On becoming a writer

The task of writing is not easy. It is a creative, artistic venture with little guarantee of success. The impact on my writing this trimester can be characterised by three main themes: firstly that the unconscious mind is of paramount importance in the writing process; secondly that, although it is important to read the works of other authors and to read them critically, a writer must pursue their own path. The course of reading and writing has also caused me to reflect also upon an aspect of the craft I had possibly been neglecting, that of paying attention to concrete details, which is crucial for starting out and for producing lasting works of fiction.

The unconscious plays an important role in shaping the artist’s work, particularly in the formative stages of the work. Prior to undertaking this course I had used a number of the strategies outlined by Kate Grenville (1999) to develop my writing. Grenville advocates the use of diary entries or choosing random dictionary words to use as a springboard for ideas from which the artist might improvise a passage of writing (1999). These methods are useful to start the writing process and to ensure the writer is not ‘blocked’. Likewise, Julia Cameron (1994) advocates writing what she calls ‘morning pages’ (p.9), a form of free writing that is not concerned with the appropriateness or accuracy of the material but rather forces the writer to write quickly so as to get used to writing and using the unconscious mind to generate ideas. Dorothea Brand (1934) refers to this process as ‘free writing’ and her invocation to ‘rise half an hour or a full hour earlier than you customarily rise’ (p. 47) in order to write down thoughts, recollections or stream of consciousness prose is a helpful and invigorating suggestion. Applying this to my writing has enabled me to write without self consciousness or critical appraisal and has contributed to an abundant output.

The unconscious mind filters information taken in from the outer world through our senses and can be trained to create artistic interpretations of what we perceive of our reality. As writers we need to overcome the blockages to the creative flow by renewing or refreshing our storehouse of treasures (experiences), which we can process, evaluate and use as material for our creative undertakings. Brand (1934) considers the genius as one who can view the world with the eyes of a child. Writers must have a dual self, in that they must look at the world carefully, sharpening their perspectives through acute observation. As if I was not burdened with guilt prior to this, upon reflection that we writers must not be caught up in the trivial problems of humanity (Brand, 1934) but rather soar above them like benevolent eagles, who do not contend themselves with trivialities, I am now self flagellation to an even higher degree. Particularly as I consider how frequently not only am I preoccupied with these so called trivial thoughts but so too is my writing! I am more encouraged by Julia Cameron’s instruction to take an ‘artist date’ (p. 18) or to take a weekly walk a means by which we artists fill the ‘well’, our collection of experiences and perceptions that we use when composing our art. It certainly is important to open up our perceptions, to watch life more carefully and to focus our attention. I have begun to deliberately pay more attention to what is going on around me, noticing little details, which will be stored away for a later date and included (possibly) in a creative work.

This idea of developing a bank of resources in the unconscious mind which will later be translated into fictional sketches illuminates another aspect of writing; the double life of the writer. On the one hand there is the author of the work, which as Margret Atwood (2002) suggests, is ‘the only part that may survive death’ (p.39). It is not the real human being in a sense but the individual author who fashions from life experience a world of apparent reality. Then there is the individual themselves ‘when no writing is going forward’ (p. 30) who is locked in a ‘symbiotic’(p.32) relationship with the author, as it is from their actual lives the material is drawn to create their writing. My own life often feels like a dry run for my fictional writing as I often find myself looking at a person or a situation to see whether there is something I would like to write about them. Brand (1934) contemplates this dual nature as on the one hand, adult, being ‘the artisan, the workman and the critic’ (p.39) and on the other being the author of ‘genius’ who lives spontaneously and responds ‘freshly and quickly to new scenes (p. 38). The latter phase she refers to as the unconscious aspect of the writer, which she believes is from whence the ‘story arises’ (p.47). This is encouraging to me as I have little attention to detail and love working from my unconscious. I am learning to apply my critical faculties to my work so as to produce work of better quality.

In order to commence any piece of writing an artist must use a variety of strategies to lead into the writing. As well as the free writing (Brand, 1934), an assortment of other efforts can be made to play around with language so as to coax our thoughts onto paper. I found Hazel Smith’s word exercises (2006) invaluable in developing ideas for a story and in shaping characters and situations from the ether. For example her task of using a referent, which she defines as a ‘specific idea, or event’ (p.18), which can form the basis of a piece of writing, enabled me to work on a short piece based on the idea of a map, some of which is as follows:

It was hot and all he had in his hands were the compass and the map. What he hoped to accomplish was uncertain; he wanted to get to the creek, after which his hopes were a little obscure.

He wandered for an hour before he collapsed, head in his hands. As he gazed up, he saw water, pristine, blue and diaphanous. He ran forward, immersed himself in the clear, crystal lake; his map was discarded, crumpled on the sand and the sun, strong overhead, burned his flesh. With no plan for the moment beyond now, no prospect of salvation, he felt alive.

