Sunday, June 22, 2008

Writer's block

Recently a writer whose work I very much respect mentioned in an email to me how she had no new work. I wrote back that this was splendid news, and that there is in fact nothing more heartening (apart from winning awards) than hearing about other writers' struggles, blocks and dry patches. It sounds like schadenfreude, but it isn't. It's about recognition of the common ground of being a writer. Even writers I admire get stuck, agonise, feel that horrible confidence drain that can kill your productivity (and your creativity) stone dead. As I said to Jess, hearing about her great pile of nothing makes me feel that my great pile of nothing might be a talented pile of nothing like hers!

I have suffered major bouts of writer's block since I started writing my first short stories about three years ago. The first one of these followed my winning the Boroondara Literary Award. Before that I was happily scribbling away without imposing any expectations on myself. Suddenly I felt that everything had to be award-winning, or it wasn't worth bothering with. I knew what was going on, but try as I might, I just could not wriggle out of my own trap. My brother had a good, logical suggestion for a cure. He said I should just sit down with the determination to write, say, 1000 words, regardless of quality. Just crash on through as it were. Great idea. Pity it didn't work. I couldn't keep to the discipline, because what I was writing was crap, and I knew it, and writing crap provides no satisfaction. Nor does it necessarily lead to writing anything better.

It's a bizarre sensation to look at stuff you've written a few months earlier and think, 'How the hell did I do that?' You look inside yourself and find nothing. During this time I started twenty, thirty stories that petered out after three sentences, a page, two pages. Rarely any more than that. The sentences were nice, the paragraphs held up, but the story? What story? After months of this going on, you naturally start to find many excuses for not sitting down to write. I have one day a week reserved for writing, but after completing all the suddenly necessary administrative tasks that needed doing, after playing my next online chess move and making my moves on scrabulous, and perhaps adding a few refinements to my pet programming project... I usually had about half an hour left for the grusesome chore of churning out a paragraph or so of another failed story. Naturally you start to question yourself at that point. You start to flirt with the edge of the abyss of not being a writer any more. It's a bad feeling.

I cannot claim to have any magic cure for writer's block. If I did, I'm sure I could sell it at great profit to half the world's writers. But a combination of things broke the deadlock for me. Firstly, I believe in the power of intention. A firmly held intention has a way of flowing around obstacles. I was incredibly determined to come through the other side, because the thought of not writing any more was just too awful. My dreams provided guidance. And then I had a very simple, very conscious realisation: in every case where I have finished a story, I knew when I started the story where I as going. If not the exact ending, then at least the general gist. On the other hand, in every single case where I failed to finish a story, I had no idea where I was going or (in one case anyway) I discovered that the ending I had planned was not going to work. This was a critical insight. I learned something about the way write. I cannot ad lib as I go. I write teleologically, with a destination in mind.

David Mitchell, one of my favourite contemporary writers, said that a writer should not wait for an earth-shattering novel idea before making a start: write a bad novel and then pull it up by the bootstraps until it's very good. Well, I'm still prevaricating on the novel front, and should take his advice no doubt. I certainly know it works well for short stories. My recipe now is this: start with an idea and write that story, but always be prepared for the possibility that you will end up telling a very different one. Always be open to discovery and change. My most recent story 'Salt' started out as a story about poker machine addiction and duty, and ended up being about morphine addiction and murder. It seems to matter less that I know where I'm going than that I think I know where I'm going.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Excerpt from 'The Changes'

The following is an excerpt from my short story 'The Changes', submitted to the Australian Jazz Writing Competition:

... Julian came to Melbourne from Sydney in 1967, the year I was born. He was twenty-three years old. It was that year in a man’s life when his freedom dawns on him. It was the Summer of Love, and even if Australia was six months out of sync, seasonally speaking, still he could feel the changes moving, something momentous and signifying behind the somniferous hum of lawnmowers and bees. Restlessness was in his skin, an itch for wind and loneliness and sunburn. When he played his guitar it was all diminished scales, edgy and unresolved, evading the root and rolling on like a tumbleweed.

He’d been seeing a girl himself at the time, kind of seriously: they’d even moved in together. But as he lay in her arms in the old Balmain weatherboard they were renting, the mosquitoes whining in the dark and the moon making a slick of light on his chest, he’d felt her slipping off him, like a drowning person slipping from a rock. With every inhalation of the redolent summer air he felt he was growing bigger, too big for her, this pretty, good-natured girl. Her arms were slipping off his gigantic chest.

