An Apology and a Warning

I almost caused a traffic accident yesterday.

My fault entirely. I did a lane change without checking or signalling and a man in a 4WD behind me had to slam on his brakes so much they squealed. I have no idea how close we came to colliding. He pulled up beside me at the next set of lights and quite rightly abused me for the total idiot I was.

To him, and to any other drivers in the vicinity who may have been alarmed or also had to take evasive action, I deeply apologise. It must have been very scary for the guy in the 4WD. Had we collided the total blame would have been mine. He saved both of us.

Why I did it was simply because I didn’t think. Through a single moment of impatience I put someone else’s life at risk.

I find lately that driving is becoming more and more stressful for me. Perhaps I should give it away, although that will have repercussions for work having to use public transport. It’s not just a “go to work and come home at the end of the day” thing for what I do.

But I get impatient when driving. I need to curb that, to consider others more. I must do that or cause a major accident sometime.

That was the apology. But there are some things, not related to driving, that I will not curb my impatience about, and certainly won’t apologise for.

There are things that make me mad about the way some people act. And if this sounds hypocritical, given my episode in the car yesterday, then that’s what it is. I don’t care. Being hypocritical does not make me wrong.

One of the major things about people that gets me mad is ignorance. Let’s face it, we have the capacity these days to find out more stuff about stuff than ever before. And some people choose not to. They blindly go on wallowing in ignorance for some reason, choosing to believe something simply because they want to, in the face of all facts to the contrary.

Another thing is pretension. I hate it. Some people spend all the time thinking the universe revolves around them, that they must be the centre of attention at all times, that they are one of “the beautiful people” and we must worship them. My cat does that. But then he’s a cat, he doesn’t know any better (and he’s cute as a button, which makes up for it). People should know better.

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Other things: The selfish rich. “Trickle-down economics”. Conspiracy theorists. Braggarts. People who are cruel to animals or children. People who insist their way is the only way. People who know you are behind them on the escalator wanting to get through and refuse to move aside.

All of these and more.

My sociophobia doesn’t help. I hate being in a crowd. I’ve been known to choose not to do the shopping because there would be too many people in the supermarket. I hate waiting in a queue. I walk quickly, and have done so ever since I was a hurried (and harried) articled clerk for a law firm and had to move around the city in very quick time. I walk faster than most people. That makes walking along a crowded street a frustrating experience.

I know some of this is my fault. But here is the warning part of this post: those things that aren’t my fault I will continue to get mad about, continue to criticise, continue to harp on. They deserve my ire.

So I apologise for those things that are my fault. Even if I don’t know they are.

But the other stuff, not so.

 

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

 

 

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Get that Cat off the Desk! Obstacles to Writing.

Since I started writing professionally, I’ve discovered a number of obstacles to the process. That doesn’t seem quite fair. All work has its obstacles of course – in fact, every aspect of life does. Do you have a household where it seems to take forever to get the kids out of bed, feed them breakfast, find school books, make lunches and get them out of the house on time? Think of all the obstacles that get in your way just doing that.

And when you get to work, there are obstacles all around. Fellow workers, the boss, deadlines, customers. I used to be a teacher, and I sometimes felt that students were a big obstacle to teaching. Some students, that is. Most are wonderful. But we always seem to remember the obstacles, not the easy things.

Writing is the same. There are numerous obstacles to the apparently simple task of taking 26 letters and a few punctuation marks and putting them down in an order that makes some kind of sense or beauty.

‘Hey, you’re a writer!’ people say. ‘That must be great! On your bum all day, nothing to worry about. Easy! I don’t have time for it, of course, too busy.’

Writing is great, of course. But if they only knew. I copped this when I was a teacher, too. ‘You’re a teacher? Wow, it must be great to knock off at three o’clock each day and have all those holidays.’ Sometimes, that comment is made jealously, sometimes with a hint of superiority. ‘Oh – you’re a teacher! Well, some of us have real jobs.’

I get that as a writer, too. ‘You’re a writer. I see. But what do you do for a living?’

Obstacles come in many forms. Think what you do for a job, and think what gets in your way.

