In my last post, I wrote about how my brother’s unexpected death earlier this year in the USA put my writing on the back-burner. This post continues my thoughts on how our writing can suffer when things go wrong in our lives.
In late February, I returned home after a two-month writing retreat on Maatsuyker Island. A tiny island lying off the south coast of Tasmania, Maatsuyker is perfect for a writer because it offers few distractions. For two months, I fell out of modern life, with NO access to the internet, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines.
Even better, I had few commitments to compete with writing. Activities left behind when I came to Maatsuyker included shopping, socialising with friends, doing volunteer work, attending club meetings. Maatsuyker has no shops, and no one lives there permanently. All the food and other materials required for my two-month stint came with me on the helicopter.
The experience was perfect for my project: writing about solitude and nature. My starting point is the seminal book, Walden. Its author,Henry David Thoreau, provides an account of two years (1845-47) when he built and lived in a little cabin in the woods, near Concord, Massachusetts. Following Thoreau, I became a keen observer of nature on Maatsuyker—watching lizards and birds going about their business, rushing outdoors to witness stunning sunrises and sunsets, walking everywhere on the island, listening to the wind, seals and muttonbirds, getting up at night to watch satellites cross a star-filled sky.
Soon after returning home from the island, the death of my brother, Hal, required me to make two extended trips to my Kansas hometown. The first was for two months—the same length of time I had spent on Maatsuyker. The island had provided uninterrupted time for contemplation, stillness, writing. Kansas was jarring, complicated, exhausting, with me bearing the weight of sorting out messy financial details, possessions, and legal intricacies.
And there was the grieving, of things that were, and what could have been different. Technically, Hal died from a cardiac arrest, but the long-term issue was post-traumatic stress. He was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. After spending months in a military hospital, he returned to civilian life, marrying and holding down a job.
But over the years, he withdrew more from family and friends, a change so gradual I missed its significance. Buying many guns and coins, refusing to bank his pay cheques, ignoring crucial house repairs—I viewed these as eccentricities, nothing to worry about. But when I arrived in Kansas this time and walked into his house, it was clear that his life had sadly deteriorated to a point far from normal. My second trip included carrying out one of his final wishes, to be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
These longer stays in Kansas provided some bright spots. I again enjoyed the spare beauty of Kansas. I also renewed ties with friends and relatives I had not seen for years.
But throughout this time, I could not write. When I returned to Australia in late August, I found the nights difficult. I would swim up to consciousness from bad dreams, and think at first that I was still in Kansas, mired in all that had to be done and decided. By the time morning came, I was already exhausted. During the day, I found myself undertaking the same cleaning and sorting that had occupied me in Kansas. Only recently have I realised that keeping focused on small, mundane activities helped me move, in baby steps, back to normal.
And part of this normal life is that I have started writing again.
A year ago last Wednesday, a big Sikorsky helicopter landed on Maatsuyker Island. I stepped out, ready for my big adventure. On this first anniversary, I was back at my desk, reading my notes and writing. Joyfully. Thankfully.
Years ago, a friend and I hired a canoe one afternoon and drifted down a stretch of the Arkansas River. After enjoying a picnic on the bank, we turned the canoe around, planning a similar easy paddle back to the hire place. What we had not realised was that now the current was against us, and we ended up having to paddle twice as hard to get back to where we started.
I have been thinking about this experience after battling a strong current of obstacles this year. So much time and energy has been expended that my writing regime has sadly faltered.
Last December and January, I was a resident artist on Maatsuyker Island, a tiny, remote dot of land off the south coast of Tasmania. When I returned home, I had a clear plan for 2012. I would write about my dropping out of normal life, and include the ideas of others, such as Henry David Thoreau, who had done something similar. I was looking forward to writing, assimilating my thoughts and experiences with my readings of others who had done something similar.
My brother’s unexpected death in March changed things. I have made two lengthy journeys to Kansas, where I felt myself drowning in the confusing, messy issues that death brings. I also had to deal with a difficult organisational issue when I was back in Australia.
Under these pressures, my writing plans for the year dissipated. The only writing I managed during my first stay in the US was maintaining my personal diary. During my second trip, I could not even find enough energy to continue it.
