A fear of words.

“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” – Edgar Allen Poe

Some people I work with

Send me emails

That are more like poems

And I wonder

When did we become so afraid

Of using language well?

I’m a terrible poet and the first to admit it. During my high school years I filled notebooks with terrible poetry (and I was trying to find myself at a religious school at the time so a few had a bit of a jesus bent). During my more rebellious uni years (yes, I was a bit of a late bloomer) I found the books and tore them up. As much as I wish that I had some earlier remnants of my own writing to look back and grow from, I’m glad that I don’t have that poetry. High school wasn’t a joyous place for me and I’ve no desire to hurtle back into the awkwardly earnest skin that I inhabited then.

I digress. The thing that I’m wondering today is when we stopped our love affair with language. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Martine Murray visited us at Faber earlier this week and talked about the dangers of being too writerly. But I’m not talking about language in a writerly sense, I’m talking about using words in our daily communications with the same sense of joy, decorum and even frivolity that they were once used.

Why don’t we write emails that look like poems?

How often now do sentences finish with ‘you know’ or ‘whatever’?

When did we stop trying to think of exactly the right word to express ourselves?

For me it was during those dreaded high school years. I felt this horrible shame at excelling at anything because I had always been teased for being smart. It’s hard to describe that kind of teasing. Often it’s not being bullied so much as the undercurrent of feeling that you’ve done something wrong. You’re called a know it all, a snob, a suck up, a show off, a nerd. Getting over it isn’t just about getting over the teasing, but overcoming the feeling that by using the things that you know – and in the case of language, using words that aren’t part of the everyday vocabulary of your peers – that you’re somehow doing something wrong. And all I wanted was to fit in.

So instead of using a myriad of beautiful words to describe myself and to try to define my reality I said I was sad. I rhymed it with bad and mad and boxed myself in with the simplest words I knew, the whole time raging because I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) express myself, or drain any of the emotion that I was feeling out with my language.

The current trend in fiction is to write ‘cleanly’ and to pare things back. It’s a struggle I have with my own writing. It starts clean. I know where I’m going. Then all of a sudden I’m standing in the middle of a swamp of lengthy descriptions and tangled plots and I’m not quite sure how I got there. More, I’m not quite sure how to get out.

The key I think is in words. Knowing them and not being afraid to use them. Reading books with big words, flowery words, sharp words and ploppy, messy nonsense words. Finding the one right word can express what a whole tangled paragraph cannot.

Now I find myself hungrily tearing into the pages of books – not just to let their story take me away, but to devour as many of the delicious words as I can. To feel their meaning and hoard them away for my own use later. I’m greedy for more. I pity the lonely teenager trying to fit in and wish that I could tell her to be greedier then so that I would know more now.

If anyone has words to share I would love to hear them.

Faber Academy – halfway there

As most of the regular readers of this would have noticed, I’ve been feeling a little flat recently. This has been for a number of reasons, but one of them is because of a big fat case of writers block. Sally Rippin sent me this link last week about the mid-novel slump, and reading was a bit of a Eureka moment – I just need to wade through the middle, get to the end and then go back and swap the crap for something better.

Then at class one of the others (who I’m convinced will be the next Roald Dahl) suggested that I start at the end and look back – anything to just get the thing on the paper.

If there’s one piece of advice that I feel comfortable passing on, even at this early stage of my career it’s that – get the thing on paper. Every writer I’ve heard speak, no matter how different their approach is to the actual task of writing itself agrees that there’s nothing that can be done with blank space. So I’m sitting at my desk every day and letting my fingers control the keyboard until my word count is 2000 more than it was the day before. Already I’ve got papers piling up next to me – a list of things that I’ve changed that I need to go back and iron into the rest of the story. I’m working in different voices, tenses and scenes just to get the narrative out. Once that’s done I can throw myself back into the story and figure out what’s working (and what’s not) with eyes that aren’t constantly looking forward to that final scene.

Saturday was the second (of three) full days at Faber Academy. Looking in my diary I can’t believe that there is only 5 evening sessions (one of which I’ll miss due to the very exciting time I’ll be having in San Fransisco) and one Saturday session left. I feel like I’m standing on the high diving platform, inching closer to the edge, and running out of time until I freefall into the pool below. We’re getting more into the grittiness of workshopping pieces, and a part of me misses the number of writing exercises that we were doing at the beginning. Really, I wish the course was longer – or every day. As a group I think we’ve grown quite close, and I hope (as a couple of us have suggested) that we continue to swap writing after the class is over.

