Inspiration at the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival

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The Sydney Writers Festival is almost over for another year and, as always, I’ve found the sessions I’ve attended a huge inspiration for my writing. The theme that kept emerging for me this year was vulnerability – how important it is to have the courage to be vulnerable as a writer and how essential it is to reveal your real self to write really well.

David Marr spoke to The Slap author Christos Tsiolkas about this on the main stage at Walsh Bay yesterday. Christos Tsiolkas spoke very movingly about his parents, who have only a basic education and were only able to read his work when it was recently published in Greek. He also talked about the themes that drive his work, such as what it means to be a man in contemporary Australia and how he compares this search for meaning to how his father’s generation have a much clearer idea about what this means. He also spoke about rage and how it drives his fiction and he feels the need to get it out of himself and onto the page.

He spoke very emotionally and its easy to see why he’s such a great writer because he’s brave enough to look inside himself and put it on the page. In a similar way, Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson’s session on writing trauma narratives also explored how people who have experienced trauma deal with it through fiction. He’s a creative writing teacher in the US and talked about reading students’ stories and how one story about a man who stops on the side of a road in Texas and then has a fight with someone and gets back into the car with a monkey wrench had a fractured narrative. The class workshopped the story and then he forgot all about it until two policemen showed up in his office and showed him a photograph of the student who had written the story. Adam Johnson then realised that it was a true story of someone being beaten to death beside a Texan highway. 

Its a chilling story and his point is that real stories about trauma never mention the actual event and are cyclical and fractured by nature, because describing the event in detail is just too painful. He describes narrative as something that reassembles the trauma in a way that a person who has experienced it first hand can’t do because they can’t retell the event without reliving it. He says the best fiction about trauma is told in fractured pieces and sometimes out of order, because that is the best representation of how an event is processed in the mind. And then he said something that really resonated with me, struggling as I am with whether or not to include more explanation in my own story. He said his Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘The Orphan Master’s Son‘ (which I haven’t read) is written in this style but it makes it less accessible and harder work for the reader. ‘What kind of book do you want to write?’ he asked the audience. ‘One that is easy to read or one that feels true to you?’

I don’t think I’m writing on the same level as he is in terms of trauma but this advice makes sense to me. He also said that the traditional rising tension mountain that is taught in creative writing courses doesn’t work for trauma narratives. That is because the character doesn’t often undergo change, or growth, or discovery, but more that a trauma narrative is cyclical and the characters are left emotionally where they began. 

On the nature of narrative plotting, Booker Prize Winner Eleanor Catton gave a brilliant lecture called On craft: Paradox and Change this morning. It was very theoretical and something that English literature and creative writing graduates might already know, but for me it was really interesting. She said change or the threat of it drives all fiction and she spoke at length on the importance of plot. ‘Plot gives life to the characters, not characters giving life to the plot.’ She took a large swipe at literary fiction and its scorn for plot and said that her aim in writing The Luminaries was to write genre fiction (antipodean Victorian historical fiction) and she’s been trying to push this line in the face of being categorised as literary fiction. Literary fiction, she says, has no magic, doesn’t allow more than one murder, and doesn’t believe in true love and sometimes nothing changes at all. Critically, there are no heroes in literary fiction.

She talked about paradox and how this is important for plot – the best and easiest example of this is The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy has to go to Oz to discover that there’s no place like home. She says a plotted paradox is the opposite of what is expected and its about the extremes – far and near, good and evil, and the key to a plotted paradox is to pull the extremes together. She cited Anna Karenina as an example of an arc of dramatic irony with no discernible moment of change, where a character moves towards self-knowledge.

This self-knowledge is critical when you narrow down plots to either comedy or tragedy. Comedy-style plots (ie. happy ending) rely on character moving towards self-knowledge and she used Shakespeare to show how this works. The tragedies on the other hand don’t operate with a character moving towards self-knowledge. She went into detail on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet and said she is reading all of Shakespeare at the moment and will publish these ideas as one essay once she’s finished. Unfortunately the session wasn’t recorded and there’s no copy of her lecture, so my notes are all I’ve got on this for now. The final point on this was that she said a protagonist needs profound self-awareness to experience true love and that they can’t be truly free without this. This really made sense to me and gave me hope that I’m on the right track with my own story.

She finished by saying that literary fiction has become an exclusive club that’s based on snobbery! Strong words indeed and I guess when you are the Booker Prize winner, you can get away with snubbing the establishment like that.

But for the rest of us, how to manage the ever-present self-doubt that all writers are afflicted with? Alison Manning and author Charlotte Wood talked about this in their ‘Fear and Loathing in the First Draft’ session. Alison Manning is a psychologist who coaches writers and she talked at length about some of the things she counsels them on. She says shame is the most common powerful impulse among writers and leads to feelings of worthlessness. A lot of the techniques she uses are similar to those used in cognitive behavioural therapy, such as defeating black and white thinking. And again that theme about vulnerability and exposure came up. Charlotte Wood talked about how writing is the art of exposure and in fact that what you write is what makes you unique as a writer. So that imitating other writers doesn’t produce the best writing because its not new and uniqueness is what readers, and therefore publishers, are after. She quoted Jerry Seinfeld, who said ‘Yourself is all you have to offer as an artist,’ and that says it all I think.

Alison Manning says that we develop habitual thinking that can be destructive when events happen to us in childhood and we find a way to react to them and keep repeating throughout life. She talked about procrastination in writers,  and how the worst state for producing art is to be in a state of anxiety and fear. 

So all of this has left me with a renewed energy to be brave about writing and that self-doubt is very normal. And the most important thing is to write what and how you want to, because this in the end is the only way to produce something that hasn’t been done before.

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