Just to set the record straight, then, here are some things that are obstacles to being a writer. I’m not trying to say my job is harder than any other. I’m just saying.

(1) The Cat. The first obstacle, for me, is shown in the picture at the top of this post. His name is Humphrey. He’s a Rag Doll cat, and he likes to sit on my desk. Not just sit anywhere, mind you, but next to the fan on my laptop because it’s nice and warm there. He’s always done this, as you can see when I had another office.

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I don’t mind most of the time. Occasionally he lies his tail on the keyboard but is happy when I shift it off. It’s when he decides to move and steps on the keyboard that I get a bit miffed. After all, there I am writing something exciting (I mostly write science-fiction and horror, so there can be lots of exciting bits) and something like this will appear on the page:

“Three bullets hit the policeman. Agnes still had enough sense to ghfyfhtccccggggkgpqsn…”

Did you notice where the cat stepped on the keyboard? If you did, then my writing is better than I thought. Of course, Humphrey’s wandering across my workspace means I have to go and correct his attempt to contribute to the story.

(2) Other commitments are another obstacle. I’d love to spend all my day writing. I really would. But I need to eat. And have clothes on my back. And blog. And interact in meaningful ways with other humans. All those things matter. And that means I can’t write. So dealing with the rest of life effectively means finding the time to work and go shopping and all those other things.

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I usually write early in the mornings as that is when I am most alert and also when I have the time. I work in the afternoons and evenings. So putting in a few hours in the mornings just after breakfast is when I can get most done. Routine is vital when you’re a writer. But the world keeps butting in.

(3) Ideas.

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When I talk to other writers (or when I chat online with them, since most writers are busy writing and don’t have the time to actually step out into the sunlight) some of them are full of ideas. They have notebooks full of ideas. They have stories building up inside them waiting to get a chance to appear on paper.

I don’t.

I’m a man of few ideas. I kind of hope they are good ones, but they aren’t there jostling for space in my cranium. I usually get inspired with a story when I least expect it. It will then consume me until I do something about it. But it’s usually the only one there. I have a very small waiting room.

I wish I had more creative ideas. But I don’t. So sometimes there are days when I sit there wondering what I’m supposed to be typing, and nothing comes. Which leads me to:

(4) Blockage. There is a thing apparently called Writer’s Block. I’ve never had it. Not in the form that most writers mean, that is. Once I start typing, stuff usually flows more or less smoothly. I don’t do much planning. I’ll have a scene mapped out in broad terms in my head and then I’ll start writing and make it up as I go. That leads to the next scene. I used to be a professional actor, so I try to put myself in the part of the characters in the scene, and have a pretty good visual idea of it in my mind, like a film. I just write down what’s happening in the film.

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But sometimes, I get what I call blockage, and that’s when the scene doesn’t work. The characters aren’t co-operating. One of them doesn’t want to play, or the film is too boring. Then I sigh and have a cup of coffee and shoo Humphrey off the desk and go and edit another scene so as to make sure I’m doing something useful.

(5) So while we’re on the topic:  Editing. Of course, any writer worth their salt should have their book professionally edited. Not that professional editors are any better at it, but they are someone different. As a teacher, I would instruct students how to edit their work (or proof-read it, to use the pedagogical term) and one of the best ways to proof-read something is to have someone else do it.

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But what I’m talking about here is the editing after the first draft. It’s vital to have a first draft, to write anything at all in order to have words on paper or screen so they can be manipulated and coaxed into something resembling a readable document. But reading that first draft can be painful. I’ve read enough student essay first drafts to know what I’m talking about here.

Students aren’t into proof-reading or editing. I believe this is for either one of two reasons. One, they think their words are superb, their grammar flawless, their written expression worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, and nothing could possibly improve what is positively Shakespearian in emotional content and Hemingwayesque in pithiness and impact. Or two, they know it’s a pile of rubbish and are too ashamed to read their own work.

I fall into the second category. I hate reading my first drafts. They suck.

So, there are some of the obstacles to writing. Cats, other things to do, ideas, blockage and editing. Even editing this blog will be a chore for me.

