Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 27, 2018

2018 Bayside Literary Festival #2

 


The Highett Neighbourhood Community House was the venue today for the Bayside Literary Festival and it was a terrific day.  Unlike many literary festivals, at this one the focus was firmly on the writers, offering a day of discussions, workshops and presentations with an amazing cast of local authors from the Bayside region.

I started off the day with a workshop run by Sian Prior. It focussed on writers learning to identify the difference between the situation, and the story because this is crucial to the impact of the writing.  The situation is the context, the circumstances, the facts and sometimes the plot, while the story is the emotional insight and the wisdom that the writer is aiming to convey.  The emotions, she says, are universal: shame, guilt, regret, fear … whatever, everyone feels these emotions and so this is what can connect us with a story.

Using an example of writing from a Good Weekend article at The Age, Sian led us to identify the ‘vertical drop’ i.e. the moment when a reader is affected by a story, a kind of emotional punch that occurs at a particular place in the text.  This moment in the text answers the question, ‘why should I care?’

Each of us had to identify an example from our own (would-be) writing.  Mine was:

  • The situation: visiting an old house in the 1980s, and seeing the memorabilia of a dead soldier from The Great War, preserved as if in a shrine decades after he died; and recognising the overwhelming sense of loss in his sweetheart’s damaged life.
  • The story (what it’s really about): my first intimation of empathy for the war bereaved because prior to that, as a product of the anti-Vietnam War era, I’d processed WW1 merely as facts about a stupid unnecessary war.

My second session was called Bringing Characters to Life, with Sofie Laguna and Leah Kaminsky, with Lee Kofman in the chair.  The discussion began with Sofie and Leah identifying their ignoble characters, who represent the dark side of who we are.  They are both interested in the idea of there still being an element of humanity even in creepy characters.  But both authors found it difficult to articulate how they create characters so different from the self, Sofie saying that it was an intuitive process and Leah saying that these evil characters tend to be composites of many people.

(I was a bit startled to hear Leah saying that her novel The Waiting Room is really about getting to know her own mother better, because I missed that theme entirely in my review.)

Leah was more forthcoming about how to create a credible voice for her characters.  Sofie says that she writes scene-by-scene, and she discovers them as she goes along, intuitively building up the details.  But Leah talked about writing ‘in the moment’ and then adding the details as part of the process.  She aims for descriptors of that character that no other character could have, and she likens the process to developing a friendship where the friend’s life story gradually unravels as the friendship develops.   And when it comes to dialogue, she often ‘hears it’ and quickly writes it down, but other times she recognises that there’s too much text and it needs to be broken up with dialogue.  She gets her ideas from the poetry books she always has at hand, and from listening to people on the tram!

My final session was called ‘So you want to be a writer, can writing be taught?’  The speakers were Alison Goodman (a writer of regency adventures and fantasy); Sally Hepworth, Sian Prior, A.S. (Alec) Patric and the chair Gerard McCulloch.  All of these, one way or another, were teachers of writing as well as authors, so the topic was a bit cheeky…

There were anecdotes about how each one learned to write, beginning with Alison’s story about her Grade 3 teacher Miss Carr who used to read out stories with dramatised voices, and how she went on to formal study with Gerald Murnane who taught her the craft of writing.  She said it was hard, every sentence was marked by green pen and they all learned to dread that, but it was an intense and rigorous course and she valued every moment of it.  Sally Hepworth taught herself to write, remarkably, beginning with a Google search for “how to write a novel”.  She used instructions for The Snowflake Method to write her first novel because it gave her the confidence to finish it.  (She told us not to Google it because she doesn’t recommend it and she doesn’t use it any more – but of course I did, see here.)  She has since read many, many books about the craft of novel-writing because she always thinks that other writers know how to do it better. So she is a self-taught writer, using self-study not formal study.

Sian Prior was encouraged by a Year 11 teacher who inspired a prize-winning short story but then she wrote nothing for years. As a broadcaster she learned how to write as if her words are to be read out loud and she recommends this as an essential editing step for all writing.  Sian didn’t do any formal study of writing until she did a Professional Writing and Editing Course at RMIT, where she learned a lot about the craft, the forms of writing, how to deal with feedback and so on.  But when she came to write her memoir Shy (on my TBR) it was hard to write without a deadline, so she enrolled in a PhD.  She says she’s still learning, through teaching writing to others.

