By Kathryn Heyman
At almost every party, there is someone who wants to be a writer. When they retire, they are going to write novels. Everyone has a book in them. It’s just a matter of persistence. You’ve got to ignore the haters. Look at Lord of the Flies – endlessly rejected and now, ha! Who has the last laugh, huh?
Writers spend a lot of time at parties cornered by these people. Writers who also teach tend to be the ones smiling and saying, yes, that’s right, you should try, certainly, persistence is key, everyone can do it. But that’s a lie and we know it.
Writing a novel is not simply a matter of persistence. It’s not simply a matter of ignoring detractors, of staying up late and switching the television off. It’s rare to meet a person who thinks that when they retire they will compose symphonies, become choreographers, design public buildings. Why not? Because they understand implicitly that craft is a crucial element of these comparable arts.
In most writing classes talent is rarely mentioned. Talent, it’s true, can’t be taught. What can be taught is the ability to harness talent. Craft can be taught.
Aristotle wrote of three forms of wisdom, defined as critical learning (epistemē), practical learning (technē) and practical wisdom (phronesis). It’s this final form that most applies to the writing life.
Creative Writing teaching has tended to exist in the sphere of the first of these: critical learning. In the academy (and in general courses) creative writing tends to be delivered through the workshop model, popularised through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In this model, writers bring their work in progress to their peers for critical feedback. Here, the writer-instructor serves not as expert but as facilitator and the student-writer learns through correction rather than instruction. This – along with a critique of published works – tends to be the default model of writing teaching.There have been criticisms of this model but certainly one risk is the ‘house style’ that can result – if fifteen people in a room respond favourably to one approach, writers will learn to favour that approach, to seek approval. The supposedly critical devolves into groupthink. Outside the academy – the community writing sphere, if you like – the model tends to be one of technical exploration. Write about a tree. Write about love. Find a park and write what you can smell.
These models are useful. Critical and technical skills are necessary for writers. The ability to sit, imagine, create, think about senses, write what you notice – this is clearly important. But this in itself will not produce a novel, though it may begin something. Nor will the ability to critique early drafts of others enable you to coax your own creativity from its shell; though it may provide a sense of writing community.
A deliberate process of learning can, in fact, make you better than you are, it can make you a better reader, more empathetic, more skilled in your use of language, more willing to experiment, to feel, to notice. These things will make you a better writer. Most importantly they will lead – with time, with practice, with patience – to the acquisition of practical wisdom.
We admire athletes – insofar as we do admire them – because they have exercised discipline, demonstrated determination, overcome inertia. We understand that their excellence is based on ability combined with commitment, skill matched by will. Why would art be different? Under what ridiculous circumstances would we pay to attend a concert performed by an orchestra who have not rehearsed, or practised, or spent years honing their skills? Who among us would walk into a building designed by an architect who woke one morning with a picture in her head and sketched it out, miraculously, with none of the grinding back and forth required? And who would expect effortless writing to result from anything other than a particular kind of effort?
In desperation to qualify writing as an art, epistemē, and avoid relegating it to ‘merely’ a skill, technē, we risk overlooking the patient, careful discipline that produces wisdom in action, phronesis. I believe it is a major failing of our culture that we have no accessible way of translating this word into everyday English. The gap in our language becomes a gap in our philosophy.
Back to the myth of The Lord of the Flies. Golding didn’t merely prove the haters wrong. In response to professional editorial feedback he reflected, struggled, rewrote and reworked his manuscript until – eventually – he had a masterpiece.
In this short series of blog posts I will be exploring the key virtues required for the writing life. But to do so it’s crucial to start with the one virtue upon which, for Aristotle, all the others depend. This is the first writerly virtue, it’s the hardest, because it takes the longest to master. But it’s also the easiest, because we all have it in us. With time, with discipline, with constant practice, it will emerge. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a writer and of what it means to be human. We were born to be wise.
(© Kathryn Heyman 2013)
Many thanks to the inimitable Walter Mason, for his exciting live blogging and though-provoking posts.
