Brushes with (Writerly) Fame

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While waiting for my novel to be published, and for the hoped-for fame its undoubted brilliance will bring (if only!) I must content myself by rubbing shoulders with the already famous. Even though these chance meetings are mere brushes with fame, perhaps they may magically transfer a whisper of their glory to my humble self.

Last year I was honoured to meet the Honourable Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, after the launch of her book ‘My Story’.  I have long been an admirer of her strength and courage in the face of such mysogyny. Here she is signing her memoir. I was impressed by her grace.

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One of my favourite writers is Gail Jones, author of many wonderful novels, including my favourite,  ‘Sixty Lights’.  It was a thrill to meet her at the Darwin Writers Festival, and recently at the launch for her acclaimed novel, “A Guide to Berlin”. img_2499img_0340

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Darwin I met the playwright Mary Anne Butler, whose play, ‘Broken’, has won the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature. was a hit at the Festival. Here she’s sharing a few words while signing my program for her previous play, “Highway of Lost Hearts”.

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After seeing Alana Valentine’s drama, “Letters to Lindy”, I was moved to congratulate her for writing about one of the grossest miscarriages of justice in Australia: the incarceration for over six years of an innocent, grieving mother. Lindy Chamberlain has been fully exonerated, yet nothing could make up for the cruelty of that sentence. Alana told me she hopes her play will help people who are still affected to let go of anger and imagegrief. img_5204

On a happier note, I spent some time with Marieke Hardy of ‘The First Tuesday Book Club  fame, when helping out  at the Darwin Festival. Her session,’Women of Letters’, in which women in the audience read letters they have written on a set theme, was a sellout. As you see, she was great fun.

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Ten Tips for a Writers’ Group

These tips from a New York based writer could equally apply to my Randwick Writers’ Group.

Reblogged from Lee Kofman at leekofman.com.au

Guest post by Tracy Sayre

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work in writers’ groups. Here’s a list of my top ten tips.

1.Find the group. Facebook is a great place to start. Post a message that you want to begin a writers’ group and you’ll be amazed by how many of your friends harbor a desire to write. Alternatively, you can contact bookstores, colleges, and libraries to ask if they know of a group you can join. There are also websites like Meetup.com that have information on local writers’ groups.
2.Keep it small. I think the best size for a group is 4 people. If it’s smaller, you won’t get varied feedback, if it’s larger, you spend too much time reading other people’s work. I’ve also found with larger groups people tend to cancel last minute because they don’t feel like their attendance matters that much.
3.Plan ahead. One of the worst things you can do is leave the schedule vague. We all dread that never-ending email chain where everyone’s rescheduling. From the beginning, decide when you’re going to meet, for instance every other Tuesday at 7 pm, and stick to it.
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4.Set the format. Determine if you want to read the pieces out loud at the meeting, or if everyone is expected to read beforehand and bring in their notes. Determine how many pages everyone is going to share and how many people will share at a meeting. Here’s what has worked the best for my groups: 2 people send their material a week before the meeting. They can share up to 20 pages. Members read ahead of time and come with prepared notes. When we’re discussing a submission, the writer does not talk. You can waste a lot of time explaining your decisions but at the end of the day, it’s more helpful to hear what other people thought of your decisions than for them to know why you made them.

5.No alcohol. I learned this the hard way. During my first group, we each brought a bottle of wine. By the time we got to the last piece we were tipsy and distracted. Now we don’t have any alcohol and the critiques are much more focused. I can come home and write when I’m most inspired by the feedback instead of passing out drunk!

