Unformed possibilities: a writer’s inner world

On a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, I came across an intriguing painting of the Australian writer, Peter Goldsworthy. The photo-like painting shows Goldsworthy sitting at his desk, looking through the window ahead of him, seemingly deep in thought.

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The artist, Deidre But-Husaim, said she chose the angle because she wanted to represent more than just the author’s appearance.

’I wanted to convey the process of trying to bring a thing or idea into being,’ she said, ‘ – a peek at the process and space that is inhabited between the person and resulting end point that we are not usually privy to.’

So her painting is intended to offer ‘a glimpse of the inner private world of Peter alone with his imagination, all unformed possibilities before him.’

‘All unformed possibilities before him’ – what an insightful understanding of the creative process, from someone who no doubt has her own ‘inner private world’ when she paints.

Deidre But-Husaim

I’m thankful to But-Husaim and her fellow artists at the National Portrait Gallery because I consistently find that other people’s creativity feeds my creativity as a writer.

Whenever I see works of art, or plays or movies that rise to great creative heights, I’m encouraged to push myself higher in whatever writing I’m working on at the time (or pushed to get moving again if I’ve been distracted from it).

I don’t claim that the end result is as inspiring as the creation that triggered my renewed enthusiasm, but at least I have higher aspirations!

Short story published

Perhaps it was someone else’s creativity that led to my putting together a short story that was published recently in an anthology, ‘Within/Without These Walls’.

Within Without Thesewalls multi copies

The creative non-fiction story, ‘Melons and mudslides’, tells of a day I spent at the iconic sporting venue, the Gabba, more properly known as the Brisbane Cricket Ground.

I think the title of the story will give you some indication that, among the spectators on the Hill, the focus was not always on the game being played out in front. The story begins:

“In those days, the Brisbane Cricket Ground was being redeveloped but wasn’t yet encased in the girdle of concrete grandstands and plastic multi-coloured seating you see today. On the south-east corner there was an uncovered gently sloping grass section – the Hill – set aside for spectators who couldn’t afford a reserved seat and weren’t averse to a glass or three of XXXX either. I find myself heading to the Hill this mid-December day because we’ve booked late, and the one-day match, between Australia and the old enemy, England, is a sell-out.”

Ernest-Baynes-Stand-at-the-Exhibition-Grounds-Brisbane-1928-crop

I enjoyed the challenge of conveying in words not only a physical picture of the venue and the tens of thousands of spectators that poured in that day, but also of the atmosphere an international sporting event creates, and of the ebb and flow of the crowd in response to what is happening around them.

When I was writing that story, a painter might have captured a very similar impression of me to the one Deidre But-Husaim painted of Peter Goldsworthy. Full of unformed possibilities. Except that I’d be staring at a wall.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. ~ George Orwell

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He swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer

Recently I stopped in the Victorian rural town of Corryong, and discovered something about a famous Australian poem, The Man from Snowy River, written in the 1890s by A. B. (Banjo) Paterson.

Man from Snowy R movie image

This stirring poem tells the story of a group of riders in pursuit of a valuable colt that had escaped and joined ‘the wild bush horses’ in rugged mountain country, and how:

When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy* took a pull,

It well might make the boldest hold their breath,

The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full

Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.

But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,

And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,

And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,

While the others stood and watched in very fear.

Eventually this ‘stripling on a small and weedy beast’ turned the mob of horses around and ‘alone and unassisted brought them back’.

The poem’s continued popularity is due of course to the theme of an heroic individual beating the odds in a rugged environment where the rest of his mates had given up. No wonder there was a movie spin-off.

Paterson always claimed the story was created from several stories he’d heard, but over the years a number of people have claimed to have been or to have known ‘the man from Snowy River’.

banjo-paterson-profile

A B (Banjo) Paterson

The town of Corryong sits attractively at the base of the Australian Alps, and it’s easy to see how the area and local characters might have inspired Paterson to set his poem there. (Corryong has claimed the poem as its own, as have a few other towns in the area, but Corryong also has an annual festival).

Corryong Vic

I learned in my stopover there that the poem was first published in The Bulletin magazine in 1890, but what interested me as a writer was that Paterson kept changing the original slightly, and that the one published in a collection of his poems in 1895 was probably the fourth version.