So he left, drove away down the grassy drive, her image bouncing and shaking in the rear vision mirror and her tears still salty on his lip. It was already late afternoon, and the sun burnished his cheek and the wind through the open window was warm and smelled of wisteria and exhaust. He forced the gear lever into second and caught a last glimpse of her turning and walking back towards the house. Then he faced the road that climbed ahead of him, still hot enough from the dying day that at the crest of the hill a puddle of sky leaked into the bitumen, evaporating as he approached.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Internet writers' groups: birthing ground for new writers or deadend refuge of the talentless?

I've heard the theory that internet writers' sites are for people who will never get published anywhere else. And if you've spent any time on these sites you will recognise that there is more than a speck of truth to this. Some (okay, most) of the writing you find on these sites is pretty bad. I can't claim vast experience, but I've spent time on three such sites, and the overall quality is similar, despite attempts by some sites to differentiate between the good and the not-so-good through various mechanisms. I'm thinking of, where I spent the most time. Writelink had 'spotlighted' writers whose work had averaged four star or above ratings from other users. (I think the system, and the whole site, has more or less broken down now since a rather ill-conceived attempt to jump on the blogging bandwagon). Unfortunately, many of the users were as poor at recognising quality as they were at producing it, and they heaped entirely unwarranted praise on some pretty ordinary stuff. They were also constrained by the usual desire to be liked by the writers they were reviewing, with the result that the ratings were inflated and fairly meaningless. Some reviewers offered poor advice, 'corrected' things that were actually right in the first place, or just failed to 'get' subtle work. There were some astute and insightful readers there too, who offered good advice, but I imagine it could be hard for a new writer on the site to differentiate the insightful crit from the bumsteer.

The reviewing process on writelink was always fraught and controversial. The site used a star rating system, which had the advantage of giving writers a quantitative means of measuring the reception of their work. It was not entirely unsuccessful. 'Five star' work was generally at least readable, sometimes very good. 'Three star' work was generally awful. However, there were inevitably noses put out of joint. An ill-fated 'quill' system was introduced to allow reviewed writers to review their reviewers (!), but this was howled down by the members - a case of the site owners getting too clever by half. Inevitably, egos and jealousy came into play. As a 'star' in the tiny writelink firmament, I was flamed on more than one occasion for posting honest (and I thought, constructively critical) reviews: comments suggesting that in my glory I shouldn't need to tear down others as well to get my jollies!

I feel for sensitive writers. As my blog title suggests, writing is often an expression of our inmost selves, our souls. No matter how humble the forum, it takes courage to put one's writing out there for others to love, hate, shoot holes in, as they will. You are putting yourself on the line, and until you've gotten used to that experience, it can be quite terrifying. I have personally never been overly senstive about people's comments on my work. Occasionally I'd find myself ruminating angrily over some (to my mind) wrong-headed remark in a review and I'd have to remind myself to lighten up. That is one thing that writers' sites can provide: a lesson in desensitisation. You can only get better if you take on board feedback. Over-sensitivity just gets in the way of becoming a better writer.

Another site I posted to,, didn't have a star rating system, but was more or less a simple forum, with users posting work as a new 'thread', then other users posting reviews or comments in that thread. This is the way most such sites work. Good work was distinguished by being selected 'pick of the week' by an anonymous group of behind-the-scenes reviewers. This system seemed rather hit-and-miss, and I came to question the judgement of these all-powerful beings. A piece that I still consider one of my finest was ignored for the honour, one that I now consider pretty poor received it. The reviewing culture on this site seemed less polite than that at writelink - more critical reviews were posted. A good thing, if the quality of the reviews had been high, but I found it lower than at writelink. Some readers 'got' my best work. Others were puzzled: where was the murder, the dramatic denouement, the character who turned out to be a ghost?

Despite these limitations, writers' sites do offer the beginning writer a lot. They provide a community, instant (or at least pretty quick) feedback on your work, and, ironically, they can teach you a lot about writing by exposing you to heaps of bad work. There is a spectrum of quality on these sites from truly dreadful to really very good, with the vast majority falling somewhere more towards the bottom of that scale. You can learn almost as much from others' mistakes as you can from the good stuff. If your work's any good, you can build yourself a little fan base, which is kind of fun, let's face it; we all want appreciative readers. Nevertheless, you tend not to find many really good writers on these sites, writers who are getting published regularly in the 'real world'. There's a good reason. Work posted to an internet site, even a 'closed', membership-only site, is deemed by some publishers to have been 'published', which means they won't touch it. The risk can be overstated - I'm sure many publishers wouldn't care - but why would a writer who knows the merit of his or her work take the risk? Also, what does such a writer have to gain by posting their work on such a forum? Praise is predictable, criticism likely to be off the mark, and there's certainly no financial incentive!