6.Limit socialising. You can chat about the election with anyone, but not about the craft of your story. Honor the time you have with these people and focus on your writing. In my groups, we say the meeting officially starts at 7pm but come at 6:30 if you’d like time to catch up. This also helps keep the meetings a reasonable length of time. If the meetings start taking four or five hours you’ll probably end up canceling when you get busier.
7.Don’t be selfish. One of my pet-peeves is someone who clearly joins a group to just get feedback on their own work. They miss meetings when it’s not their turn to share, or they never have time to finish others’ submissions. I learn so much through reading the other members’ works. For instance, I found one submission really boring and I realized it was because there was no conflict. I had heard this criticism of my own writing but I didn’t understand how boring such writing can be until I saw it in someone else’s piece. Discussing works of other writers develops your critical eye and makes you a better a writer yourself.
8.Take a break. Every year or so, take a break from the feedback and discuss if the group is working for everyone. Is someone dominating the critique? Are the meetings getting too long? Have your goals changed? I’ve found that groups tend to lose steam after two years. This is when people start cancelling a lot or not submitting new work. Determine as a group if you need to take a break and reconvene with new focus, or if some want to drop out and make room for fresh faces. New members offer new perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with dropping out and there’s nothing wrong with starting a new group. You need to be among people who will help your writing flourish.
9.Do activities together. I went on writing retreats with my first two writers’ groups. We also hosted a public reading of our work at a local bookstore. These activities cemented the group and made us feel like we were moving toward something. Go to conferences together. Attend a reading of a favorite author together. Enjoy this amazing, creative connection you have – it’s unlike any other friendship.
10.Don’t take anything personally. I think the worst response is when someone has nothing to say about your writing: they either didn’t care enough or they don’t think you have the ability to improve it. Someone who points out flaws in your writing is spending a great deal of time giving you feedback and they are sharing it because they respect you and think you are capable of more. That’s a compliment. When negative feedback comes up it’s especially helpful to be in a group because that’s when you can determine if that’s one person’s opinion or if everyone in the group felt the same way. Either way, don’t forget that this is feedback on your writing, not you.

Writing Down the Bones

Natalie Goldberg on the Basics of Writing Practice

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Many years ago, when I first had the courage to try writing, I came across the wonderful Natalie Goldberg’s book, ‘Writing Down the Bones’. Until then I’d always thought my writing had to be perfect, with impeccable grammar, sentence structure, and so on. But no – according to Natalie, the secret of writing is to just let yourself go, forget rules and regulations, and silence the censor in your head.

After having written one novel and started another, I still have trouble turning off the critic. It’s a lifelong habit of those of us whose school compositions were judged on form rather than content. But Natalie gave me these liberating strategies for creative writing, and they may help you too. Here are some edited extracts from ‘Writing Down the Bones’:

‘The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel. You must be a great warrior when you contact on first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. Your internal editor might be saying: “You are a jerk, whoever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I’m embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can’t spell…” Sound familiar? The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it.  Don’t be abstract. Write the real stuff. Be honest and detailed.’

Here are some of Natalie’s strategies:

  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
  2. Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don’t Think. Don’t get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

List of ideas when you’re stuck:

  1. Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory write that. Just keep going. Don’t be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago. Everything that isn’t in this moment is memory coming alive again as you write. If you get stuck, just repeat the phrase “I remember” again and keep going.
  2. Who are the people you have loved?
  3. Write about the streets in your city.
  4. Describe a grandparent.
  5. Write about:
    • swimming
    • the stars
    • the most frightened you’ve ever been
    • green places
    • how you learned about sex
    • your first sexual experience
    • the closest you ever felt to God or nature
    • reading and books that have changed your life
    • physical endurance
    • a teacher you hadFinally Natalie urges us:‘The ability to put something down – to tell how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a gray morning in Miami – that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write; at that moment you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them. Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.’

     

The Art of Forgiveness – and Writing

 

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The words of author Ann Patchett  are both an inspiration, and a warning, to those of us for whom writing is a passion, and who believe it’s a gift, rather than a craft which needs to be practiced to perfection. Here she explains the importance of forgiveness and acceptance in our quest for perfection:

I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

Patchett pokes at the strange logic by which we exempt writing from the beliefs and standards to which we hold other crafts:

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity their delusion, yet beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

 

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/04/27/ann-patchett-on-writing/

How to Critique Others

 

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Helen Garner, in ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993, writes:

‘You’ve got two selves I think. One of them is the deep one that can do the work, and the other one is constantly discouraging you and saying: ‘oh come off it, who do you think you are?’Some days when you feel like this you just have to keep on.

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: this is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on the bed. I feel I’m going to be exposed. Other days you start a paragraph and suddenly out it comes, all these ideas streaming out of you and you can hardly keep up.’

