As much as I try to ape old mechanical Maugham, I’m still very much an amateur and need inspiration to get kick me along, though I do follow the spirit of his advice.
A hard slog to a glowing achievement
I finished my first book – Redgate – last year after five years of bloody hard toil, forcing myself to sit and write or edit or rewrite almost every day whether I felt like it or not.
I didn’t wait for inspiration to strike: I went out, clubbed it over the head and dragged it back to my cave to skin and clean it. It’s being assessed by some publishing houses now – and I’m waiting nervously to see what happens.
Sound writing advice
Rather than sit around and mope, I’ve started a new book and I told one of my private editors that I want to see if I can finish it in a year instead of the five Redgate took me. Her response was brilliant:
“I don’t like to hear writers putting too much pressure on themselves regarding time though – I understand that you want to get moving and five years is a long time, but you also don’t want or need to turn into a book writing machine. Sometimes very successful writers start churning out copies of their first success, rather than taking the time to nurture a spark into something new.”
I think the message here is that no matter what the task – art, work, life – don’t rush. Let it develop. And to do that, we need inspiration, no matter what Mr Maugham says.
Books that inspire me
Inspiration is the spring that feeds the well and reminds us why we are bloodying ourselves in the pursuit of our dreams. I’m sure he went for country walks or something of the like to clear his head after a writing session!
So I’ve been thinking. What inspires me?
Easy. Books. Just about my only big set of possessions in the world right now is my library, stashed in boxes and a few cabinets at my parent’s house in Greenwood, Australia. And in this collection are books that I have read and re-read over and over again that nourish my brain and kick me in the arse to get up and go. To paraphrase my editor, a good book takes the time to nurture a spark and could kindle something new.
And looking back, there’s a clutch of books that I turn to over and again when I feel my tank needs a bit of topping up. I’d love to know what your carrots and sticks are, but first, here are mine…
My top 5 most inspiring books:
1. The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay
My copy of this debut novel by the late Australian writer Bryce Courtenay is so dog-earned and spine cracked from reading and re-reading that it could be mistaken for an antique sheaf of papyrus maps.
It’s a good story well told with bold characters that get under your skin and events that haunt you.
The narrative follows Peekay, who grows from boyhood to young manhood in Apartheid era South Africa. He discovers his intelligence and ability along the way as it’s nurtured and encouraged by a menagerie of mentors: Hoppie the boxer, Big Hettie on the train, Doc at the piano and in the garden and the hills, Geel Piet at the boxing bag.
Tragic, hilarious, uplifting and terrifying, this is a book that will have you turning the pages into the early hours.
2. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero – David Remnick
I think this is one of the greatest non-fiction books ever written, and fittingly its about ‘the greatest,’ Muhammad Ali.
It tells of how a skinny kid called Cassius Clay walked into a boxing club after getting his bike stolen and became the ultimate American hero, a man who defied the world and won it on his own terms.
Remnick nails the details and captures the period perfectly, putting you right in the sweat and toil as Ali trains for each of his famous fights. Then he drops you in the fearful ring as the punches ring out against the heavyweight killer Sonny Liston and the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman.
But it’s Ali’s fights outside the ring that tear at your head and heart. Ali punches out against the racism and violence of ’60s and ’70s America and is robbed of the prime years of his fighting life for refusing to be drafted for Vietnam.
But he comes out on top, better than ever, because he refuses to be cowed.
Remnick really gets into Ali’s head, and dare I say his soul, in this book. Sport can be an easy bit of inspiration – it has clear goals and winners and glory.
And this book certainly has that. But it offers more. It looks at the fundamental moral questions of a person’s life and the quest for authenticity we strive for – and shows how one man overcame so much to whip it all.
3. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
This is a straight up classic, written in the twilight years of the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius as a kind of note to himself – that we can now all read and gain insights from.
Here’s my favourite quote:
“Remember how often you have postponed minding your interest, and let slip those opportunities the gods have given you. It is now high time to consider what sort of world you are part of, and from what kind of governor of it you are descended; that you have a set period assigned you to act in, and unless you improve it to brighten and compose your thoughts, it will quickly run off with you, and be lost beyond recovery.”
Aurelius constantly reminds us that life is fleeting and that our chances to do things slip away unless we grasp them firmly.
I need that reminder, a lot, especially when I’m wasting time on Facebook or Cricinfo when I should be writing or working or doing something productive. And through this application, we reach for the stars…
4. The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe is my favourite writer. Ever. And in this book he flexes his New Journalism muscles and creates such a vivid account of the American space race in the 1960s that you can feel the retro-rockets rumbling under your seat.
He tells the story of the Mercury Six – the first six men selected for the NASA space programme and how they became the very best of the best – the men with ‘the right stuff’.
Funnily enough, the piloting fraternity didn’t consider them to be real pilots – they just got shot into space and sat in a seat on the way up and down. But in doing so, they ascended to the very top of the ziggurat of ambition, leaving the rest behind to wave their fists at the exhaust trail.
This is a book about competition, jealousy, ambition, rivalry, ridiculous egos and dizzying heights – and it’s told with the biting humour and sensitive insight of a gin-drinking psychologist. This book reminds me of what’s possible with the written word and challenges me to do better, to reach for the right stuff and ignore the nagging voices that tell me to give up.
5. Born to Win – John Bertrand
I read this book every time I go home to Australia after a bout of travelling with Carmen. It tells the story of the 1983 America’s Cup sailing race and the mad obsession that overtook the Australian team that won it – breaking the 132-year stranglehold the Americans had on the event.
John Bertrand takes the reader deep into the psychology of the race and shows it was brains and hearts, not brawn or technology that won the cup. The team had to first believe in itself, and each individual had to confront his deepest fears to become a winner.
This book reminds me that every person who has ever strived for something great has paid a steep price in blood, sweat, tears and terror.
Bertrand likens it to war, and writes of how months after he had defeated the opposition boat, he would wake up in the middle of the night in terror, hands gripping the invisible wheel of his yacht. He devoted himself so totally to the task that coming back down to reality was a challenge even greater than winning.
So those are my top 5 most inspiring books. What are yours?
What sets your pulse racing and lights a fire under your butt to get up and go and have a crack at your dreams?
I need some new reading material, so fire away…