What’s interesting about the writing exercises is that so often they involve diving back into memories from our own childhood. I think this has been challenging for everyone, in different ways. Not necessarily due to traumatic childhoods, but because once you start throwing yourself back there, the details really do come flooding back. And it’s quite a journey of self discovery to reconcile your five year old self to the person you are now.

Anyway, I digress. Martine Murray was our guest this Saturday, and while her style and approach to writing is very different to Andy Griffith’s, both have seen equal success, and offered invaluable advice to all of us. Martine told us a bit about her own journey into writing (which again was very much a journey of self discovery) and then talked about the need that we feel to ‘be writerly’. Although we’re trying to write reality (no matter how distorted a version of it that is) we often sit down and think ‘ok, now I have to Write something’. So Martine ran an exercise that encouraged us to throw our minds back to a point in childhood where they snagged on a memory. Then to just sit down and write out the memory. Without applying writerly touches.

The idea behind this is to create the details and then apply the imagination later (which is quite similar to Andy’s advice of grounding our fictions in reality and the age old advice of showing not telling). Just on a side note, Martine said something lovely which I wanted to share, which was ‘you write to discover the story. If you’re just writing down what happens, you’re essentially just a secretary.’

So this is my memory and exercise piece from Saturday.

It was a pink floral dress, NOT my green fancy one with the bolero jacket because I’d stained that the week before at dinner. Nanna made me this one from a Laura Ashley pattern. It had a lace collar.

I wasn’t wearing any shoes yet but I had my dress on because we were going out for dinner. I was in the patio, I don’t know why, down the end near the pond. The baby’s tears that grew around the edges underneath the fern looked so soft. I wanted to walk on them so I did. In the back corner the rocks piled up for a mini waterfall. You could switch it on with a button that slid up and down. There were two buttons like that attached to the rocks at the back. The second button made a green light come on under the water and made the water glow and look cool and deep – like there was something behind there.

I put my feet forward and balanced on the rock to my left. It was flat and cool. The goldfish swam in the pond, ducking under the weeds. I put the other foot forward. I lost my balance. I slipped. My right leg slid down the slimy walls of the pond and I fell in after it. 

I didn’t drown because it wasn’t that deep. And I didn’t get eaten by the big brown catfish that I’d never seen but knew was there. We didn’t go out for dinner. I didn’t want to tell Nanna that I’d ruined the dress because she’d made it for me for my birthday. I didn’t want her to see the stains from the algae and slime and weeds. She saw anyway. But she said it was ok.

Faber Academy Week 6: Of Genre and Malaise

I should note that a) my malaise is in no way related to Faber, which is still lovely and b) is not the kind the preludes some sort of horrible disease or stroke (I hope) but more a general feeling of out of sortsness. Wiki tells me that people with malaise ‘experience non specific feelings of unease’. Right then, on with the blog.

It’s funny how things always seem to tie in, but this week has a nice symmetry to it. Tonight’s theme at Faber was genre, a nice parallel to a talk I’m giving tomorrow for a Penguin PD at the Wheeler Centre. It’s called “From Fantasy to Dystopia: using genre books in the classroom”. I’ll be talking about the pros and cons of genre, why people are afraid of recommending it alongside ‘real’ fiction, why they should use it and some specific titles. I’ll be talking non stop for forty minutes, although I have a horrible fear of speeding through my meticulously planned (and extensive) notes, looking at the clock and realising that I’ve only taken up ten minutes. There’s going to be videos too though. That should take some time.

The shortlist for the Aurealis Awards was announced today. These awards are pretty big news in the world of genre fiction and cover everything from fantasy to horror, from short stories to full length novels. There are some pretty great titles on the list, and it’s a great way to be find some good new genre fiction if you don’t know where to start. Sally suggested that most of children’s literature (with the exception of stories that are strictly real life) would be considered fantasy, because it often has a twist of magic, even if it’s only the imagined kind.

Genre fiction can be underrated. People argue that it is a publisher driven concept, or that the books are so focussed on convention and plot that they neglect character or subtext. The bottom line is that faults can be found with any sub-standard book, and the fact that genres are grouped together by certain conventions doesn’t mean that authors aren’t constantly coming up with new ways to explore or challenge them. Genre fiction is like a hot chocolate with a twist. You know it’s chocolate, you know you’re going to like it, but you don’t know what flavour you’re going to get. (I know, I know it reeks of Forest Gump, but my imagination isn’t up to scratch today).

