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Writing Advice from Mike Tyson

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Yeah, that's gonna leave a mark

Over the past decade (whoa – has it really been that long?!?) at Writer Unboxed, I’ve endeavored to share a diverse range of insights: from Shakespeare to South Park; from Gatsby to Gilligan. What can I say? It’s all part of the service you’ve come to expect from the cavernous artistic depths of a guy like me. So today I thought it was time to explore what some might consider an unlikely source of literary inspiration: Mike Tyson.

No, this will not be a treatise on the aesthetics of facial tattooing, nor a tutorial on hitting things with approximately the same force as a disgruntled rhinoceros. Instead, I want to focus on an oft quoted piece of wisdom from Mr. Tyson, variations of which can be found all over the interwebby zeitgeist:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

True confessions: I’ve been punched in the face. More than once. (I know, I know – given my utterly radiant personality, this must come as quite the shock to many of you.) I can tell you this: Mr. Tyson is not wrong. What looks like rollicking good fun in westerns and action movies is actually FAR more jarring and traumatic than one might assume.

Obviously I’m not alone in knowing this. Once you reach a certain age, it’s far more likely that you’ve been punched in the face, either figuratively or literally. Eventually we all experience the face-punching trauma of loss, physical injury, failure, grief, serious illness, or any number of similarly unpleasant variations. I think the point Tyson is trying to make is that when that punch comes, it can change everything.

From boy to man

I became a man in Orlando, Florida on the night of March 14, 1983. That’s the night I learned that my father had died, a piece of news that played out over an excruciating series of phone calls from the Illinois hospital where his condition had suddenly plummeted. As it was too late in the evening to book a flight out of Florida, I was stuck waiting by the phone for each new update until the final inevitable call came from my newly widowed mother.

At 23 years of age, I was technically already a man, but I sure didn’t feel like one. I was just a young guy living on his own in Florida, a thousand miles away from his loved ones, doggedly trying to eke out a living as a professional drummer.

My father, on the other hand, was definitely a man. A combat veteran of WWII and a street-hardened journalist who’d worked on newspapers across the country, he was every bit the old-school stand-up guy, with a pockmarked face and a nicotine-burnished voice. I loved and admired the man deeply, although neither of us was very good at expressing that kind of sentiment, and we’d reached a point where we had little in common – or so I felt at the time.

His death had a massive and lasting impact on me, and felt like an urgent and undeniable call to step up my game and start thinking and acting like a man – whatever the hell that might mean. As I grappled with the notion of him being gone, a distant memory of this biblical snippet kept bobbing to the surface of my grief-addled thoughts:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Okay, anybody who’s spent more than five minutes with me might question just how successful I’ve been at excising childishness from my behavior, and to that I can only plead nolo contendere. But something fundamental in me did change that night. I’m not sure whether something was taken away, or perhaps added to me, but the next day I stepped off the airplane in central Illinois a different person. A different man.

I’ve posted before about Chuck Palahniuk’s advice to “write about the moment after which everything is different,” a mandate from author Tom Spanbauer, who led a workshop Palahniuk attended in his formative years. This was definitely one of those moments for me, and would become one of numerous devastating and impactful experiences over the years that shaped me as a person – and as a writer.

No doubt you’ve experienced life-changing moments brought on by tragedy and/or trauma, too. And often these are events that likely occurred through no fault of your own, perhaps even despite all your best plans and intentions – not unlike the plan-changing moments that many well-trained boxers experienced after stepping into the ring with the daunting Mr. Tyson. So let’s talk about how to apply this Tysonian wisdom to your writing…

Using the pain to inform your work

While I consider myself a lucky man in many ways, my life has not been without its speed bumps. In addition to the aforementioned face-punches I’ve taken, I’ve had a massive heart attack. I’ve been fired three times in one day (a personal best). I’ve pulled the plug on a loved one. I’ve had most of my belongings stolen – twice. I’ve been orphaned. I’ve been broken up with over the phone – and put on hold not once but twice during the process so she could take another call. (This was yet another piece of bad news received via telephone, further cementing my longstanding hatred for that device.) Bottom line, I’ve had some bad days.

So have you. So has everybody. But nobody else has taken the exact same punches in the face that you’ve endured. Though it will likely be painful, I suggest that you dig deep, dare to recall what those punches felt like, and put them to use in your storytelling. After all, nobody is in a better position to tell those stories than you. And it might provide your book with the kind of heightened conflict and contrast that will keep readers turning pages.

When life gives you lemons…

Most stories need a low point. A dark night of the soul. If you’ve experienced this personally – and God bless you if you haven’t yet – you likely have a unique perspective of just how dark that night can get.

You don’t have to be an action hero to have experienced one of these dark and dramatic moments. Maybe it was a problem during the delivery of one of your children. Maybe it was a close call – or a tragic accident – you experienced in what should have been a routine car trip. Maybe you’ve fought a terrible disease, or faced some other extraordinary trauma. Maybe you’ve lost someone just when you needed them most. Hell, maybe you live on a planet in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. I’m just spitballing here…

One thing I’ve noticed about these traumatic moments is that they’re never quite like you’d expect them to be. There are always peripheral surprises you could not have anticipated:

  • The unforgettably inappropriate things people say to you at your loved one’s funeral.
  • The slow-motion surreality of your out-of-control car bouncing like a giant pinball between the guardrails of a rain-slicked highway.
  • The surprisingly short time it takes to lose consciousness when somebody who knows what they’re doing is choking you.