Apparently W H Auden was also known for continuing to ‘fiddle’ with the text of his poems between editions.

I don’t know whether any modern authors edit their material in this way when new editions appear, but I can’t imagine publishers are too keen on changing the text once it’s set up for printing.

Printing Press early

Nevertheless, I know that feeling of sending off the ‘final’ version of a book or short story and later thinking of ways I might have improved it.

I guess the lesson for us lesser writers is that if we can’t make changes after publication, we need to do all the rewriting beforehand. (Except of course for blogs – Caution: This version may not be the original, or the final one …)

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

*Clancy of the Overflow was another well-known Australian bushman created by Banjo Paterson.

What writers say

‘In my racket it’s so easy to tighten up and get all stiff and wooden. Then the stuff is no good. When it’s good it comes easy. Anything you have read or heard to the contrary is a lot of mish-mash.’ ~ Character Roger Wade (a writer) in The long good-bye by Raymond Chandler.

 

What’s the catch in Catch-22?

The absolute simplicity of Catch-22

One of the advantages and pleasures of browsing in a library or bookshop with real books (hard copy) is that you can stumble across publications you might never find if you’re searching online.

Recently I came across a library copy of Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, a book originally published in the US in 1961, and which I later read as a young man, when its humour and cynicism appealed to me (before I matured, of course). The term ‘Catch-22’ has now become a fixture in the English language.

I borrowed the book this time mainly to check the authentic origin of the term, because I’ve found in my research that so-called quotes from famous people are sometimes misquoted and even misattributed, e.g. a quote originally by Thomas Edison may be attributed to Albert Einstein.

Shakespeare has contributed so many phrases to modern English that it’s not surprising his words have been twisted a bit in the 400 plus years since he penned them.

For example, the witches’ line in Macbeth, ‘Double, double toil and trouble’ has often become ‘Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble’, and in Hamlet, the eponymous lead character is often quoted as saying, ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well’, whereas what Shakespeare wrotehamlet skull was ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’

So I’ve found it advisable to check back carefully before using a quote that I’ve found on the Internet.

Hence my interest in the origin of the term, ‘Catch-22’, which I found first mentioned on page 52 of this Vintage Books edition (1994).

The story is set in a frontline US Air Force squadron in World War II, and Captain John Yossarian is the chief protagonist:

‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon Catch 22 coveras he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.

‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.

So there it is, in the original. I don’t think ‘Catch-22’ needs any further explanation, but (as Yossarian said) Heller’s invention of the term and its meaning deserves our admiration.

 

If you want to be a writer, then get on and write!

During 2017 I’ve been privileged to be a member of the writers’ panel for the Queensland Writers Centre’s Writer’s Surgery, a support service for aspiring and emerging writers.

QWC LOGO

What has impressed me about the writers I’ve been working with is the dedication and passion they bring to the task, and their eagerness to make sure their book is as good as it can be.

There’s a well-known adage in writing: if you want to be a writer, then get on and write! It’s been encouraging to see newcomers taking on that challenge and developing very readable work.

Until next time

Darryl R Dymock

 

What writers say

He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.

From Catch-22, Joseph Heller

 

 

 

On handwriting and Hemingway

Power of the pen

I have written in an earlier blog about how I occasionally resort to writing parts of a story by hand when it starts to become bogged down. Not so much writer’s block as uncreativity. In other words, it sounds boring.

Modern-ftn-pen-cursive

So I was interested to see the results of a survey of 2000 people undertaken by a Deakin University (Australia) researcher in conjunction with the retail firm Officeworks, which found that those who handwrite their thoughts and feelings were two and half times more likely to experience relief from anxiety, fear and worry than those who use a keyboard for the same purpose.

I don’t know that I’ve noticed any improved emotional level in myself, but I do think that the kinaesthetics involved in writing by hand do help to stimulate my creativity (eventually anyway!).

I often find that, when handwriting, I cross out bits, put arrows up and down to show where text might best belong, and write notes or queries to myself in the margin to help guide my second effort when I go back to the keyboard. It can look pretty messy.

keyboard 2

I know that technically I could do the same things on my laptop or my tablet, but the scribbling and scrawling by hand seems to free up my thinking.