This is going to be a short(ish) post, because I’m not going to post any writing. This is partly because the exercise we did in class today was oral, partly because I’ve been too busy dreaming of another life, with high ceilings, echoing rooms and late nights walking through puddles in empty cities to think of anything else and partly because I’m tired and scatty. So sorry about the short, random post. I didn’t want to neglect the blog, and most of the books I’ve been reading recently have been for print review so I’ve got nothing to report there either. Our second full day of Faber is on Saturday and I’m going to be on the radio with Sally and Sophie Cunninham on Monday to talk Faber so there will be something more substantial for you to read then.

For now though, adieu!

Through the wall

I’ve made it through the wall (see my previous post). The reasons for this are as follows.

1. I had the most amazing pizza ever from Alalbero – go there.

2. Before Faber I sat in the park (with no internet connection and therefore no facebook distractions) and wrote a new scene for the book. I am now happily 1500 words past the last block. Hopefully it’s another 10,000 or so before I hit another one. I really just want to get it all out there so I can get the damn thing edited.

3. Faber – it really is lovely.

Tonight’s theme was setting. I love setting, it can be so evocative and, as Sally rightly put it can almost be another character in pieces. A good setting grounds us in a story. We can connect with a character, but it’s not until we are given a road map that we really feel like we’re inside it, like we can choose which path to take through it. We talked about how setting can tell us so much about a character depending on what we are shown or what they choose to notice. I thought about the things I notice, and the things that make a place come to life for me.

Tonight’s exercise was a little bit different. Sally brought in a selection of paintings that she’d photocopied and stuck onto bits of blue paper. (I mention that the paper was blue because in an article a friend just sent through I read that blue generally inspires more creativity) We each chose a painting and wrote an opening paragraph triggered by our piece.

*interestingly, when we went around the circle to read our pieces aloud, one of the women worried that she didn’t get the brief – saying that she had started a piece but not really included setting. Her piece was extremely evocative though and gave a real sense of setting in that the other indicators – language, tone and imagery instantly gave a feel for the  setting that would be home to this type of story. It served as a brilliant example of a more subconscious setting.

My piece was based on the painting above (I wish I knew who it was by because it’s beautiful, but I don’t) I feel like I’d like to play with it quite a bit more, bit I have some ideas about where I would like it to go.

***

The last thing she remembered was his face, pale and white as it drifted away encased in wood. It had always been Zhed’s wish to be buried in a boat. This was not to be though. Bel’s mother couldn’t afford it, and anyway had never had time for his ‘flights of fancy’. Bel had done what she could to make his funeral one that Zhed would have been proud of. At night, only hours before it was due to start she had snuck in with James, each of them carrying armfuls of plastic bags. They walked down one side of the pews, next to the cold stone wall, barefoot and to the opening behind the altar where the simple garden opened out to the night sky. The water had been green and slimy, but Bel had turned on the tap and carried bucket-loads of water to the pond before she and James turned to the bags, picked them up and emptied out the waves of goldfish. The fish swam around each other, fighting for space, turning the muddy green waters a tumultuous cascading rush of orange. It reminded Bel of Zhed, slipping in and out of the water, splashing and playing, back before he went silent.

Am I fresh out of ideas?

I’ve hit a wall – with reading, with writing, with submitting. In fact, you may go so far as to say that I’ve hit a wall with any sort of thinking at all.

2012 began with such promise and, to be fair, it hasn’t done anything contrary to that promise. But I feel helpless, somehow, like I’m not doing the things that I want to be doing. There’s a torrent of things waiting to be done, and to continue with the wall analogy, rather than dealing with them sensibly and one at a time, I’m staring at them, all piled up in front of me, and starting to quietly freak out. Will I finish this piece in time? Will it be any good? Should I have sent off a pitch to that magazine last week? Should my reviews be longer, shorter, quirkier? Is my writing voice good enough?

No doubt other writers (and other humans) will be familiar with these waves of self doubt. You know, and I know that they’re not always rational. We even say it out loud “I know I’m being silly, but…” It’s as though nothing I do is ever enough. Not for anyone else, but for me. Everything I finish is something else that’s not getting done. I’ve always been afraid putting my writing out there, because it’s always been my little bean of hope. The thing, that if all else fails, that has seen me through a solo (and sometimes lonely) childhood, an often trying adolescence and into adulthood. It’s the place where I don’t feel awkward, or stilted, or shy. But like any artist, once I actually put it out there people can dislike it, or they can say it’s no good. Or worse, it might never get out there to begin with.

I’m drawn to shiny new ideas like a moth to a flame. Partly because they’re new and I want to follow them, to see where they go. But if I’m being honest with myself I know that part of it is also because working on something new means that I don’t have to commit to finishing something else. That I don’t have to write that last word, hit send and say “There. It’s done. Like it if you will.”

