The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

So here I am, as Abraham said to the Lord when offering up his son for sacrifice. “Here I Am” is the title of a wonderful new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, a monumental work close to 1000 pages, exploring themes of cultural identity, fidelity and betrayal, the ephemeral nature of love, families functional and dysfunctional, and what makes them so.

As for me myself and I, this post is in the nature of an apology to you, my readers, for my untoward absence. SInce I last posted back in April, life has overtaken me. There’s been illness, convalescence, slow recovery, as well as the joys of grandchildrens’ birthdays. and celebrations of their achievements, some sojourns in beautiful Darwin, home of my daughters and grandsons, and the minutiae of everyday life.

On the writing side, I’ve been hard  at work on my new novel, ‘A Difficult Daughter’, and preparing my first novel. ‘Capriccio’, for publication. This entailed a major rewrite, mostly in appeasement to Faber and Faber, publishers of the works of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and the Hughes Estate. Like Jonathan Bate, I fell foul of the Estate when requesting permission to quote thirteen lines of Hughes’s poetry, fully expecting dispensation for such a small amount of material. The lines I quoted were used to introduce chapters, each of which was given the title of one of the ‘Capriccio’ poems by Hughes. Titles, I know, are not subject to copyright. However, to be on the safe side, I have removed every syllable of Hughes’s poetry, and, in order to comply with the other request by the Estate, changed the name of  every character. The astute reader will no doubt recognise my novel, “Capriccio”, as the tragic story of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the lover of Ted Hughes, who came between Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath.  My novel ends with one of Assia’s poems (quoted with permission of her sister, Celia Chaikin), a final clue to the true identity of my protagonist.

Now for the Joy of the writing life: my company of writers, the Randwick Writers Group, continues to flourish, with all four of us preparing to submit novels or memoirs to publishers. Without my fellow-writers, I would never have achieved the completion of one novel and the development of another. Their constructive feedback, wise insights, consistent encouragement, and friendship, has been the motivating force which keeps me going.

In Darwin, I was lucky to join the talented playwright Sandra Thibodeaux for her weekly writers’ workshop, which helped me develop ideas for ‘A Difficult Daughter’, my novel-in-progress. Then there was the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, the Jewish Writers’ Festival in August, and only last weekend, the St Aubin’s Writers’ Festival. More on this bucolic festival in my next post!

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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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Five non-rules for Writing a Novel

These are some tongue-in-cheek non-rules which are even harder to follow than the real ones! Adapted from Elizabeth Percer’s article, Harper, March 25 2016

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1. Don’t write a novel

Every time I sit down to write a novel, I get next to nothing done.  You may write 79,000 words and realize in the last 1,000 that the novel is not what you want to put out there, but those 80,000 words will inform your next work immeasurably.

2. Keep your publishing dreams in check

Not giving up when the going is ho-hum and uneventful for days or months or years is one of the sweetest joys alive, not because of the tantalizing reward that waits forever in the distance, but because of the complexity and intimacy that develops when kindness, humor, and good intentions are invested in a craft or purpose or person that constantly requires the best of you.

3. Writing doesn’t always look like writing

When I’m trusting myself and not judging a first draft with nasty little tattle-tale voices, I find my patient, daydreaming, curious, wondering selves to be essential and complementary playmates to the one who can sit down at a computer and punch out a couple thousand words.

4. Books do not respond to timelines, spreadsheets, or graphs

Because I am now a writer and not a physicist, I can say that I don’t believe writing always follows the laws of space and time. It’s amazing how much writing can get done in short, optimal windows cushioned by patience, thoughtfulness, self-care, and faith, and it’s equally amazing how little writing gets done during months of “free” writing time hemmed in by expectation, disparagement, self-loathing, and a diet of Snickers and Vitamin Water.

5. Make space for what comes

At least you know how to get comfortable in the field for the next day, and notice as you do that some other, far smaller and stranger creature has come to wait beside you?

6. Procrastinate

Creativity often thrives as a result of the very behaviors that others label as lazy or self-indulgent or some other horrid judgment that might be appropriate were you a cog in a wheel that cannot turn without your constant and unimaginative presence. Creative work demands that you stop hovering, allow your fields to go fallow occasionally. It demands that you procrastinate…..