That second effort, at the keyboard, then becomes an editing process because I invariably change what I handwrote, hopefully for the better.

rowling handwritingI understand J K Rowling writes her novels by hand first. I wonder if she feels relief from anxiety, fear and worry when she’s finished? Richer in some way, at any rate 🙂

 

Papa Hemingway on writing

ernest-hemingway-typewriterThe American novelist Ernest Hemingway (often called ‘Papa’ by those who knew him) once said he wrote thirty different endings to A farewell to arms. He told this to a distinguished Australian journalist and war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, when the two met in Italy in 1949.

In a biography of Moorehead by Thornton McCamish (Black Inc, 2016), the Australian writer says: ‘I do not know how [Hemingway] talked to other people, but with me he talked books, always of writing, and with the humility and doubt of a writer who reads for five hours or so every day, and who writes and rewrites for as long as his brain will work, knowing that it is only by a miracle that he will ever achieve a phrase, even  a word, that will correspond to the vision in his mind.’

our-man-elsewhere

Fellow writers will know the feeling about getting it right. But how many of us read for five hours a day? And produce 30 different endings?

Clive JamesIn a recent critique of Hemingway’s writing (Yale University Press, 2015), the Australian-born author and literary critic, Clive James, praised the American’s early novels but suggested that Hemingway’s later work was ‘ruined’.  James said that Hemingway, ‘having noticed how the narrative charm of a seemingly objective style would put a gloss on reality automatically, he habitually stood on the accelerator instead of the brake. … He overstated even the understatements.’

Lesson: Don’t overdo it.

 

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

Finally you get to an age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it. You can practically sense that power when you pick it up.

~ Clive James, Latest readings.

 

Plotter or pantser? The debate continues

Are you a plotter or a pantser? I start off as a not very systematic plotter and end up as a pantser.

In case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, these are categories of writers – plotters develop their story plan or plot in advance and then begin to write; pantsers write by the ‘seat of their pants’, making the plot up as they go along. There’s ongoing debate about which is best.

I’ve been thinking about these two approaches recently because I’ve been writing short stories to enter in competitions, and finding that the story develops as I write it, even when I have a ‘sort of plot’ in my head.

I first came across ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ when I did the ‘Year of the Novel’ course with Kim Wilkins angel of ruinauthor Kim Wilkins at the Queensland Writers Centre about ten years ago. Kim is a keen plotter, and showed us her planning journal, in which she’d detailed information about plot and characters for every chapter of a book already published.

I was pretty impressed at the time, and I’ve tried to follow that example, but have discovered that my fiction stories seem to develop as I write.

If you’re a writer, the question of course is: does it matter which approach you take? Will being more structured initially mean a better book, a better chance of publication?

If you look at well-published writers, you’ll find there’s no easy answer to that question.

J K Rowling, probably the most well-known and most-published author in recent years, is basically a plotter. She’s been quoted as saying ‘I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.’

This suggests she’s neither one nor the other, but a look at some of her planning for Harry Potter books suggests she’s well and truly in the plotter’s camp, as in the example below.

J K Rowling planner

Rowling is joined by thriller writer John Grisham, who said, ‘I don’t start a novel until I have lived with the story for a while to the point of actually writing an outline and after a number of books I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline I get in trouble with the book.’

Stephen King, on the other hand, said, ‘Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.’

And he’s also sold a few books in his time J

Siding with King is Margaret Atwood: ‘When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is anMargaret-Atwood-2 image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.’

So, it seems, there is no agreement, even among our most published writers, about planning ahead or developing the story as they go.

I’ve discovered that I’m essentially I’m a pantser, when it comes to fiction. I now know what writers mean when they say that a character ‘takes over’ during the writing process.

Perhaps I’m a hybrid, what’s been called a plantser.

As for non-fiction, well, that’s another story…

If you’re a writer, which category do you fit into?

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

[Some quotes above are taken from a blog post on Goodreads by Hayley Igarashi.]

 For my blog about returning to the workforce, please see: confident4work.wordpress.com

What writers say

Jane Graves‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. ~ Romance author Jane Graves.