Faber tonight, and hopefully a more uplifting post to follow.

 

Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

I’ve been focussing a lot on characters recently – in both my own writing (how to make them better) and in other peoples (what’s so outstanding about them). I’ll read pretty much anything if the characters are real. Give me an interesting narrator and I’ll let them fly me to the moon and back.

When I was a few chapters into Me and Earl and the Dying Girl I read a review that gave it 4 1/2 stars. I’m not a massive believer in star reviews along, because it can be so limiting, but still, 4 1/2 stars is pretty high. “It’s not that good!” I exclaimed to one of my colleagues. “I mean, it’s funny and everything – actually it’s making me laugh out loud, but it’s no John Green, that’s for sure.”  If you’re reading this you’ve probably at least of John Green’s latest YA offering The Fault in Our Stars. Cancer books are apparently all the rage at the moment. I loved The Fault in Our Stars – it did exactly what this book purports to do – tell a story of real characters, funny and alive, who happen to be dealing with cancer. So I approached this book warily, wondering if it was going to be just a rip off.

Immediately the narrator told me that this is the worst book ever written, that I was going to hate it, that it might make me punch myself in the eyeball. Ok, I thought well at least it isn’t trying to impress me. By the end of the first chapter, I had snorted into my lunch several times. Begrudgingly, sure, but a snort’s a snort right? By chapter four there was nothing begrudging about it. Greg Gaines, the narrator is a pretty funny guy for someone who has been forced into a friendship with a girl who’s dying of cancer. Funnier still is his best friend Earl – straight up  and more than a little crazy. Earl is Greg’s sort-of-friend who helps him make hilariously average remakes of films that are often fairly unknown to begin with.

The book is interesting in format – the chapters a broken up with scenes written like scripts. The language carries just enough slang to come alive and the characters all have distinct voices in your mental narrative. The secondary characters are funny too – funny because they’re so like adults, you laugh because they’re real.

There were times when I found the flow of the text jarring. Moments where I though ‘if you tell me I won’t like this book one more time I actually won’t’. But at the end I came out smiling. Some unfortunate things happened, and there were sad moments. But like so many sad moments, stories like this are often best told with humour.

No matter how you approach this, I’d be surprised if you didn’t come out smiling at the end.

Faber Academy Week 4

And we’re back to voice again. I know, it seems like I only recently had a ponder about it on here.  But tonight in class we looked at points of view and did a lot of workshopping on voice. I don’t feel bad about blogging on the subject twice, because authentic voice is so important in any fiction.

It tied my day together quite nicely, as just before class I had been to a book launch of Things A Map Won’t Show You which is a wonderful new collection of short stories that offer up a wonderful view of Australia as it is now. There is an immediacy to this book, and certainly a passion from all of those involved in collecting works with authentic voices that really speak to a contemporary audience. I’ve only dipped into other people’s copies as yet, but I hope to get myself a copy soon and you can expect a review as soon as I do.

So, back to faber. We started out by looking at some examples of strong voices in the opening paragraphs of children’s books (including Isobelle Carmody, Gillian Rubinstein, and Roald Dahl among others). It’s extraordinary to read work by authors who are so familiar, but really paying attention to the voice. The fact that it isn’t something that you immediately notice is a testament to how easy really great writers make it look. Without even trying, you feel like you know the character you are reading about. Surely as writers it’s that realism that we’re trying to achieve.

We did a range of exercises so I’ve just picked one. The exercise was to choose a despicable character (fictional or real) and write a piece showing them doing something good (or at least making us understand/feel sympathetic towards them).

I watch her eyes widen and close as she lets go of the tourniquet around her upper arm. She looks at me. It takes her a moment to realise who I am. 

“Are you ok?” I ask, feeling stupid even as I say the words. 

She nods, slowly, running her tongue over her bottom lip.

She tries to speak but her mouth is too dry. Swallows noisily. 

“Your turn?” she offers.

“No” I shake my head. “I need to stay straight to look after you.”

She gazes around the stairwell. I should never have done this. Never have listened to her demands. I’d always kept her separate, making sure I did deals when she was at school. Never leaving my shit out when she came over. For all her black hair and smudged eyeliner, she was a softie. And that’s why I loved her.

I didn’t know what to do when she’d told me he was dead, felt my heart stop when she told me that she’d have to go and live in Queensland with her mum. Her voice was so husky from crying. I couldn’t say no. Never could.

Depressing I know. Never know what’s going to come out of hot writing.