 

 

 

Writer’s Block

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No wonder I’m having trouble putting pen to paper, or bum on seat. Here in tropical Darwin a strange soporific haze hangs over me, and what seemed once imperative now gets relegated to the ‘maybe later’ pile. Somehow the joyful and terrifying task of writing recedes into dreamland. You might think this is a good thing, drifting around in Lotus Land, yet its very pleasantness scares me – just not enough to face that blank page or screen. Yes, I have a bad case of Writer’s Block. In spite of some unsympathetic writers telling us ‘there’s no such thing, it’s mere laziness, so get the finger out etc. etc.’ I and others swear it exists. Here’s what some writers have to say on the subject:

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F Scott Fitzgerald Photo: Wikipedia

‘Let’s start with one of the most famous examples of writer’s block ‘ writes Lee Kofman, in her post Alcohol, Insanity & Other Methods for Unblocking Writer’s Block’ – that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose frequent bouts of this condition are forever imprinted on the history of modern literature. In response, Fitzgerald consumed alcohol liberally, often going on a bender (gin was his favorite medicine). But then, it is also possible that it was his drinking that caused much of his blockage, which intensified in his final years. Still, this isn’t a cautionary tale. I suspect that more moderate amounts of booze may prove useful to some for seducing our inner muses.’

Lee  writes: ‘Another strategy to prevent the onset of writer’s block comes from another famous sufferer – Hemingway. A bullfight aficionado who fought in the First World War and reported on the Spanish civil war, when asked about the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, Hemingway said: ‘A blank sheet of paper.’ And here is his advice how to conquer this terror:’

Ernest Hemingway, photo from Google images
Ernest Hemingway, photo  Google images

Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next… and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it… But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

Re-blogged from Lee Kofman’s post ‘Alcohol, Insanity & Other Methods for Unblocking Writer’s Block’ from her Blog ‘Lee Kofman: Author, writing teacher, mentor’, at www.leekofman.com.au

 

 

Procrastination: a cautionary tale


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PROCRASTINATION

Disclaimer: All persons in this story are the product of my imagination.

Today’s my writing day, I say to myself: Wednesday, my only day with no work and almost no commitments. By the late afternoon I should have a thousand words, at least, to show for myself. As advised in my latest self-help for writers book, I start with a brisk walk. An early start means I can be back before nine. Setting off at eight, I plan to think about my writing on the way. Several successful writers I‘ve read about start their day like this. Like them, I should be at my desk at nine o’clock, the perfect time to begin the working day.

It’s a brilliant day, the ocean spread out blue and wrinkled, sparkling where the sun hits it. Several times I have to stop to admire its vastness. There’s a cold wind, bringing tears to my eyes. When I get to the cliff I call mine, I stop. I know it’s mine because there’s a hollow in this cliff that exactly fits my bottom. I sit in the hollow, in the lotus pose, and do my morning meditation. Essential for a writer, I tell myself as I watch my thoughts drift past.  This will surely save me time by making me centered and one-pointed, able to be fully in the moment. Several good writing ideas float off into the universe from where they may, with the right karma, return. I arrive back just before 9am, calm and refreshed, to the insistent ring of the phone.

“Hi, Dina! It’s Helen. Don’t forget our date today. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, remember?” I had forgotten. Weeks ago my friend and I had agreed to meet once a month to exchange writing news. I don’t dare break our date, as Helen is far too sensitive to cope with a last-minute change of plan. Mostly the coffee mornings are for moral support particularly towards our common goal: to become “real” writers.

“Of course I haven’t forgotten,” I lie. “Let’s meet at that little outdoor place you liked so much last time. Oh, by the way, I’ve heaps to tell you, but this news can’t wait. Guess what? I got into that writing course I told you about! They must’ve liked the pieces I sent in.”

“Oh my God! You didn’t! I heard on the grapevine that even Eva, who’s actually been published, didn’t get in. How amazing!” I held the phone away from my ear as she shrieked into the receiver, hurt by her obvious lack of faith in my talent.

“Helen, I must go. Have to get the first thousand words for the story competition finished today. Can we make it a quick coffee today, say about midday?”

The bed’s not made and last night’s dishes are still in the sink. A prolific writer once told me he couldn’t put pen to paper until the bed is made and every dish is washed. Even a dirty coffee cup can block his creativity. On the other hand the author of “The Writer’s Way” urges struggling writers to ignore housework, so I decide to go with this mentor’s sound advice. She also advises us to look after our bodies. A quick swim in the local pool should set me up for the day’s writing.

In the pool at last, swimming releases me. As I strike out smoothly down the lane I start to count the laps, breathing rhythmically. On the last lap I silently affirm: “I am a writer. I write every day.” I swim only twenty-four laps instead of the usual thirty. I don’t feel quite right if I haven’t done thirty laps.  Perfectionism is the curse of the frustrated writer, one I have not escaped.