During this long creative drought, I took some comfort in Maslov’s famous hierarchy of needs:
When tragedy happens, we cope by focusing on the practical things needing to get done–planning a funeral, resolving financial issues, handling family matters. In terms of Maslow’s needs pyramid, we are dealing with the most basic needs and while engrossed at this level, we may not be able to access or nurture our higher-order needs. Joyce Carol Oates, in A Widow’s Story: A memoir, her account of life after her husband’s unexpected death, comments on the numbing business-like details that the survivor must undertake. It takes time to understand and handle the more delicate or complex issues that arise when one’s life is so dramatically and permanently altered.
Writing is a higher-order accomplishment, involving the mental and emotional. When we experience trauma, we may find that we cannot write–yet. Eventually, as a sense of normalcy returns, we may then recover our writing dreams and plans. Paddling back to our art can be a comfort, even if at first it seems we are making no progress, only working hard to hold our own against the current.
I won’t be blogging for awhile. Or rather, I will be blogging but you won’t be able to read my material for two months while I undertake a writing retreat on Maatsuyker, a remote island. I am going as an artist-in-residence, a program supported by Arts Tasmania and Tasmania National Parks & Wildlife.
As writers, we dream of having uninterrupted time to create. Maatsuyker Island is ideal in this respect, having few distractions or interruptions. As far as I know, it is ‘off’ in terms of Internet connections and TV. The island’s single radio phone is expensive and rarely used.
What else is missing? Maatsuyker has no shops or services. I have had to plan two months’ worth of food, house supplies, clothes, writing needs, recreation. The island has no traffic lights because there is no traffic except for one small truck. Oddly, even though it is 10 kilometres off the mid-south coast of Tasmania, visitors occasionally pop up, such as cray fishermen and kayakers.
On Monday, a helicopter will fly Marg (friend and botanical illustrator) and me, plus our gear, to the island. In early February, it will pick us up to return us to mainland Tasmania.
For the last week, we have been in Huonville, Tasmania, where the National Parks & Wildlife office is located. The days have been busy, buying last-minute goodies, checking food provisions (e.g., fresh fruit & veg, cryovacced meats, canned and dried goods, alcohol), and meeting people interested in the venture. Luckily, I’ve done enough bushwalking that I know what to pack for remote areas. I’ve had my safety briefings for flying in a helicopter and for keeping safe on the island. Maatsuyker presents a number of hazards for the unwary: strong winds that can blow you over a cliff, lightning strikes, and an attack by one of the Great White Pointer sharks that hang around the seal colony.
We will enjoy having two houses, originally inhabited by the assistant lighthouse keepers. Two caretakers, starting the second half of their four-month stint, live in the senior lighthouse keeper’s original house, close to the lighthouse itself. They maintain the buildings, keep the vegetation in check, and take meteorological readings.
Alas, it is not a tropical island, abundant with warmth and fresh fruit. Maatsuyker is windy and cold, lying in the path of the Roaring Forties, ferocious winds that sweep in from Antarctica. Luckily, I’m going in summer, but have packed multiple pairs of thermals, fleece and down-filled clothing. And an electric blanket and a hot water bottle. Did I mention the house has NO heating?
I will also get very fit because the only level spot on the island is the helipad.
Many people imagine a deserted island as being serene, quiet, the only sound the gentle slap of waves on the beach. Not Maatsuyker. It is home to noisy, and smelly, seal colonies, plus thousands of muttonbirds who each evening squabble loudly about burrow rights. I’m taking earplugs and incense.
Why I’m going
My writing project concerns the need for solitude in modern times, the quiet places we make, or hope to make, in our lives. I will write about my experience in living on Maatsuyker, away from my normal life. I will also be considering others who have done something similar, and what they have to say about their experience. If you have a book, movie or person you recommend, in terms of this topic, please comment below.
Thoreau, in his famous 1854 book, Walden, wrote that his two years living in the woods was undertaken because he wanted to ‘front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach’. I intend to do the same. When I return, I will post bits of my diary to give a sense of the ups and downs of solitude and being away from it all.
Merry Christmas or whatever, and a happy new year!