In her accomplished essay on Helen Garner’s ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’, published in the Sydney Review of Books, Tegan Bennett Daylight has this to say about the dangers of too much technical analysis when critiqueing our own and others’ writing:

‘We all grow our own methods from our own practice and our own personalities, but I’d say there’s a general consensus among us, and it’s this: simply, that less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.’

Thank you, Tegan, for putting into words what I find so difficult: that however well-meant, the sort of feedback that pulls apart one’s writing, agonising about  point of view, and whether the narrator is omniscient or close third person, can so confuse the writer who’s working from that deep space, the ‘other self’, that all confidence in one’s writing can fly out the window. The sort of critiqueing which focuses simply on ‘what works’ for the reviewer, and a global, emotional response, is so much more helpful. The creative self is a delicate creature, and needs to be handled with care. That said, no serious writer wants to hear ‘that’s nice’ or ‘well done’; tell us also what doesn’t work for you, what interrupts the flow of narrative, where there’s too much description, or too little.

TWO WRITERS ON DAFFODILS

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DAFFODILS – A poisonous flower, a harbinger of Spring, a Poet’s Muse? Below are two takes on these flowers, from Ted Hughes, where they symbolise his lost love, to Helen O’Neill, who has written a Biography of the Daffodil.

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We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter’s bench,
Distributed leaves among the dozens –
Buckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for air, zinc-silvered –
Propped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunch –

Wind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave’s stony cold
As if ice had a breath –

We sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod – an anchor, a cross of rust.

-Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters

Writer Helen O’Neill on Daffodils, Notebooks and Inspiration

I’ve always loved flowers but daffodils are special. I grew up in southern England where they blaze across the landscape every spring so they have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Daffodils took on a different meaning after I became ill some years ago and found myself plunged into a deep personal winter. To keep my spirits up friends and family kept sending me daffodils in different forms – in cards, photographs and sweet little pins. As I recovered I began to realise that not only is the daffodil one of the world’s most powerful flowers – this bloom has raised millions for medical research – but that it has a truly remarkable story to tell.
Narcissus Poeticus, one of Helen O’Neill’s favourite daffodils. Photo taken at her mother’s garden in England

Ferrante Fever

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The Neapolitan Novels: what’s all the fuss about?

I’m into the third of the quadrilogy by this mysterious writer, and finding it repetitive, clichéd, and, to be honest, boring. It seems to me  standard chick-lit dressed up with some social history.  Apart from being set mostly in Naples from the fifties to the present time, these novels differ little from standard soap opera fare. I admit to feeling disappointed with the endless detailed descriptions of Lenu’s and Lila’s every mood, move and thought. The plot moves slowly, ever so slowly, which to me is rarely a problem as long as the novel brings to life characters with whom I can identify and care about. I’m afraid this is not the case here.

I’ve listened to a talk by a Professor of Italian Literature, who praised the book for its scope and honesty. I asked her about the translation: was it true to the text? Yes, she assured me, Ann Goldstein is a consummate narrator, mirroring the author’s original Italian as closely as possible. So one can’t blame the translator for the slow pace, romantic clichés, and unnecessarily complicated cast list.

Ferrante (not his/her real name) writes under  a psoudonym ‘to protect her family’s privacy and ward off her inner censor’. (London Review of Books, 8 January 2015). In one of the author’s rare statements, she/he says that personal publicity would defeat the aim of hr novels, which unlike today’s fraught attempts to market new writing, need only speak for themselves. There is no interest in ‘war and skirmishes for visibility in the marketplace of culture.’

So what is it that has the world of commercial fiction buzzing?  Is it the mystery of anonymity?  A conspiracy of anti-publicity? There’s a certain amount of shock material, not all of it successful (LRB). The sex scenes lack subtlety, and therefore seem less erotic than some modern literary fiction. Some of the writing seems pedestrian, with endless ‘telling’ and explanation. For example ‘she felt embarrassment and a sense of danger.’ (The Story of a New Name, the second in the trilogy).

What are your thoughts on the Ferrante novels? I’d be interested in other opinions.