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Turn pro. I said to myself at the two-year mark of writing my book, ‘If I want to be a writer, I should start acting like one.’ That approach will lead all sorts of decisions: dedicating time, creating a writing space, professional development, seeking advice, understanding that drafts are drafts, and overall, learning the craft. Ultimately, if you love playing with words, sharing stories, maybe even changing lives, then you have no choice—just write.
John Ahern is the author of the travel memoir On The Road…With Kids, the winner of the Queensland Literary Awards People’s Choice Book of the Year 2015. johnahern.com