Smith advocates the use of other strategies such as ‘word pools’ (p. 17), which force the writer to choose words randomly and place these in order as they occur to you. Many of these strategies are great at not only getting a story rolling but also enabling one to progress even in a more advanced stage of a narrative when the author may feel constrained. I will incorporate these strategies into my writing so as to handle the various situations I will encounter.

Something that is counterintuitive – and perhaps harder to grasp, but at the same time liberating – is the idea that artists should not slavishly follow the methods, style or career of other authors. Indeed there may be pitfalls to the approach and it may be counterproductive. According to Krauth (2001), writers must read the works of others who have gone before them from whom they will discover a ‘passion for seeing the world, and for writing about it’ (p 168). Ultimately the work they produce must be their own. Krauth cautions would be writers that ‘the road already taken by one individual may not be the pathway forward for another’ (p. 169), suggesting that a degree of individuality and a search for one’s own unique voice is an essential part in the success of the emerging artist. Brande (1934) also stresses the importance of studying the ‘masters of English prose writing’ to an exacting standard, but to avoid slavishly modelling one’s own style on their works. Writers must avoid the temptation to ‘imitate’ by discovering one’s own tastes and preferences’ (p.84). Often writers can feel too overwhelmed by their predecessors or feel that their favourite author is the ideal artist to emulate. It is refreshing to hear that our own voices can emerge strong after we cultivate these tastes and the experience of putting our thoughts on paper. Often, upon hearing the advice of other writers I have experienced a sensation would be a feeling akin to being shackled. Whilst these authors are no doubt well intentioned their advice has left me cold, believing they have little fresh insight into my own writing or that I have to go back to basics and relearn everything and hence all of the work I have done over the past few year is wasted, a dead end. However, the thought that I am free to pursue my own path is liberating.

Another important element of fiction writing is the noticing and recording of concrete details, rather than abstract concepts. In fact writers use characters, actions and descriptions to reveal more nuances of meaning than the mere description of concepts could. This is an area of weakness in my writing I hope to overcome and will seek to notice more and record more of the myriad of details I notice around me. In ‘good’ stories, according to the writer, Flannery O’Connor (2006), the ‘characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters’ (p. 523), enabling the reader a glimpse into the surface and deeper meanings of the text. She feels it is a failing of many authors that they wish to write about problems or thematic concerns rather than about people or about clearly defined situations. Whilst an author may maintain their moral framework, she argues that ‘fiction operates through the senses’ and, hence, the reader must be made to ‘feel’ in order to be convinced by the story (p. 524). Use of detail is crucial in capturing essential ‘human truths’ according to James Wood (p. 71, 2008). We need to be careful in including details as they might give us insight into a character’s thinking and ‘palpability’ rather than abstract ideas are enticing to a reader (Wood, 2008). Once again this causes me to reflect on the importance of observation and to be more careful with the symbolic and literal meaning of the details I include.

The process of how a story unfolds is also fascinating in that the author does not often have complete control over the direction the narrative is heading in. The writer should be surprised by the journey they are taken on by their writing, as the plot or characters develop in ways they may not have planned or foresaw. Kevin Brophy (2003) suggests the writer is drawn ‘forward by curiosity about where the words might lead’ (p.142) and it is our ‘passion’ that excites us as authors to keep writing until we arrive at the end of the story. When Kate Grenville started a project that would become Lillian’s Story, she started out with no clear direction of where she might take the story (2006). Using whatever time she had at her disposal she started with ‘free association’ (p.144). She continued to write believing that it was better to have questions in her mind about where the story would go rather than a clear idea or ‘answer’. These examples have allowed me to explore ideas in my writing that I may otherwise be afraid to tackle. I am able to invent characters and allow my unconscious mind to determine what happens to them and how a particular story will evolve, rather than be constrained by a definite plan at the outset.

Writing is a painstaking process but obliviously a worthwhile one for the way that it enables readers to be transported into a place of fantasy, where they identify with characters and feel part of the story of humanity as it struggles with ambiguous morality and immense challenges. It is also a craft which requires the adherence to certain skills and strategies such as free writing, referents and sharp observations of the world around us. What I take away particularly from my experiments with writing and the expert opinions on the art form is the fact that the form is always changing and this allows fledgling artists such as myself to carve our own niche without self consciousness or the need to implicitly follow the masters before us.

References

Atwood, M. (2002). Negotiating with the dead: A writer on writing. London: Virago Press.

Brophy, K. (2003). Explorations in creative writing. Carlton: Melbourne University Press.

Cameron, J. (1994). The artist’s way. London: Pan Macmillan.

O’Connor, F. (2006). Writing short stories. In L. Anderson (ed.), Creative writing; a workbook with readings (pp. 523-32). Oxford: Routledge.

Grenville, K. (1999). The writing book (2nd ed.). Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Grenville, K. (2006). Searching for the secret river. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Krauth, N (2001). Learning writing though reading. In B. Walker (ed.), The writer’s reader: a guide to writing fiction and poetry (pp. 167-71). Sydney: Halstead Press.

Smith, H. (2006). The writing experiment. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Wood, J. (2008). How fiction works. London: Jonathan Cape.

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