This month, we have Kathryn Heyman blogging for us. Her bio is below:
Kathryn Heyman is the author of five novels, the latest of which is Floodline (Allen and Unwin.) She has won numerous awards including an Arts Council of England Writers Award, the Wingate and the Southern Arts Awards, and been nominated for the Orange Prize, the Scottish Writer of the Year Award, the Edinburgh Fringe Critics’ Awards, the Kibble Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. She’s written several radio plays for BBC Radio including adaptations of her own work and was recently elected to the Folio Prize Academy. Kathryn is the fiction program director for Faber Academy and the director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program.
by Walter Mason
Year by year I become more conscious that I commit less and less to memory. I was in that final generation that made one last half-hearted effort to commit some poetry to memory. The only things that remain with me now are ‘My Country’, half of ‘The Man from Ironbark’ and the first three verses of ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Which, I think, pretty much puts me in the top 10% of the Australian population when it comes to memorised poetry, though I rarely find myself in a situation that demands I draw upon these poetic reserves.
My grandfather had at his command great swathes of Australian poetry, and could recite Lawson, Patterson and Mackellar at length whenever the occasion called for it. And it frequently did. My grandmother had applied her mnemonic skills to popular American song, and there wasn’t an obscure World War Two novelty hit that she couldn’t sing from beginning to end. From ‘Open the Door, Richard’ to ‘Mairzy Doats’, she and her sister were capable of sustaining any country town singalong. Me, I can’t even remember the chorus from CeeLo’s latest. What will we all do when confined to old people’s homes? I very much doubt there will be a piano in the corner at which someone could belt out a slightly off-key rendition of ‘Gangnam Style’ when I’m in my 80s. Besides, who knows how to play the piano anymore?
This crisis was precipitated in the course of research for my doctoral thesis. I am writing a history of self-help literature in Australia, and while searching for a reference I was deep into a book by Norman Vincent Peale called “Stay Alive All Your Life.” In it he recommended a program for the memorisation of inspirational Biblical verse. He urges readers to underline the most uplifting passages they encounter and then, each day, commit one to memory. “At the end of one week,” he points out, “seven life-changing passages should have become a definite part of your mental equipment…at the end of a month you will have received into consciousness thirty passages of faith and hope and courage” (p. 73).
Australian writer and spiritual teacher Stephanie Dowrick has recommended this, too, in her most recent book, “Heaven on Earth,” which is a modern interfaith prayer book. She encourages the repetition and memorisation of prayers and spiritual sayings: “Learn it by heart,” she writes, “or take just a single phrase and imbue it with the power of a mantra” (p. 19).
Now this got me thinking. What if I created my own plan of memorisation? What if I assembled a month’s worth of pithy sayings, beautiful expressions and famous maxims from across the world of literature? How dazzling would I become at dinner parties? I could become the person who said things like “Well, to paraphrase dear old Ruskin…” instead of “Didn’t Hemingway say something about that once? I can’t remember where, or what he said exactly, but I am pretty sure it was him. Yeah, Hemingway. Must look that up.”
So I have stumbled upon another project. For the next week or so I am going to be collecting brilliance. Secular or religious, I don’t care. I just want to make something and someone cleverer than me “a definite part of my mental equipment.” If you grew up watching Rumpole on the ABC, you’ll know the thing I mean. That character had, in his youth, learned the entire “Oxford Book of English Verse” (the Arthur Quiller-Couch edition) by heart, and colourful snatches of verse littered his speech, to great effect. I have always wanted to be like that. But I have until now been too damn lazy, and my phone now has Google so why even bother memorising entire pages of Swinburne or Wilde?
Why? Because I honestly believe it pushes out some of the crap. It extinguishes the memory of how many seasons of ‘Duck Dynasty’ I have seen. It pushes aside the monstrous grudge I have been nursing against someone who made a passive aggressive comment on Twitter that wasn’t even directed at me. If, instead of reflecting on the wrong-headed rant of someone I heard at a writers’ festival two months ago, I could instantly begin channelling the poems of Christina Rossetti, I genuinely believe I will be a better and happier person, and I think my brain will function better because of it. I want to, as Norman Vincent Peale puts it, “fill my mind with fear-eliminating words.”
So, any tips? Where do I begin in my program of creating a mental repertoire of powerful literary quotation? Help shape my mind.
by Walter Mason
This is my secret confession. When I was 17 I discovered a collection of biographical stories of ordinary gay men called “Being Different.” I bought it second hand and read it compulsively, over and over again, but always in secret. It was edited by Garry Wotherspoon, and it had a tremendous effect on my growing up and coming out. He has remained one of my heroes, and, I discovered when he came to see me today, my story has been repeated to him by other people. It was a groundbreaking book, and it certainly helped young Queer Australians re-assess their history. He had staked out a new vision of history in which outlaw voices found a place in the national narrative.