Alec Patric was adamant that you don’t need to study writing to be a writer.  He says it’s like swimming: if you identify yourself as a swimmer then you are one.  If you write, you are a writer. You can be taught how to be a professional writer, but you can’t be taught to write because hey, you can already do that.  There is no secret to it: you read a lot, and you write a lot.  He says there’s no way to hack the process, you have to practise the craft every day…

200 words a day is 1400 words a week, and that’s 72,800 words in a year.  That’s a book. The problem with writing, he says, is best explained with a sporting analogy: you can’t learn tennis from a champion because they’d simply slaughter you every time you played.  You shouldn’t compare yourself to the greats, just do your 200 words a day.  (He also gave the amusing example of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  Describing it as a collection of elements that simply ought not to work, it’s a great book.  But if you used it as a model, it would surely be a disaster). Fantastic writers are not always fantastic teachers, because it’s not easy to articulate how to do it.

Others on the panel didn’t agree, but Alec says mucking things up is part of the process and it may be years before you get it right.  That process feels awful but that’s what writing is about.  People want to learn to write without suffering but it’s not possible.  Rejection slips are part of the writer’s world and they are part of getting to a goal.  What matters is moving forward and continuing your own personal development because that evolution of the self is the writer’s life.  Many people stop doing this when they leave school but you need to continue to progress from here to there.  He feels that studying writing can be a distraction that takes away time from what you should be doing, which is writing.

Sally Hepworth thought that some courses could be stifling because they lead to panicking about e.g. adverbs (!) but lessons can help, and Sian Prior says we can all learn, and that she’d got a great new idea from a recent session at the Wheeler Centre. But it is true that writers have to be willing to tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing how something will come together and they have to trust their own subconscious to sort it out.  And Alison said that the publishing industry is very uncertain too, and writers just need to get used to that.

This was a terrific session, well-chaired by McCulloch who used just enough prompts to let the speakers speak for themselves and give the audience something to think about!

Three sessions in one day was enough for me so after a delicious falafel burger from the food truck (yum!) I went home to get my French homework done and start the prep for my Indonesian classes at U3A!

A huge thank you to the team from the Bayside Library Service and all the volunteers who helped on the day.


Responses

  1. Great review. After all these writing workshops, festivals and interviews with authors Lisa and because you write so well I hope you are working on your own book!:)

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    • Maybe there are enough books out there in the world?

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  2. Interesting sessions, Lisa. It sounds like a great festival.

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    • I liked the focus on the actual writing. Some festivals might more properly called Book Promotion festivals, but this one was the real deal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh thank you so much Lisa. The next best thing to attending these sessions is reading about them here on your blog. I really felt I was there and found myself leaning forward in my seat, earnestly cocking an ear in the direction of Alec Patric, smiling as Sally Hepworth talked about The Snowflake Method and knowing I will google it too, and shaking with fear and awe about the idea of Gerald Murnane and his green pen. What an inspirational day. Thank you.

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    • I find what Alec had to say very appealing and I hope that at least some of the aspirational writers heed his words. He mentioned at one stage that he thought people attending courses did so as a way of ‘getting permission’ to write, and I think he was onto something there. Maybe especially for the women… you know: “I have to take time out from being there for my family because I’m enrolled in a course and I have to write this”?

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      • I think that’s right Lisa. And also, it is often after courses that people take the term ‘writer’ more seriously – whether that be the writer themselves or those around them.

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        • You could be right. BTW I didn’t go to his session but the man from Brolga Publishing was there and I immediately thought of 8 States of Catastrophe!

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  4. Thanks for sharing your observations and thoughts – next best thing to being there!

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    • I could see out of the corner of my eye the people next to me watching me scribbling furiously – but my notes are invaluable for something like this. I learned the art of the furious scribble at university lectures!

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  5. That’s interesting about the WWI, I think at some stage we all went from thinking it was about stupid politicians and incompetent generals to realizing it was really about the loss, the waste of millions of individual lives.
    And what did you think about Patric’s 200 words a day – you must write closer to 500.

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    • I’ll tell you how this WW1 insight came about. Mairi is writing a novel and I started to tell her about that house (which comes from my real life experience) as a possible scene. I used it in her writing workshop (on Monday) when we were depicting scenes using the senses so it was fresh in my mind, and I’ve been ‘writing’ the scene each day as I walk the dog. (I have ‘written’ a Dickens’ sized oeuvre of novels walking my various dogs over a lifetime). But what Sian’s session did was to make me realise why standing awestruck in that shrine of a house had such an impact on me. It was a shift from clear-eyed logic to emotion, and from judgementalism to empathy. As you say, all of us in that anti-war generation made that shift somewhere along the line, but I can identify my moment…

      200 words a day? I suppose I do, and often more. I wonder how many thousands of words there are on this blog, and in my journal?

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  6. Wow! Big day. I enjoyed hearing about it. There is much to think about while attending these events.

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