I wanted to see a film last night and the only thing on at my local cinema was The Martian. All I knew about this film was that it starred Matt Damon.  The film is great and it gripped me so tightly that I forgot about the real world outside. It also helped me overcome writer’s block. 

The Martian is about Mark Watney, an astronaut played by Matt Damon, who gets stranded on Mars. He has food and water supplies for a month but it will take NASA four years to send a rescue mission. He survives by “sciencing the shit outta this” and never giving up.

The Martian is tighter and more compelling than any science fiction film I’ve seen in years. It’s a clever film but not pretentiously so like Interstellar and it doesn’t have the gloomy feel of Ridley Scott’s last foray into space: Prometheus. What’s great about this film is that it is so realistic — it’s about a man stranded, Robinson Crusoe style, something that could really happen in the future. There are no aliens, nuclear bombs, ray guns, romances, bad guys and all the usual guff that come with Hollywood films.

I’m a sucker for science fiction and dystopias but most films on these subjects are a disappointment. The best science fiction films are, in my view, the old ones such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott’s best film), 2001 Space Odyssey and The Fifth Element. The only new ones I like are Star Trek by JJ Abrams and Gravity — which is also about an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) stranded in space.

Now for a change of subject: writer’s block. Bear with me and you’ll see how Matt Damon’s Martian helped me out of this depressing situation. 

This time last year I was churning out blog articles and, when this blog launched, I had about 30 already written. I published them every week and hoped to become an adviser to people who wanted to discover the joys of independent travel. The plan was to build up a following of people who would buy my travel book. I was following the advice of Guy Kawasaki who makes self-publishing sound easy; start a blog, get a massive following, become a megastar on social networks (like him) and sell books to your fans.

It didn’t work: my articles didn’t generate much interest, unless I wrote about Roma issues, I got few and subscribers to this blog and gradually lost the will to write more. When I learned that the average self-published book on Amazon only sells 30 copies I approached publishers and agents and, after about 6 rejections, I lost the momentum to publish my book at all.

Then I moved from Bucharest to Liverpool (an issue I really need to write about), set up a new PR agency with my girlfriend Manuela Boghian and somewhere along the line I lost the momentum I had for writing articles. Our new business is going well but the writing isn’t — although I do write an endless stream of emails, proposals and reports.

People were encouraging, Manuela was great and one of the people who read my book wrote this encouraging email: “Don’t lose heart! Your book had so much to recommend it. And nice as it would be, I’m sure, to have a publisher and agent, just because they didn’t pick it up doesn’t mean it has no value.”

But still I was blocked. I agreed with Manuela that I should get back onto my book publishing project; like an alcoholic, I really wanted to change my ways but was unable to. It’s really hard to work on something like writing every day when you’re unmotivated, not being paid and have little prospect of being noticed. I felt the need for an audience, for some recognition and ideally fame and fortune. And I had the perfect excuse: our new business takes up all of our time and most of our creative energy.

And then I saw The Martian. This film unblocked my ability to write articles and work on my book. Here’s how:

The narrative structure of The Martian consists of Matt Damon talking to his video camera. He shares his despair, hope and describes what he does to survive. In his first video entry he says “I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked.”

His next statement is the one that inspired me: “I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.”

As I was watching this film I realised that I don’t need to write for someone else; I don’t need an audience, comments or subscribers; I don’t need to sell lots of books or be afraid of failure. I just need to write for myself because I want to say stuff, express myself and get my travel stories out of my system. It’s no problem if nobody ever reads anything I write, or if people don’t like it, as I’m writing it for myself.

This thought gave me a sense of liberation and when I got home that night I started writing this article — with a sense of enthusiasm and energy that I haven’t felt all year. I woke up in the morning today with a drive to write something for myself and I’m confident I can nurture and sustain this feeling. This blog will become a sort of personal diary and my books will develop longer themes — journeys, projects and things that I believe in.

Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, wrote that he always writes for himself and that he is his own toughest critic. This contrasts sharply with some editors and publishers I have come across who ask “who is your target audience?” and self-publishing gurus who say “find an audience, see what’s missing and write a book for that niche.” I’m sure this advice works well for some, but for me it kills the creative urge.

I’m grateful to Matt Damon for this insight but also to Andy Weir, the author of what looks like a totally awesome book: The Martian. He has one of best websites I’ve seen in years and his short bio says something very inspiring: “The Martian is his first novel.”

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