So I was somewhat in awe of the slender and dapper man who sat in front of me in the grand green velour chair in Tom Keneally’s office. I needn’t have been. Garry Wotherspoon is about as charming and personable as they come, and, for a living legend, he is delightfully naughty and irreverent. I was developing a crush.
He has just published a fascinating and idiosyncratic history of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, one of this city’s longest-lasting and most venerable institutions, and the very place that has hosted my visit today. This new history is filled with wonderful stories of the great characters and numerous eccentrics (including one notable murderer) who have helped create this place.
“In the 70s urban history became the new focus,” he explained. “There was a shift away from the national narrative of rural history. We realized that most Australians had always lived in the big cities. The new historians thought, ‘We ought to be writing about the cities.’ And so I started something called The Sydney History Group, and in 1983 I wrote a book on Sydney’s transport.”
Garry has long been one of our premiere academic historians. He got tenure in the 80s, “And then I could start to pursue my real interest,” he said, “which was gay history. I released “Being Different” and at that stage every gay-themed publication was inherently political. Though gays, of course, had always lived here – governers, bushrangers, everything. We were quite conscious that the more we could get academic publishing about gay life in all its different aspects the faster it would seep through into our history books.”
Wotherspoon himself has been a part of Sydney gay history for so long. How does he feel about the state of things now? “Values have changed,” he says. “I am very happy that equality has been achieved in many ways. But there is still a terrible gay life for people in other places around the world.” This is a point that Dennis Altman has also made in his recent book “The End of the Homosexual?”
And like many Queer thinkers of his generation, Garry is ambivalent about the issue of gay marriage. Many gay couples, he realizes, have found a great deal of social recognition and acceptance “It’s like the suburban dream come true,” he says. “And good luck to them. But I think we have lost some of the political focus on what is important in the world globally.”
His curious mind saw him start to wonder about the history of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts once he joined it, in order to use the library. This idle interest culminated in the recently released illustrated history, a book published to commemorate the School’s 180th year. “It started out as a brochure, but as I was doing the research I realized, this is a goldmine! There were truly some wonderful stories – three Prime Ministers have been through this place and several colonial premiers.”
I am always interested to hear about people’s new projects, and I knew that a man as clever and fascinating as Garry would have something interesting up his sleeve. He does. It is a research project about the experiences of the Queer Chinese diaspora. This interest has come from a very personal connection and understanding of the different experiences Chinese gay men have in different places. “Westerners have their identity and their individual experiences. We come out and everyone has to deal with it. For Chinese men their main problem has been integrating their sexuality with the family. The family is the crucial thing. This is the theme that has emerged for me to explore.”
And I can’t wait to read the fruits of that exploration. It’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes, and even rarer that they are twice as fabulous as you could ever have imagined. The world needs more like Garry Wotherspoon.
by Walter Mason
I remember stumbling upon Helen O’Neill’s exquisite illustrated biography of Florence Broadhurst when it was first released. I suffered a terrible author envy witnessing such a lushly illustrated and produced object. It is every writer’s dream to create such a text, but Helen is one of the rare few to have it realized. A couple of weeks ago I received her new book, a lavishly illustrated biography of the iconic Australian architect Harry Seidler, published by Harper Collins. As well as looking beautiful, with its modernist-influence half-slipcase, it is very well written and offers a fascinating insight into a man who helped re-invent Sydney’s image of itself.
Helen came up to the third floor of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts to chat with me at the Tom Keneally Centre. I had been dying to meet her ever since I finished “A Singular Vision: Harry Seidler.” Anyone who had so obsessively pursued the study of an important life and been able to turn that study into such an object of beauty had to be worth talking to.