I can tell you firsthand: These are things you don’t know until you experience them. But having experienced them, you can now write about them – or about similarly traumatic fictional events – with a hard-won gravitas that will likely come through loud and clear.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, I figure you might as well get something good out of these horrific experiences, whether it’s the catharsis of talking about something you’ve internalized and possibly even repressed, or simply adding more depth, detail and believability to your narrative.

An unexpected kind of research

Much of my debut novel was set in a hospital in my old hometown in central Illinois. I had some vague memories of the facility, and filled in the blanks from studying its website. But as I was getting close to finishing the book, I flew up from Florida to visit my mother, who was scheduled for some “routine heart surgery” (three words that I now know do NOT belong together), and found myself sitting in the very hospital I’d been writing about. It felt like a great opportunity to get in some firsthand research on my novel’s setting.

Yeah, not so much.

Mom’s surgery went badly, and I spent the next 40 hours in a sleepless panic as I waited, helpless and alone, for any indication that they might be able to save her. As it happened, it was Halloween, and many members of the hospital’s staff were wearing costumes. As the hours dragged on, I’d find myself staggering bleary-eyed into the cafeteria to refill my coffee, while witches and skeletons and superheroes strode past me like some twisted hallucination. My brother arrived from Seattle in time for us to watch our mother die together.

I had planned for a pivotal moment in my book to take place in an Illinois cemetery. For simplicity’s sake, I’d chosen the main local cemetery in the town where I grew up, which I had visited as a boy on numerous school field trips, because a major U.S. president was buried there. But I didn’t know when working on the final chapters of my manuscript that I would soon be walking the grounds of that very cemetery with my brother, looking for a potential resting place for my mother’s ashes.

To this day, I can’t read the scene without crying. And while I won’t claim it to be great writing, I do know that I wrote that scene with an emotional clarity and sense of detail I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t felt the ground of that cemetery beneath my own feet, while reeling in a grief that had only begun to show me what it was capable of doing to my soul.

Ahem – give me a sec, please. I seem to have something in my eye.

Okay, I’m back. And yes, I’m growingly aware that Mr. Palahniuk’s mentor managed to say in nine words what I’ve been flailing away at for hundreds. But I’m not done yet. So far, I’ve been talking about the effect of punches that we take in our personal lives. Now let’s talk about what happens when your STORY gets punched in the face.

What’s it all about, Neil?

In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass series (highly recommended, by the way), he points out that when trying to figure out what the story he’s working on is about, he often won’t know until the end of the story. He may start out thinking he knows, but it often ends up being about something else. From speaking to many writers over the years, I know he’s not alone in this experience.

In many ways, writing can feel like an archeological dig, a gradual process of scraping away the stuff that your story isn’t about to reveal its inner truths. But sometimes, that revelation is not so gradual. Sometimes, it’s more like – you guessed it – a punch in the face. This is also something I experienced with my debut novel.

With Me Again, I started out writing the story of a man named Jonathan, and added a woman named Rebecca as a potential love interest, not entirely sure what I’d do with her. I gave her a serious (and, I hoped, intriguing) challenge that provided the two characters something in common, but hadn’t thought where that might lead. As I continued working on the manuscript, both characters began to develop much more fully, and the conflict in the story began to escalate.

At some point, I realized: Holy shit – SHE is the one with the Really Big Problem. I mean, Jonathan’s problem was bad, but much of it stemmed from him being in an awkward situation – okay, several awkward situations – along with his gradual realization of some unpleasant truths. But Rebecca’s problem was far more serious emotionally, and Jonathan’s role became more about how to understand and support her. Although I was going for a compelling main character with Jonathan, perhaps in the long run I ended up making him a bit more of a Nick Carraway than I’d planned. Ultimately the punch in the face that my secondary character experienced is what created the more compelling story question: What if the person you’ve become – through no fault of your own – is not the person your life partner wants to be with?

This was NOT the story I’d set out to write. But I realized what I had, and it ended up being the reason my book got sold as a work of women’s fiction. And all because my story took a punch to the face.

Enough with the punching already

Maybe this whole punching metaphor doesn’t resonate with you – and I kind of hope it doesn’t, because experiencing violence firsthand (or would it be first-face?) is something I don’t wish on anybody. But unless you’ve lived a charmed life, you’ve likely hit some challenging moments, and possibly experienced some genuine trauma. I’m not going to insult the gravity of those painful moments with some “everything happens for a reason” pap, but I will say this: Having been through those experiences, you’ve earned the right to draw on them in your writing. And I submit that doing so might imbue your work with even greater conviction and universality (which I’m pretty sure is a word).

Similarly, most writers have experienced false starts, or have completed drafts that now live in a drawer or under the bed, or stories that did NOT go the way they’d originally been intended to go. What I – and many other writers – have learned is that sometimes that can be a good thing. Sometimes, it can take your stories to better places than where your original story idea was heading. Or it can more clearly let you know that now is not the time to try to tell that particular story.

It all depends on how you roll with the punches.

How about you?

What kind of punches have impacted your storytelling? Has writing allowed you to explore those experiences in a way that helps you – or helps your story – or helps your readers? Or all of the above? Please chime in, and above all, stay safe. Thanks for reading.


About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels Me Again (originally published by Five Star/Gale), and Tony Partly Cloudy (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and alligators with his ukulele.


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