 

Dying to be well-read

Did you know that the more you read the less likely you are to die? That’s the claim made by a writer in a recent issue of Wellbeing magazine.

heart-monitor-blips

An item headed ‘Better read than dead’ reported a study of the reading habits of 3635 men and women aged 50 and older over a 12-year period. With such a large sample and a longitudinal study, the results promised to be interesting for both readers and writers.

According to the Wellbeing writer, the results showed that ‘adults who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week were 17 per cent less likely to die than those who did not read books…’.

Wow! That’s awesome. Reading books means you’re less likely to die?

Let me work out the implications of such a finding: If reading books for 3.5 hours a week, gives you a 17% chance of not dying, then reading books for around 18 hours a week should guarantee you immortality!

When people hear about this, there’ll be a rush for books. What a boost that’ll be for booksellers and libraries.

Later in the article, we discover what the Wellbeing writer meant to say: ‘In all, book readers survived almost two years longer than non-book readers [i.e within the 12-year period].’

In other words, this particular bit of research indicates that if you’re over 50, reading books is one way that may help you live a couple of years longer. But no amount of reading is going to make you ‘less likely to die’.

Of course, there may factors other than reading at play in promoting longevity. For example, book-reading and lifestyle might be linked.

bearded-old-man-book

By the way, the researchers also concluded that reading newspapers and magazines is also linked to longer life, but not nearly as much as book reading. Perhaps reading magazines and newspapers is linked to increased coffee intake …?

The ultimate message from the research is: if you want to live a bit longer, reading might help you do so. See you at the library.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

In the best stories, the odyssey from complication to resolution changes the character profoundly. In fact, the resolution often results not directly from the action but from a growing enlightenment – often a sudden flash of inspiration – as the character finally realizes what he [or she] has to do to solve his [or her] problem. ~ Jon Franklin, Writing for story.

The ups and downs of publishing

Digital decline? 

Towards the end of 2016, two of my recent publishers, Hachette Australia and Xoum, sent me their annual updates on their publishing experience in the previous 12 months.

Both reported the same trend: a decline or plateauing in e-book sales. Rod Morrison at Xoum said that the global digital market ‘retreated’ to 20-25% of total sales.

Not all that long ago, there were predictions that e-book sales would swamp sales of print books, but it seems that there has actually been a very small increase in purchases of print books world-wide.

Publishers seem to be struggling to predict the trends. On the demand side I know some independent bookshops in Australia had a tough year in 2016.

Another interesting piece of news was that, after a burst of enthusiasm in 2015, and a brief bonanza for publishers, sales of adult colouring books fell away in 2016.

I’m neither surprised nor sorry to see the demise of that particular fad. It would be interesting to know how many colouring books purchased were actually coloured in by adults.

Books on the move

Whenever I travel, I’m always on the lookout for examples of writing and literature in local communities. In 2016, I came across two quite different examples:

Book crossing

In Italy, boarding a train in the small mountainside village of Santa Maria Maggiore in the north-west, I saw a collection of ‘swap’ books at the station, using the English term, ‘Book crossing’, and an explanation (I assume) in Italian below.

I know there’s are organisations (e. g. http://www.booksontherail.com/) that promotes the idea of leaving books behind on trains and buses for someone else to read, and exchanges pop up in communal rooms in hostels etc, but this was the first time I’d seen one at a railway station. Later I discovered there’s an organisation called ‘Book Crossing‘, that promotes this idea.

Blind date with a book

In Fremantle, Western Australia, Elizabeth’s, a second-hand bookshop (also in Newtown, Sydney) is selling ‘blind dates with a book’. Books are wrapped in brown paper (which was once the sign of a certain sort of book, but no longer), with just a few words on the wrapping to indicate the kind of book it is.

The idea apparently started with some libraries in Australia to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s a sophisticated version of a lucky dip for people who like surprises in what they read, but with a few clues in advance. You can find them online here.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say

Imagery for me is of paramount importance in a text, not complex imagery that jumps up and down and demands to have its hand shaken, but a more subtle web that weaves its way throughout, often enigmatically, and knits everything together.~ Kate Atkinson