The comfort of shared writing experiences

You’re not the only one who used to write limp internal characters that did nothing.

When I heard Australian author Charlotte Wood read an extract recently, I felt as though she’d taken it straight from my life. But this wasn’t fiction, hers or mine. She was talking about our younger writing-selves and how our uncertainty as women and as writers stopped our characters from actually doing anything.

I’ve never read a novel and thought, ‘This is me. This is my life!’ But last week, as I was coming back from the day care drop-off and listening to the First Time Podcast, Charlotte Wood’s answer to an Agony Aunt question made me stop. I leant against someone’s front fence to let her finish and delay the busy road that would’ve drowned her out. As she continued, she articulated everything I’d never been able to fully connect about the way I used to write.

I am a self-taught writer. I’ve never been a protégé, had a mentor, done a writing course or had a group to bounce things off. And it’s a slow apprenticeship when you do it that way around (I don’t recommend it).

My writing was good but it was muffled. It was as if any action happened in the shadows and any discussion was turned down low. I didn’t want to offend or get things wrong and so it was all slow-motion interiors and nicely phrased details. It was more like a written still life.

Charlotte Wood talked about how her younger writing-self believed that beautiful sentences and a good eye for detail should be enough to sustain a book and a reader’s interest. That was definitely me. Quoting from a speech explaining what Kate Jennings book Save Me, Joe Louis had taught her she said:

“My characters were invariably Sensitive Young Women. Inexplicably, men treated them callously. My young women observed their worlds closely – they noticed things… like dust motes floating in the air, or the dropped flower of a frangipani on a wet footpath…….

They arranged themselves in picturesque domestic scenes and, by keeping very still, themselves became decorative. They watched, and felt things, and ‘said nothing and turned away’.

The one thing my characters never, ever did back then was act – because to act would be to show yourself, to take a risk. And I was not ready for that.”

It was so comforting to be in good company and know that I wasn’t the only young female writer who had muzzled herself with self-doubt and didn’t trust herself to ask questions and take risks. I was looking for approval and to be liked.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still looking for approval. But one thing that passing time and an output of words does is liberate you. Charlotte Wood mentioned that fiction can lack a certain type of energy when you don’t take risks. It’s true. You’re clipping your own wings if you spend all your time needing to be liked, so it’s lucky that you eventually get bored of your characters being so passive and listless.

It’s a reminder though, that putting your name to words is no small thing. But with curiosity and a bit of courage comes liberation.

You can find the transcript of Charlotte Wood’s complete speech here. And if you’re going to listen to the First Time Podcast episode (which I recommend, I got a lot from her advice to the writer of a ‘quiet novel’) she reads the extract at 23 minutes and 20 seconds in.

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The Secrets Submerged in Single-Author Short Story Collections

Sometimes it’s the writer who is revealed rather than their characters when you read short stories in succession.

I’m a big fan of short stories, reading and writing them. My bedside bookstack and rescue reading posts are testament to that.

There are plenty of reasons I love short stories, but one of the unexpected outcomes of reading lots of them is suddenly realising that you now know a lot more about the author than perhaps they thought they were telling you.

Writers tend to circle around similar ideas and questions in their body of work. When you read a novel, it isn’t so obvious because it might be years until you read another book by the same author. But when you read short stories side-by-side, and especially if you read a ‘collected works’ which covers a lifetime of writing, you start to see the same things recurring again and again; adolescent insecurity that lasts into adulthood, a longing for mothers to be more maternal, fathers who are unreliable, people who try and create their family outside of their bloodline. These are a few I’ve picked up on in recent readings.  

Initially, it felt a bit underhand, like seeing someone undressed through a crack in the door. But writers write to make sense of things as well as to be seen. That’s where the fear and the vulnerability is.

I like seeing into other people’s lives. I’d like to find a nicer word than nosy, so it doesn’t feel so intrusive. Inquisitive perhaps? I’m endlessly curious about what motivates people, what’s formed them and causes them to act and see the world the way that they do. I’d be just as happy to find out if they told me directly but people aren’t always forthcoming about their internal worlds or even so reflective. So, I love it when they reveal themselves and what they’re trying to work out through the stories they write.

I’m in good company here. In a recent episode of The First Time Podcast, short story writer Laura Elvery (Ordinary Matter) talks about liking single-author collections for this reason. She also mentions American short story writer Laura van den Berg who says that she likes it when reading short stories feels like roaming around a house where there’s a new discovery about the author with every story.

As someone who’s currently working on a collection of short stories, I wonder exactly what it is that I’ll be revealing to readers.

Is this something you’ve noticed when you read collections?

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10 Essay Collections for Can’t-Concentrate Readers

Rescue Reading for Troubled Times Part 5

This week’s rescue reading is suggested essay collections. Don’t worry, none of them will feel like homework. I’ve cast a wide net and there’s something for everyone with travel writers, food writers, ground-breakers, satirists, novelists and quiet observers.

If this doesn’t sound right for you try last week’s Men’s Mixed Bag of Male Short Story Writers, 10 female Australian short story writers you should read or 20th Century female short story writers.

The Details – On love, death and reading by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Scribner, 2020

And that’s exactly what this beautiful book of essays is about. She’s writing as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a reader and a writer and she’s so generous with us in what she shares whether it’s her mother’s last days, her love of Helen Garner or George Saunders or childbirth-related vaginal issues.

