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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Assia the Artist

Assia in Mandalay, Burma, circa 1960. Image reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason', by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
Assia in Mandalay, Burma, circa 1960. Image reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Few people know that Assia Gutmann Wevill was an accomplished artist in her own right. She painted brightly coloured miniatures of birds, fish, and flowers, and gave them to friends. She also drew the illustrations for many of Ted Hughes’s works. Sadly these have not survived

As well as her talents in the visual arts, Assia was a gifted translator. Her collaborative work with the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was published to acclaim.  Assia was a poet in her own right, but sadly was never published in her life time.

Reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason', p.224, Koren and Negev
Reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’, p.224, Koren and Negev
Painting by Assia, Burma, 1960 (Courtesy David Wevill). Reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason' by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.
Painting by Assia, Burma, 1960
(Courtesy David Wevill).
Reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.

FACT OR FICTION?

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 The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Teresa, writing about Janet Malcolm’s masterly non-fiction biography, ‘The Silent Woman,’ in the Blog ‘Shelf Love’, says:

‘It’s fascinating to consider that in some respects fiction could be more true than nonfiction. Fiction is part of a closed world, all in the author’s mind, and even if the author deliberately leaves options open, that openness is part of the author’s created world. With nonfiction, there really is a truth that happened, but there are so many mediators between that truth and the reading audience. How can one be sure of the truth?’

Janet Malcolm goes on to discuss the near impossibility of truth in biography–or in any nonfiction. Malcolm writes:

 In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination….We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is

 But is there a single, whole truth to tell? That’s the question that undergirds The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s book about the Plath legacy.The book is structured as a sort of memoir of Malcolm’s own journey as she attempted to uncover the truth of Plath’s story.

The pursuit of truth through nonfiction may be futile [Teresa writes] but seeing the complexity of a story has rewards, even if we’re never able to do much more than speculate about what really happened.

Posted on February 3, 2014 by Re-blogged and adapted from Teresa’s post in Shelf Love (shelflove.wordpress.com)

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.