I asked how it was she began to write such distinctive and quite amazing books. I knew that in the world of modern publishing it is difficult to get such elaborate and expensive projects off the ground. “It was coming across the Florence Broadhurst story,” she said, speaking of her legendary book “Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives.” “As soon as I heard her story I knew there was a visual archive. There are some stories you can’t tell with just a textual narrative. You need a visual story running alongside it. With Florence there was an amazing, and largely unseen, archive that was available. I was lucky to find a publisher (Hardie Grant) that was equally committed to making this a beautiful book. Books are collaborative things, and I got the chance to work with a wonderful designer as well.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by the creativity of people,” she continued. “Artists, film makers, scientists. I was also brought up in quite a creative household. My mother is a very good illustrator. And then I did a fully illustrated book on the history of David Jones, which gave me a chance to go into the Max Dupain photographic archive and we were also able to pull out old fashion illustrations. It was a history, not just of a department store, but of art and design in this country.”
How did the Harry Seidler book come about, I wanted to know? “I did a profile of Penelope Seidler some years ago, and later she approached me about doing the book. Up until that time it had never occurred to me that Seidler might be a topic for me to write about. But if you’re a curious person it gives you a chance to step into new worlds and see how they work.”
Having spent years studying an architect, Helen finds herself far more conscious of architecture wherever she goes. “I walked into a room recently that made me feel so creeped out. Immediately, because of what I had learned from my new researches, I started to wonder if it was because of the dimensions of the room.”
“The very best architects are playing with space, and that is difficult. I had never really appreciated that before. And with architecture nothing can proceed unless you have a client, a site and a budget. And then you need the strength of mind to be able to do what it is you want to do.”
And what about the art of writing, I asked, what’s the knack to writing for a living? “For a long time I never thought I would write books,” she said. “I never thought anyone would be interested enough in anything I had to write about at that length. I think you need to develop your own voice – an actual voice you hear in your head as you are writing. Hear it talk, even sing! You need to find something that fascinates you. And then you have to commit to it completely. For me the first third of that process is something of a nightmare. But then the book develops a life that starts pulling you in different directions.”
“The Seidler book took me about three and a half years to write. I was fascinated by his diaries, childhood diaries he had begun to keep in 1938! You can see things coming through in them. When you are dealing with first-hand material like this you get a chance to almost step through these events with the person.”
Helen O’Neill has built a career on capturing visual moments in Australia’s history. She is fascinated by colour and even a cursory glance at her books proves the acuity of her visual sense. She is a “super-seer” and a super writer.
by Walter Mason
Whenever I teach travel writing workshops I always ask my students what their favourite travel books are. Partly it’s because I want them to start thinking about the kind of writing they want to do, and also because I want to be sure they have some kind of grasp of the genre. Certain books and writers are constantly mentioned (Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux and Norman Lewis), but one of the books that is brought up every time is Claire Scobie’s classic piece of travel writing, “Last Seen in Lhasa.”
This year Claire has published her first novel, “The Pagoda Tree,” to great acclaim, and she is one of the most in-demand creative writing teachers in Australia. I invited her to come up and see me at my Keneally lair at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, and we got to chatting straight away. I asked her about any reservations she might have when it comes to writing about people and cultures not her own (a constant subject of discussion among travel writers).
“Sometimes I get worried when writing about somewhere else with no real authority whatsoever, except that I’m a writer and I’ve been there,” she said. “I found it bothered me more when writing my novel and I was writing as characters from India. What’s a twenty-first century English woman living in Australia doing telling the story of an eighteenth century temple dancer in India? It took me quite a long time to overcome that fear.”
But ultimately, she says, we need to take the risk and find the bravery to pursue our ideas and creative impulses. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you can write as other people,” she said. “That’s what I really wanted to do. As a journalist and as a non-fiction writer you’re always writing about people. But as a fiction writer you write as characters. To write about other people and zoom into their minds was a big leap, but very rewarding.”
Claire studied history at university but found her way into journalism before moving to Australia. Her passion for historical research never left her and was the source of “The Pagoda Tree.” “It took me back to an early love,” she said. “It was nice to bring the writer and the historian together through the book.”
Claire has established a name for herself as a creative writing teacher, so I dared to ask her the eternal chestnut: Can writing be taught? Has years of teaching aspiring writers convinced her either way? Claire is firm in her conviction that it can be taught. “I think it requires a combination of factors,” she explained. “A lot of the early stuff can be learned. But it requires tenacity and persistence…and a certain degree of luck. As well as some talent.”