Her eloquence and intelligence are such a pleasure to read. There was no snacking on these essays. I devoured them in two nights. This one was also on my August bedside bookstack.

True Stories by Helen Garner, Text Publishing, 1996

This collection gathers together pieces she has written from over 25 years. The subject matter jumps from giving birth to visiting a morgue, to a school dance. But it doesn’t really matter what she writes about, it all turns to gold in her hands. I think this is her true gift, the ability to find moments we all recognise and hold them still for long enough to take in the complete picture.

She’s a joy to read and these pieces are short and thus perfect for rescue reading. I also love the inscription in my second-hand copy of this book: Christina, surround yourself with good friends, good music and good books!! Love Julie.

Her collection Everywhere I Look would be another good rescue reading recommendation.

The New Journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, Picador, 1975

This collection is for anyone interested in how the essays and non-fiction we read today came to be such a varied bunch. New journalism was a step in the direction of creative non-fiction, using literary techniques to capture real events. There’s an extract from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as well as seminal pieces by Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Bloomsbury, 2000

It doesn’t matter how you feel about his food shows, the late Anthony Bourdain could write. These essays are a great read – pacy and perfect if you’re looking for something speedy but satisfying.

This book was like the New Journalism moment for food writing. Here was a chef-written page turner about sex, drugs and haute cuisine. He was unconventional and an insider and I’m glad I now know not to order the seafood special on a Sunday.

The Global Soul by Pico Iyer, Bloomsbury, 2000

I’m a big Pico Iyer fan. He’s my favourite travel writer. I think he has such gentle, generous and intelligent observations of the world and his restlessness and desire to seek out corners of the world is very satisfying for one’s own global curiosity.

This collection is subtitled jetlag, shopping malls and the search for home. It’s an accurate one-liner for what you’ll get in this collection.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Abacus, 2000

Actually, I could just as easily list any of his other collections. These are perfect if you’re looking for something lighter. They’re ridiculous, funny and short.

David Sedaris is a humourist who works his comic magic on ordinary moments. His observations and wit will be a welcome relief from the pandemic plod.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Faber, 2016

I’ve been dipping in and out of these pieces and get something completely different every time. Politics, photography, travel, history and literature are just some of the topics Teju Cole covers.

So far, I’ve gone from Kenyan coastal folklore to the poetry of Derek Walcott, portrait photography and drones. His curiosity and knowledge blend seemingly disparate ideas so that you’re never quite sure where he’ll lead you until you’re there.

This is the story of a happy marriage by Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, 2013

It seems Ann Patchett can write non-fiction with just as much talent and flair as she does her fiction. This collection is definitely one for writers and readers who like to get the personal behind-the-scenes tour of a writer’s ideas and life. There are essays on how she wrote her first novel, book tours, opening an independent book shop and her obsession with opera which led to her novel Bel Canto.

Columbus’ Blindness and Other Essays edited by Cassandra Pybus, University of Queensland Press, 1994

This collection was my introduction to essays as a form to be read and enjoyed. As a writer, this was my first taste of essays beyond the high school classroom.

The titular essay has stayed with me all these years. It is written by that master of sentence-level perfection; Delia Falconer. It lays a period of unexplained illness that Christopher Columbus had on the return of his second journey against her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Both are treated with her usual eloquence and it just blew my mind that such beauty was possible in an essay.

Best Australian Essays, Black Inc, 1998 – 2018

Obviously, a collection that has already curated the best of a bunch over a year should be added to the rescue reading list. The variety of topic, style and tone will keep things interesting and the choice of twenty years’ worth of back catalogue means you’ll always be covering new ground.

Some of these may be out of print or hard to find. You can find the closest library copy of a book, anywhere in the world, through world cat.

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What you can learn as a writer from Robbie Arnott’s Flames

This bold and unpredictable debut novel is worth reading once as a reader and again as a writer.

Flames is the debut novel of Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott. The quote on my cover, from Richard Flanagan, declares it a ‘strange and joyous marvel’. He isn’t wrong.

Readers can get caught up in the language and leaps of magic realism that take you from the brine and obsession of a tuna fisherman to an anthropomorphised ember. Writers can watch and wonder how he does it.

In the early pages, it’s declared that women from the McAllister family sometimes come back after death. Half landscape and half person their re-arrival always ends in flames.

This sets in motion the flight and pursuit which sustains the novel. Levi McAllister wants to make a coffin for his sister, so she won’t have a chance to re-incarnate and can rest in peace. His sister Charlotte sees this as a good reason to leave.

With each chapter, everything shifts; the point of view (POV), tense, text type and even genre. As a reader you can move through the magic of this and as a writer, take your time to enjoy what he’s up to and how boldly he does it.

He moves from the crime/detective narrative of a private investigator, to the diary entries of a mad ranger, to the narrative of a water rat, the magic realism of his main character and the pure poetry that is fire’s own monologue.

If you’re scared of writing a novel, and think it’s too big to take on, maybe try slicing it up. These chapters could be separated and stand independently as short stories but turn into something unique when presented together.

Who knows if it was pure experimentation or something much more deliberate on his behalf? Strategic or not, the result is so interesting and strange. There’s plenty in there to inspire mixing things up a little in your own writing and seeing where it takes you.