We all have obstacles, as I said, making our lives either hard or, at the least, interesting. Some are challenges. Others are just annoying, or even prevent us from completing what we need to do.

Writing is a great job. I love it. Words are fun to play with. But we have to overcome those obstacles. That makes the challenge something special.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

Hayley Roberts and the Birds

I’d like to introduce everyone to my friend, Hayley Roberts. She’s an artist who lives In Melbourne, Australia. I’ve known her for a few years and we were even work colleagues for a while. She’s pretty damn good both as a human being and as a ‘girl what draws stuff’ as she would put it.

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Hayley has just produced a small booklet called Birds Are Friends which is full of bird drawings and information about birds in Eastern Australia, since Hayley is something of a bird nut. As she explains in her introduction, she has always liked birds since she got a peach-faced love bird as a pet when she was 8.

Her effort is not only informative and imaginative, it’s also laugh out loud funny. Hayley not only gives us information about the birds she has selected but also writes hilarious anecdotes and observations about them, based on her own experiences living with and watching them.

Hayley is happy to mail anyone a copy of the booklet. All you need to do is contact her at hayley_m_roberts@hotmail.com and ask nicely!

Hayley is also doing some fan art and concept illustrations for my upcoming novel The Red King. I like her quirky style and her more abstract ideas when she can let go with whatever’s on her mind at the time.

Oh, and she likes unicorns. So she can’t be half bad.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

We’re Just F***ing Monkeys in Shoes

I first heard this phrase listening to Tim Minchin’s wonderfully irreverent song “Confessions”. I presume he came up with it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bEGLbCNRqw

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The song, “Confessions”, is Mr Minchin’s tribute to human mammary glands, at the end of which he states, if I may be allowed to quote:

“From the first little suck of colostrum/To the grope of the nurse in the old people’s hostel/We’re just fucking monkeys in shoes.”

He was, of course, referring to our (albeit laudable) fascination with boobs. But his phrase holds true for other aspects of human existence as well. We are just animals. Always have been, always will be.

Some Animal Instincts we have are as follows:

Animal Instinct 1) The Herd Instinct. We love crowds. Most of us prefer to follow, not lead. Whether it be in fashion, opinion, religious belief, politics, whatever…we would rather follow so that we don’t have to think for ourselves. Leaders are also usually only leaders for a short time. Someone else thinks they can do a better job. Think of two bucks vying for the position for alpha male in the herd.

Animal Instinct 2) The Mating Instinct. This is of incredible importance to us. People are giving birth to other people at an enormous rate. I know parents who didn’t even want children, but they had them due to Animal Instinct 1 above – there was peer and/or family pressure to produce them. I’m not talking about the desire for a partner here. While some scientists would disagree, Love is largely a human affectation, or at least a mammalian one. I mean the desire to reproduce. It is a necessary one, but humans seem to exceed natural population trends. We have children even when we can’t afford to, or can’t actually feed them.

Animal Instinct 3) The Eating Instinct . This is a bit like the Mating Instinct. Here we have people eating large quatities, more than they actually need. Animals tend to be opportunistic eaters – they don’t know where the next meal is coming from, or when, so they take the opportunity to fill up whenever they can. Some people do this too. And often we can’t blame them – there are many people in the world who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Animal Instinct 4). The Survival Instinct. This one has its basis in the other Instincts. We survive by eating, staying in herds and mating. But behind these is the basic need to stay alive long enough to pass on our genes.

I’m not criticising the fact that we are animals. Animals are great. If it wasn’t for animals, we wouldn’t be here. But just because we humans are self-aware does not mean we should forget our ancestry. We do so at our peril. It is good that we are animals.

Angry animal ... a monkey in India.

A lot of human behaviour is explainable by remembering our animal instincts. Tim Minchin’s metaphor is right: we may wear shoes (sometimes most dysfunctional ones – high heels for instance) but we are still monkeys.* We can achieve whatever we put our minds to; we can do good and we can do tremendous evil. The future of the world is in the hands of a bunch of monkeys. We would do well to remember that next time some remarkably stupid piece of reality blindsides us.