The most common question creative writing students ask, she says, is “How do you get published?” What does she tell them? “By being very persistent. Know your publication and tailor your story. For a book you just have to keep writing. Bryce Courtenay calls it “bum glue.” A lot of people who come to workshops have no idea of the work involved.”
Is there a writing book that has really helped her? Claire nominates Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” which, she said, helped her at a particularly difficult point in her writing life. When I asked her if there was an obscure general title she’d like the world to read, Claire grew flustered. I have noticed that writers can get frustrated at this question – perhaps too much to choose from? When pressed, she finally volunteered a book I had never heard of called “Half of Man is Woman” by the Chinese writer Zhang Xianliang. “I read that while I was in my teens,” she said. “I went through a phase of Chinese authors and I thought I was going to study Chinese at university. It was the most fantastic read and very insightful about the awful realities of what some people had to live through.”
Being possessed of a reflective and meditative character, Claire is one of those people who always ends up asking more about me than me about her. I find her advice invaluable and found it so today. A wise soul and an inspiring writer.
by Walter Mason
It seems only fitting that, being a guest for the day at the Tom Keneally Centre at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, I should have the opportunity to speak to the great man himself. I had spent most of the day sitting in front of an immense portrait of him, so when he loomed into the doorway of the office I felt surrounded. Keneally is, of course, famous for his garrulous good humour, affability and approachability. I saw it all at work today as he spoke to a gathering of about 50 people who had come to hear him read from his new book “Shame and the Captives,” which deals with the history of Japanese prisoners of war in Australia during the period of World War 2. His storytelling skill is immense, and he kept the audience fascinated from beginning to end. There is no beating the Keneally style.
He reads with great verve, though it was comforting to observe that he too forgets precisely where a passage is in his own book, and spends some time leafing through to find the bit he’s after. His passion for history is what drives him and his work, and this enthusiasm shines as he talks about the stories and situations behind his book. “I think it’s genetic,” he explained to me when he came in for a brief chat. “My mother, if she were talking about somebody’s hernia operation, would go way back and discuss their genealogies, like something from the Old Testament. She was a great narrator. I think that the present is only one dimension of who we are. There’s all this buried stuff in the past. It’s the soil from which story grows.”
I am interested in the Japanese content of this new book, and was drawn in by a passage he read about a prisoner committing seppuku, the infamous Japanese ritual suicide. Seppuku has been much in my mind lately as I have been teaching a friend about the writing and career of Yukio Mishima. I am always disturbed by the tremendous violence of this act, and its accompanying symbolic power. Keneally clearly feels the same.
As a child of World War 2, Keneally is conscious of the reflexive attitudes towards Japan that he learned practically at the cradle. These attitudes he wanted to assess and challenge through the writing of this book. It sounds an intriguing and challenging intent, and I will be very interested to read the outcome. One thing that emerges clearly through Keneally’s talk is how the attitudes, myths and memes of World War 2 are all being challenged and re-assessed in the 21st century. The clear pictures of goodies and baddies that were still being offered to me as a child in the 1970s are no longer as certain.
An unhealthy interest in the atrocities of this period is something that Keneally confesses to, but he balances this by saying that all authors are pathological, all with an enduring and slightly obsessive interest in particular subjects. There is also the constant authorial preoccupation with childhood nostalgia, and this has also been a driving force behind Keneally’s recent writing. His war memories of wanting to be a brave little soldier proved to him just how all-consuming the image of war has been to people of his generation.
Tom Keneally started writing at a relatively early age and found critical acclaim and a degree of commercial success right from the start. I asked him what advice he’d offer an author starting out. “The first draft is very daunting,” he said. “The only way you can write is to begin writing. After a certain number of classes you have to clench your jaw and just get started. I still find it hard – I am struggling with a novel I am writing now. Sometimes you have to write a lot just to find out what’s happening.”
As he was leaving I remembered I wanted to ask him what book he thought everyone should read. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “’Middlemarch’ – it’s the greatest novel ever written and it’s so readable. Virginia Woolf said it was the only great English-language novel written for grownups. It’s a very sophisticated, modern novel – it’s about unhappy marriages. She doesn’t pretend that marriage is the culmination of the plot.”
So that’s it! I am headed home tonight to pick up my entirely untouched, and previously daunting, copy of “Middlemarch” and start reading.