Pale and windblown, Helen arrives half an hour late at the coffee shop, with a breathless apology about broken down buses and other improbable excuses. She has different phobias to me; about being bumped into by people and inhaling smoke from a distant table. We change tables three times. By one-thirty we have ordered. I’ve read somewhere that the secret to sanity is eating breakfast out, and believing sanity is important for a writer I try to do this every day. As we talk about our respective neuroses and I keep thinking “this is all material.” The woman at the next table looks at us as if we were mad, which confirms my belief that we writers, quite simply, are not ordinary people. While Helen is still describing some claustrophobic experience in an airplane that happened to her six years ago, I extricate myself by inventing a dentist’s appointment.

It’s almost two by now. My backpack is heavy with books, including my half-written stories, my journal, and a spare memory stick in case I actually write anything.

We writers should clear the way of any practical worries as much as possible, so I go to claim a much-needed refund from Medicare.  I have to stand in a queue for at least thirty minutes, which I pass by making notes for a new story in the tiny notebook I now carry with me, should inspiration strike. Opposite Medicare there’s a bookshop, and remember I owe it to myself as a budding writer to check out the latest best sellers for their literary merit. A new book from a woman writer stops me in my tracks. It’s all about her experiences in childbirth, written in the first person and giving intimate details. I find myself quite drawn in. This is the sort of thing I could write, I realise, and I making a mental note to add it to my list of ideas I whip out my notebook and jot down the title.

With a shock I realise it’s after four as I finally walk the half-mile to the library. The euphoria of my swim has long since worn off, and now I need another coffee. I look longingly for a coffee shop. Even a takeaway would take away this sinking feeling. I resist.

‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ I remember an aunt telling me years ago.  I’d never fully understood the one about procrastination until now, as my morning’s goal fades into the afternoon’s dying sun. Nevertheless I will not give up. I stagger into the library. The clock’s hands point accusingly to five. I phone my partner, knowing how he worries about me when he doesn’t know where I am. The librarian glares at me and points to the sign: “please switch off your mobile.” It appears he wasn’t at all worried, and suggests we go to a movie. No, I say in a panic. I’ve got work to do. Give me an hour.

 In the library I look up some references from my last writing course; research is always easier than writing. I sit at the computer catalogue, exhausted. How I wish this day was over. I’m so tired I can’t move, which is ridiculous considering I’ve done practically nothing all day. I look for a place to sit with a panicky feeling fluttering in my stomach. Now I know it’s not just the act of writing I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of failure, of letting everyone down, of never being able to produce anything of worth…

At six I open my notebook and start to write. The sinking feeling lifts. The first line appears and I start to feel better. My energy returns, and I forget about the coffee and the bills and the clock. There’s a compulsion to get the words out. I write some more and then before I know it, I’ve written five pages. Over a thousand words!

A shadow looms over me. I look up to see the man himself gazing fondly over my shoulder, just as I pen the last words of the first draft of a chapter. “Been writing all day? That’s the way! I’m starving! What are we having for dinner?” I look up at the clock. Its hands show seven-thirty.

“I’ve actually finished a first draft!” I reply virtuously, stretching with relief. I smile at him and gather up my books. “I’ve been far too busy writing to cook today. Let’s go out for dinner?”

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Do you Write by the Rules?

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The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear in her “Writing Down the Bones”, is to substract rules for writing, not to add them. It’s a process of “undereducation” rather than education. – Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Is it only our greatest writers who are allowed to break the rules of writing? And what exactly are these rules? Mantras such as ‘Show not Tell’ ‘Point of View’ ‘Omniscient Narrator’ or ‘Close Third Person’ seem to abound in 21st century writing guides. I doubt whether the great George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and our own Christina Stead had ever heard of these ”rules’. Yet their writing survives to this day, never out of print or out of favour. And of course, whether unconsciously or not, each of these writers were instinctively following many of these techniques. Many, but not all – depending on the fashion and flavour of their times.

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The Arch-Critic Looking Stern

In my own writing group, I’ve found the use of  technical criteria for feedback limited my creativity, and constrained my writing voice. It seems to me that intellectualising the writing process is the opposite of that unconscious process which produces the best writing. It’s as if we have to cross a bridge from the so-called ‘right-brain’ which governs creativity, to the ‘left-brain’ which controls planning, logic and reasoning. And that crossing can often be a painful obstacle course. I once exclaimed to my group: ‘Away with your rules! They do my head in!’ Clumsy expressions indeed, which burst out of my mouth unbidden but unstoppable.

Sentences which flow with speed, grace and simplicity look easy to the reader, but experienced writers know it is the hardest writing of all. Like the Zen archer who does not appear to be aiming, yet strikes the bull’s eye every time, the writers untrammelled by rules and regulations, unconcerned with the fashions of the day, are the ones who stay in our minds the longest.

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.’