*Yes, I know we were never monkeys in an evolutionary sense. Monkeys and people evolved from a common ancestor. But the metaphor still works. No correspondence on this point will be entered into.

For the Love of Cats

I had to apologise to the cat last night.

It was my fault. I arrived home late from work. I’d been out tutoring and spent some extra time with a student and then had to go to the shop on my way home, and I got in about half an hour after I was supposed to. He was at the door, waiting for me. He had a few words to say, which I took on board and then apologised and promised to let him know in future if I’m going to be late.

His name is Humphrey. He’s a nine-year-old Rag Doll, which is the largest breed of domestic cat.

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He isn’t the most active cat I’ve ever seen. In fact most of his time is spent horizontal. If he were to have an appointment diary, it would probably look something like this on a typical day:
4.00 am Wake up human. Demand food.
4.05 am Refuse to eat food given. Go back to sleep.
6.00am Wake up human. Lie on his chest. Purr.
6.10 am Eat breakfast set out at 4.05 am.
6.15 am Wash.
7.00 am Morning nap, outside under steps.
9.00am Enter house. Check food bowl. Complain.
9.10 am Look for sleeping spot for the day, preferably one most inconvenient to human.
9.20 am Sleep
5.00pm Wake up. Demand dinner.
5.30pm Join human watching TV. Wash.
7.00pm Check outside to make sure grounds are secure. Avoid neighbour’s dogs.
7.30 pm Enter house. Check human for possibility of being patted. Purr.
8.00pm Sleep.

As you can see, he spends a lot of time contemplating the mysteries of the universe while giving the appearance of being sleep. At least, that’s what he’d like us to believe.

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He’s what you might call “high maintenance”. He needs a lot of grooming – Rag Dolls grow a lot of long hair. And despite his rigorous schedule, he does find time to get dirty, too: his work in the garden seems to involve a lot of digging and looking under things and exploring the bushes. He has a patch of lavender that he spends hours in, and we have to prune the lavender carefully to maintain his “special spot” in the middle where he can see out but passing people and dogs can’t see in. He is inordinately fond of tummy rubs. He is fussy about his food: won’t touch chicken, prefers room-temperature kangaroo meat, likes the more expensive brands of canned fish (shredded tuna with crab is a big favourite). And he only drinks water out of the tap. I have to turn the tap on and let it run into the kitchen sink so he can lap at it. If I put a bowl of water on the floor he won’t go near it.

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Of course, he doesn’t get it all his own way. He’s not allowed on the table when there is food there. He’s not allowed to sit on my crossword puzzle so I can’t read the clues. And he has to climb down the ship’s ladder to my office – I’m in the basement – all by himself. (He’s good at climbing ladders, and going down them is a complicated procedure of twisting and turning a complete circle on each step.)

But what is it about a cat that makes people go silly? Why do I climb out of bed at 4am to feed Humphrey, rather than tell him to go away or close the door so he can’t come in in the first place? Why do I tolerate his luxurious lifestyle?

Well, I love him, of course. Silly question, really. Don’t know why I even bothered to ask.

I have had other cats, or my family has. In fact, I can’t remember a time when our family didn’t have at least one. One of mine I remember fondly was named Groucho. He was white with brown eyebrows and a brown moustache (hence “Groucho”). He is immortalised in my novel Plato’s Cave  http://www.russellproctor.com/pages.php?tabid=12&pageid=2052&title=Plato%27s+Cave as Bruno, the cat of remarkably similar looks, owned by the main character. Phoebe was a Burmese owned by my parents. She survived a fall of four stories one night when she went for a stroll on the window ledge. Went on to live to ripe old age. Then there was Pinky, a stray that Dad found in a hospital one night and brought home. Never quite tame, she nevertheless found an eternal place in our hearts. And, of course, Rosie and Lucy and Wedl and Linus and Tup Tim and all the others.

Let’s face it, we love cats. And whilst Humphrey may be demanding and lazy and tends to walk across my laptop keyboard when I’m trying to write, I wouldn’t want him any other way.

There are many quotes about cats, but one of my favourites is from Jules Verne: “A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.”

Any cat lover would understand.