Wednesday, June 27, 2012

thinking about writing, and vice versa

I've always been something of a thinker.
From The Paris Review's The Art of Fiction interview series comes this excerpt:

In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this? 
Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are. 
After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there? 
I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them. Certain pictures evoke in me things from my past. When I look at the paintings of Edward Hopper, it does this. He did those wonderful townscapes of empty cafes, empty theaters at midnight with maybe one person there. The sense of isolation and loneliness is fantastic. I’d look at those landscapes and I’d fill them with my imagination. I still have all those pensées. This was the beginning of bringing out what was me.  

Writing advice is helpful, but the kind of bringing out that this writing exercise encourages is a little frightening. I hadn't quite realised to what extent writing requires the writer to bare their soul. I mean, I knew this, I did ... but my soul? To dredge the innermost workings of my brain? My personal histories? My reactions? Ye gads. But Ray Bradbury is (was) wise and I see, I see how this will work, to "write the way you see things". For when all of the stories have been told, then unpicked and written again, it's our unique experiences, and the slightly skewed way each writer sees things, that makes each story a new one.

I shall penser on it some more.

Monday, June 25, 2012



watsonia, d'affinois, pickled green tomatoes

the calm before large, noisy dinner

silhouetted by the sunset

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Discussing post-war US literature...

On my to-read bedside table pile
First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring — this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.
Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else — but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.

It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.

~ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carson McCullers (1953)

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) was the very best book we studied in my undergrad literature subject American Liberals and Moderns - and it was in exalted company of Faulkners and Fitzgeralds and Hemingways and Steinbecks - because Carson McCullers writes simply, beautifully and about such curious people: the outsiders, the misfits, the weirdos. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe tells of what happens to Miss Amelia Evans when her hunchbacked cousin comes to town. This short story is enthralling and unnerving, with such an excellent turn of phrase to place the reader right into this Southern, small-town setting. Pitch-perfect dialogue, the way she writes the characters' mannerisms and the almost confessional feel she's given the narrative. She is a wonderful writer.

I found this one at Barwon Booksellers in Queenscliff, along with McCullers' Member of the Wedding and Monica Dickens' The House at World's End. The Messinger Bird by Rosanna Hawkes I got at The Hill of Content (Melbourne), Town Life in Australia (about colonial life in Australia and published in 1883) by Richard Twopeny snatched up at Red Wheelbarrow Books in Brunswick and Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl at the Mill Markets, Geelong.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

90s YA classics

Come, gather round, ye young adults of the 1990s! What were the the stories you leafed through during your painful adolescences? These were some of the significant titles of mine:

People Might Hear You (Robin Klein) Frances' aunt and guardian has married a man who belongs to a religious cult and soon Frances is literally locked inside a big house and forced to live - and frightened into living - by their restrictive rules. This is one that's as powerful on my 32nd reading as it was on the first. The powerlessness that she feels, the same feeling that Professer Umbridge evokes in The Order of the Phoenix ... shudder.

Steven Herrick's Love, ghosts and nose hair. Probably the first verse novel I read and still one of my favourites. And its sequel A Place Like This. Guitar Highway Rose, which I've blathered on about in the past. Not to mention After January, by Nick Earls: the best in-between-school-and-the-real-world novel, and which you can read about here and here.

Cried my way through Peeling the Onion, about karate champion Anna and the trauma she goes through following a terrible car accident. Wendy Orr's book is wonderfully written - the descriptions of Anna's pain and the ways she shows how Anna's accident affects the rest of the family, and her friendships. Caused me anguish, but gives us all hope!

And Isobelle Carmody's terrifying The Gathering, which our grade 6 teacher Mrs Chappell read to us and we sneaked in during lunch to read ahead ... and we read ahead to chapter 26 when the terrible, awful, sickening thing happens. The stench of Cheshunt, the frightening Kraken and the group of mysterious misfits that Nathanial meets - it's a story of good and evil, light and dark. It's that brilliant mix of real world and paranormal that grabs you and draws you in, almost against your will.

Before David Levithan and Rachel Cohn paired up to write their dual-narrative books, Gary Crew and Libby Hathorn wrote Dear Venny, Dear Saffron, which tells the story of bogan Vinny and New York City artist Saffy, who begin exchanging letters and we follow their stories over a couple of years and all the amazing highs and devastating lows of their lives.

There were others: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life (Maureen McCarthy), and Margaret Clark's ridonkulous backlist, Joanne Horniman's Loving Athena, Libby Hathorn's Thunderwith. Letters from the Inside and Tomorrow, When the War Began (all of John Marsden's, actually), Touching Earth Lightly by Margo Lanagan, Phillip Gwynne's Deadly, Unna?, Borrowed Light by Anna Fienberg. I think this is a list to be continued. Watch this space.

When I read books now I try to think of what my teenage self would think. It's harder than it seems. I'm more of a cynic now, and I don't read YA in order to experience things (which i think is one of the greatest strengths of YA). Perhaps there's a sense of nostalgia. How lucky was I to have a bookseller for a Mama Bear?

Memory Lane, The Basics*

*oh Gotye. I'm still "looking over my shoulder" for you to come back to The Basics. *UPDATE* The Basics show at the Empress on 22nd July was the best thing - thank you Wally, for obviously reading this blog and putting the show on for me. Or the Empress's 25th bday, whatever.