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.

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Words of Wisdom by Writers for Writers

Even successful writers have self-doubts. Here’s their advice on how to overcome them: can you share your own strategies on how you keep going as a writer? 

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Helen Garner:

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.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate Grenville:In writing ‘Lillian’s Story’ there were endless doubts. The pleasure reigned supreme whenever the writing was just a private thing that I was doing for myself. If you ask yourself what your book’s about you get all twisted up, and if you ask whether or not it works you will always find fault with it. Getting into the reviewer or critic state of mind makes me timid as a writer. I start to play it safe, and the writing gets strangled with sheer caution.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Greenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate wrote 30 drafts of he last book, ‘One Life’, which she calls ‘a Story’, neither a novel nor a memoir. Her breakthrough as a writer came when she stopped being a critic, learned to break with convention, and to tap into the Unconscious (in Freud’s sense of the word).

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Garner again: whenever I read Christina Stead I get an electric thrill from the way she breaks all the rules. She can string seven adjectives together in a row. She holds the noun up to to the light and uses the adjectives to make it shine this way and that way. I envy that naturalness,–as if she sat down and out it poured.

I don’t plan very much, because if I do, I start to wield the plan against my instincts, and it acts as a clamp. It becomes a duty, or a trap. It prevents me from being flexible or alert to a fresh possibility.

Linda Jaivin on ‘Truth in Fiction’ Write a novel and the first thing you’ll be asked is if it’s a ‘true’ story. In recent years, readers, reviewers and journalists alike have become increasingly fixated on the question of how much fiction is based on fact. It is as though identifying the biographical or autobiographical elements in a novel provides not just a key to it but validation. Perhaps the better question to ask would be how much fact is based on fiction. Truth in literature, novels and biography alike, is never quite as simple an equation as x=y.

Hannah Kent: To be a good writer you must, first and foremost, be a good reader. How else will you learn what to do? Read as much as possible, as often as possible, and if you read something you like, or something that makes you laugh, or something that moves you in a strange, ineffable way, ask why. Re-read it. Read it aloud. Pay attention to the use of words, and the narrative voice, and the comic timing. If you don’t understand words, splurge on a really great dictionary and look those words up. The more words you know, the greater your control over language.

If there is one quality I have consistently drawn upon to get any kind of writing in print, it was not a gift with language. It was diligence. If you want to write, you have to be diciplined. You have to put the hours in, even when you don’t feel like it. You especially have to learn to write when you are uninspired. You have to take your work seriously, and this means setting aside time for it, preferably on a regular basis. This often means making sacrifices.

What do you think is the most important piece of advice? What works for you? I have italicised the words that most resonate with me: keep going, trust the unconscious, be diligent.

 

More about Helen

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“The most compelling thing I’ve read online recently is Helen Garner’s piece in The Monthly, ‘The insults of age’. Garner’s writing is always emotionally intelligent and always delivered with a clear-eyed grace, but this piece – her perspective on what it means to be a 71-year-old woman – is a particular gem. The cultural assumption that the ageing are almost-dead is felt keenly in her anecdotes on how invisible she now is, how patronised, how confronted. But it’s how she describes letting go of a lifetime habit of ‘feminine passivity’ and her subsequent unlocking of a kind of joyous rage that makes this piece beautiful and true and very, very funny.”

This review was published in the Griffith Review for April, in GReat reads: The best of the web from Griffith Review writers and editors. For the full article, see the Monthly magazine online.

Helen describes how, when entering a bar to have a drink with a friend, they were ushered to a table in the furthest, darkest corner of the room. On remonstrating, she was told ‘this is our policy, Madam.’  A policy to hide from view women who are no longer in the sexually accessible zone, who are not putting out signals to men on the prowl, who are mercifully free of the need to primp and pamper, who are free of scrutiny of the body, but have treasures of the mind, and a lifetime of experience, to offer?

See  my previous Posts on Helen’s House of Grief and the Spare Room..

See also Anne Skyvington’s Blog at Write4Publish.wordpress.com for her article on Helen Garner.

On Helen Garner

IMG_2498HOLDEN Caulfield, the teenage protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, says: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him (sic) up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

That’s how I feel about Helen Garner.

I think of Helen Garner almost as a friend, as well as one of my favourite authors. Helen got so used to seeing me line up for her to sign her latest work, that she wrote on the flyleaf of one: ‘to Dina, in queue after queue’. On another occasion, I happened to see her in the’ Intimate Apparel’ departme nt of David Jones. Of course, I just happened to have in my bag a brand new copy of ‘My Hard Heart,’ her latest short story collection. With my usual chutzpah, I sidled up to Helen and asked her to sign it. I remember she looked tiny and delicate that summer, and was wearing little pink lace gloves. She signed my book with a wry smile, probably recognising me as one of her groupies. On the flyleaf she wrote: ‘To Dina, just before Christmas, in the knicker department of DJ’s. Warm regards etc…. ‘

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The main reason I think of Helen Garner as a friend is her personal, intimate, writing style, which invites the reader into her heart and her life. She seems to hold nothing back even if it’s to her detriment (as it perhaps was, in ‘The First Stone.’) She is able to say so much with so little verbosity. Her style is always spare, even chiseled, yet never dry. Re-reading her collection ‘The Feel of Steel’ I was struck again by her economy of prose, which expresses such honest emotions so ardently, yet without sentiment. How does she do it? Like an artist, who, with a few strokes achieves a likeness, so she paints vivid word pictures of feelings, events, sights and smells, without verbosity, and in luminous, concise prose.

©Dina Davis

This House of Grief

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Thoughts on Helen Garner’s latest book

I’ve just finished reading ‘This House of Grief’, Garner’s latest non-fiction work. It was almost too painful to read at times, not only because of its ghastly subject matter, but also due to Helen’s signature style: holding nothing back, inviting the reader to share with her the horror of seeing a man accused, wrongly or rightly, of drowning his three little sons. This book held a particular resonance for me, because it echoed my own recent experience of witnessing a court case in which two young men were charged, and eventually sentenced, with the death of my fifteen-year-old niece, due to dangerous driving. Yet I couldn’t put the book down, couldn’t wait for the next chapter. Sitting in that Melbourne courthouse, that ‘house of grief’, with Helen, her vivid prose told me I was not alone.

Some people complain of Garner’s writing as too ‘personal’, even invasive. One woman in a former book  group announced that she ‘didn’t’ need people like (Garner) in her life, because Garner sounds too angry.’ We were discussing ‘The Spare Room’ in which anger does play a part, but to my mind only to fuel the exposure of suspect alternative medical practices, and their exploitation of the vulnerable woman in the novel.

See my Post ‘More on Helen Garner’ for some personal recollections.

 

©Dina Davis