Writing advice from the Czech president

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My husband and I recently returned from a three-week trip to Europe. Here is part 2 of a three-part series on each of the cities we visited. Today I focus on Prague with a piece on the importance of separating writing and editing. (Part 1, on Amsterdam, is still available for those who missed it.)

Canada, where I live, has some of the strongest tobacco-control legislation in the world. This delights me because, while I sympathize with smokers, I loathe the smell of tobacco smoke. It makes me want to gag.

I worked in daily newspapers 25 years ago and smoking was still rife in offices then. I used to have to have a shower after work every day and throw all my clothes in the wash because they always reeked of smoke.

Funnily enough, this same issue resurfaced during our recent trip to Europe. The buildings were beautiful, the people interesting and kind, the museums stunning, the history invigorating. But, oh, the smoking…

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the rate of smoking in the Czech Republic is 24 percent.  Given the number of smokers I saw puffing in restaurants (often while sitting underneath “no smoking” signs) I’d say that’s more like wishful thinking. (Just like if you enquire of your children how much homework they’ve done or ask adults how hard they’re exercising, they’ll almost always over-estimate it.)

To me, the smoking rate seemed more like 50% (and, I suppose this is even possible because the OECD stats refer only to daily smokers. I’m guessing the more casual smokers light up when going out for drinks or meals or while on holiday.)

Back at our rental apartment in Prague one evening, I decided to do some research on smoking. That’s when I discovered a screwball interview with the Czech president, Miloš Zeman. In it he opined that addiction to smoking is harmful only to children.

“I myself only started smoking when I was 27 years old, when my body had fully developed, and tobacco could no longer harm it,” he said. “So let me recommend your children to do the same: wait until the age of 27, and then smoke without any risk whatsoever.” Yes, he really said those things.

Zeman made his remarks in 2013 in the town of Kutná Hora, some 45 miles east of Prague. In fact, we even visited this place to see the fabulous and little bit creepy Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the bone church. This is because the skeletons of more than 40,000 people — mostly victims of the Plague (not smokers!) — have been artistically arranged to “decorate” the place. See my husband’s photo, above. Zeman was speaking to workers at a cigarette plant so perhaps he was simply trolling for votes. But as soon as I read his colossally uneducated remarks, it gave me an idea.

We writers need to be exactly as blinkered as the Czech president when working on our first drafts. We don’t want to look for excellence or truth about our writing. In fact, we might even want to deny such a thing exists.

Instead, we should convince ourselves that our work is impeccable — first-rate — and that we know exactly what we’re talking about.  And we should ignore the inner critic. That’s the one who says “maybe smoking is hurting my health,” or “maybe my writing is no good and I should just give up.”

We’re addicted and our dependency is writing. We should close our eyes to anyone who tells us we’re not good enough and believe — with the certainty of Miloš Zeman — that help is completely unnecessary.

There’s every opportunity to be just like the Czech president when we’re writing.

Then, when we’re editing, it’s time to become just like the World Health Organization: Rigorous, detached, scientific and demanding.

Do you manage to write every day? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by August 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the insightful book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Photo by Eric Watts.

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