Steve Irwin would have been 50 yesterday. He was an idol of mine (I am also a zoologist, after all), and I can remember many afternoons spent gawking at the television thinking ‘I WANT TO BE HIM’, as he ran around generally being awesome. (Yes, a lot of people thought I was nuts. And still do.)
He strode out there into the world and hopped on the back of a 16-foot crocodile, all in the name of conservation.
You can learn a lot from a man like that. Here are three lessons from ol’ Steve-O. Surprisingly, they apply to writing!
Steve Irwin was one of the most outgoing personalities on television. You could see the passion in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he talked about a rogue kangaroo or injured tiger shark. Even now, I can’t say ‘Crikey!’ without a smile on my face. He wrangled crocodiles and poisonous snakes for fun, which is not something the majority of the population can empathize with. In fact, a lot of people thought he was downright nuts.
That’s what happens when you’re really passionate about something. People will think you are nuts. Ignore them, and give them a reason to wonder if maybe they’re missing out on something. I used to collect animal bones from the woods (I know), and recreate their skeletons on my parent’s porch. (I know.) This is an inherently crazy activity, but I DID IT because I’m passionate about animals, the same way I’m passionate about telling stories.
When writing, you need to find this passion and hang onto it for dear life. You’ve got to find the beating heart underneath all the words on the page and cling to it, because there will come a time when you’re wondering ‘WHY am I writing this again THIS IS TOO HARD can I just give up eat a box of Tim Tams* instead?!’ (This happens several times during the writing process, and is totally normal.)
For some people, the passion is the act of writing itself. For others, it’s a small kernel of truth behind the words. A theme. A character. Even a single line (that will probably get cut in the end but who CARES because it got you to finish your book?)
When you have passion you have confidence. This doesn’t mean you’ll always succeed, but it does mean you’ll have the guts to put yourself out there and make mistakes that will change your writing (and career, ultimately), for the better. It takes confidence to screw up, too.
Passion is also contagious, as evidenced by the number of viewers that Steve regularly got tuning in to his show. He gave people an outlet into the wild world, who would otherwise have almost zero contact with it. How many times have you heard ‘if you don’t enjoy writing it, no one will enjoy reading it’? It’s true, you know. It’s a huge risk to put yourself on the page and write something passionate, but the payoff is worth it, as you’ll end up with more eyes on your words.
Just like you can’t wrangle a crocodile without knowing what you’re doing, you can’t write a story without adhering to certain rules – at least until you know how to break these rules effectively. I think I have a somewhat unique perspective here, as someone who has wrangled animals and writes, I can say that the two activities are quite similar. Both are intimidating. Both require a strong stomach. And both require learning some lessons from the School of Hard Knocks**. (And yes, in both cases people often regard you as somewhat insane. Have you noticed a theme here?)
How do you learn the craft? Practice. You put in your time. Steve was out there as a toddler playing with snakes, testing out his confidence and fine tuning his intuition. He was also growing more in love with the natural world. Your practice also feeds your passion. You don’t become skilled at wrangling crocs overnight, just like you don’t become a skilled, published writer after a week-long binge of reading.
Writing courses, meeting like-minded writers, or a boatload of books on the craft of writing are all useful, but you don’t need me to tell you how to practice your craft. Just do it. Passion without craft is unfocused and while you’ll gain a lot of experiences from it, you might not finish what you start. Passion plus craft is a recipe for getting stuff done well.
- FOCUS ON A GOAL BIGGER THAN YOURSELF
Steve wanted to change the way people saw scary animals, so they had a protected place in this world. He wanted to show that all animals, regardless of whether or not they could poison you at a moment’s notice or snap you in two, were valuable in and of themselves. His goal was very simply, to be a good conservationist. He just did it his own way.
I can’t tell you what your goal should be. All I know is that when your goal is to simply better your own situation, you’ll probably end up feeling like crap a lot of the time. There’s a reason that the happiest people are those who help others. I like to write stories that make people laugh, or connect them to interesting ideas they hadn’t thought of before. You know that feeling, when you close a book and immediately start thinking ‘I wonder what they’re doing right now’? I want to give my readers that. Because I think that’s one of the most magical experiences there is.
When you focus on what you’re giving and putting out there in the world, the return becomes a lot less important. It’s something to lean on when you’re stuck and something that will connect you to a whole community of writerly people going through the same thing. It’s also what will resonate long after you’re gone***.
Now your turn: what non-writing activities have taught you about writing? Have a go in the comments!
* Tim Tam: an incredible chocolate cookie made in Australia. If you haven’t tried a Tim Tam Slam and can’t find them in your city, let me know and I will send you a box of Tim Tams. Every writer needs them.
** In both writing and wrangling, mistakes sting. Luckily with writing, fewer injuries require Polysporin.
*** Thanks, Steve-O. (22 February 1962 – 4 September 2006)