So what happens with many sites is that a certain stable core of writers develops- the 'usual suspects' on a site. These are usually writers who are good enough to be well received in the fishbowl of the site, but not good enough to make it in the bigger pond of 'real' publishing. This is not necessarily to be looked down on. Many of these people obviously love writing as a hobby, and the internet group provides an audience and a community of other enthusiasts. But the risk is you become stuck swimming in the fishbowl and never take the step to grow your writing beyond that level. It is a big leap, and a potentially demoralising one. Even the best writers get their 'fat letters', and the gratification of publication, though far greater than that of seeing your work on an internet forum, is anything but instant.

I won't be returning to writelink. But I still feel gratitude for what writelink offered me. If you are a beginning writer, I would certainly recommend the experience, but I'd suggest trying a number of sites, since they vary significantly in their 'culture', and always bear in mind that the world of real publishing is much, much more demanding. In the end if you want to succeed as writer, you will have to elevate your work to a much higher standard than what passes muster on an internet site.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Excerpt from today's work

How did it go wrong for you? She sometimes asked in her mind as she looked into those pale, hate-filled eyes. It seemed to her that there was a knot in him that every experience only drew tighter. Can the soul form a knot? And if it can, what can untie such a thing, how can it ever come loose? She wished she knew more about these things. She’d offered to move his bed into the sun room so he could look out over the garden. At least then he could watch the birds disporting in the bird-bath, see the wind move through the trees. He might live long enough to watch the jonquils spring up again. She imagined that when you are dying the beauty of such things would be focussed like sun through a magnifying glass. Perhaps the bright spot it made in your heart would sear, but who would not welcome a burn like that? Surely we all long to be purified, and with nothing more to come, no more errors or losses or compromises, the spring garden could have the last word, the final say on it all. Wouldn’t anyone want that? Well, not Jack. He refused to be moved and when she tried to ‘jolly him along’, taking him by the arm he actually struck out at her as if she were trying to lure him into some form of involuntary euthanasia. So he stayed in his dark, musty room with its mouldy walls and its sweet stink of cancer. Go ahead, she thought, eat up your own misery. Knock yourself out. She sat on the side of his bed and tried to get a few spoonfuls of pureed vegetables into his mouth, but he was like an infant, with the added faculty of cunning. After long exhortations, he finally opened his mouth for the spoon then spat the stuff out in a spray all down his front, knowing she would have to find and wipe up every spot. She could have cried. She could have killed him. How ironic that would be.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Alan Marshall Short Story Award 2008

Last night I was presented with the Alan Marshall Short Story Award at a ceremony at the beautiful Eltham Library Community Gallery. It was a very happy night. Although I won a similar award two years ago, this was different. For starters, unlike the Boroondara Award, I knew in advance that I had won first prize, so I was able to invite friends and family along. At the other award, I turned up alone, expecting a commendation or a third prize a best, and was somewhat stunned when I was announced the winner.
The judge of last night's award was Cate Kennedy, whose address was inspiring and surprisingly moving - she read a short excerpt from Alan Marshall's work that illustrated the 'compassionate heart and eye for detail' that she said is what makes a good short story writer. It was simple and devoid of literary ornaments or dazzling 'technique', but it spoke directly to the heart, and there wasn't a person in the room who wasn't moved by it. I saw Cate speak before at the Melbourne Writers Festival and her intelligence, warmth and total lack of pretension impressed me then. It impressed me again last night. She is a natural ambassador for the Australian short story form, and Australian literature in general.
My story - along with the winners of the local and young writers' sections - was read out by a local actor. It was a deeply rewarding moment. I chose the title of this, my new blog, to be 'cri de coeur', because that is the way I see writing. Perhaps the term 'cry of the heart' sounds a little piteous, but it is the best way I know to put it. Writing is a way to give voice to a sort of shout from the soul that says: I have been here, I have seen, I have suffered. It is a way to bear witness, and a search for the expression of truth. The story 'This Old Man' that was read out last night was not pure autobiography, but it was neverthleess the best possible expression I could find in myself for things I have witnessed and that matter: the relationship between fathers and sons, the pain of separation, the impossibility of sheltering those we love from pain. To have this story heard and to see it move people, to know that it struck the place it was meant to, was immensely satisfying.
I am grateful to Nillumbik Shire for supporting the award, and to Cate Kennedy for the sincerity and finely honed sensibility she brought to the task of judging. Congratulations to the other prize winners and commended entrants; Cate made it clear that it was a very close-run thing, and on another day - who knows? - someone else might have taken top honours. To all those who entered but didn't get anywhere this time around: Don't worry, I've been there. Keep writing and good luck!