I enjoy odd book titles so was delighted to find a huge list in the catalogue-book, Fish Who Answer the Telephone, and Other Bizarre Books, by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. I have previously listed some weird titles, and here are my favourites from this book:
- Pamela Pounce: A tale of tempestuous petticoats
- What to Say when You Talk to Yourself
- Laundry Lists with Detachable Counter-checks in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, including Vocabularies and Necessary Phrases with Phonetic Spelling
- What is a Cow?: And other questions that might occur to you when walking the Thames Path
- The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry
- The Urine Dance of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico
- The Zen of Bowel Movements: A spiritual approach to constipation
- A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coating
- Eleven Years a Drunkard, or, The Life of Thomas Doner, Having Lost Both Arms Through Intemperance, He Wrote This Book with His Teeth as a Warning to Others
- How to Be Happy Though Married
- Jogging—The Dance of Death
- Collect Fungi on Stamps
- Knitted Historical Figures
- The Gentle Art of Cooking Wives
- How to Avoid Huge Ships
- The History and Romance of Elastic Webbing Since the Dawn of Time
- Warfare in the Enemy’s Rear
- Hand Grenade Throwing as a College Sport
- Taking Life Imprisonment Seriously
- The Sunny Side of Bereavement
- Lights! Catalogue of Worldwide Matchbox Labels with the Word ‘Light’ in the Title
- Handbook for the Limbless
The authors also have a list of odd authors’ names. Again, my favourites:
- Istvan Apathy
- Hippolyte Blot
- Melt Brink
- Robert Baby Buntin Dicebat
- Semen Frug
- Solon Toothaker Kimball
- Joy Muchmore Lacey
- Mildred Moody Nutter
- Polycarpe Poncelet
- Sue Mee
- Ismo Porn
- Nit Tongospit
- Urban Grosskipper von Wipper
- Yury Yuriiovich Yurk
The Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald runs a ‘Getting of Wisdom’ section, with different people asked to comment on important elements of life. I enjoyed the recent interview with Peter Moody, who trains the sensational Black Caviar. Some of his comments work well when I apply them to writing.
- Ambition: I’ve never harboured great ambition. I’d rather be excited and grateful for the races I’ve won than set specific goals, not achieve them and feel like I haven’t succeeded.Some successes are due primarily to luck.Which horse wins the race on the day depends on the condition of the horse, rider, track, weather, and the competition. Which bit of writing gets published can also depend on elements beyond a writer’s control. We are better off concentrating our energies on improving what we can control: writing, making contacts, learning how to improve, sending out material. The trick is in learning what we are better off leaving in the lap of the gods.
- Learning: I’ve always left myself open to learn from nearly anyone. You keep an open mind, take in as much as you can, throw it in the mixing bowl and come up with your own solutions.Learning can come from workshops, lectures–or books about writing. Reading about writing can provide new ideas, perhaps a different, interesting take on an old topic. Some people believe reading about the writing craft only confuses, and they stick to a single source as their Bible. But like Moody, I like throwing whatever interests me into my mental mixing bowl to see what works.
- Modernising: You have to keep adjusting your methods. You can’t train horses today like the old-timers trained them 30 years ago.We can’t use all the same writing techniques popular years ago. I like reading the works of past writers—Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton. But imitating their styles would be difficult when writing for today’s readers, who are attuned to modern literature’s pace, vocabulary and structure.
- Support: There are plenty of ups and downs in all walks of life, but you can overcome a lot of obstacles by having support around you.It’s important to work out what kind of support we need and how best to get and maintain it. The other aspect of support is knowing when to retreat from whatever turns out to be unsupportive. Writing groups come to mind. They may be fun, even challenging, but we need to assess them in terms of helping us meet our writing needs and aims.
- Winning: There’s no sweeter feeling than winning. It’s what we do it for.This advice may seem hard to apply to writing. The majority of people who take up writing will never be published in a major journal or win a major award. But other kinds of recognition are possible.Some writers choose to share their writing with a group in order to get the ‘win’ of feedback and support. The group may be a small one that meets face-to-face or a huge online group. Others seek wider validation and send their work off to publication and contests, which vary in terms of their prestige. The main thing is to work out what kinds of ‘winning’ seem appropriate and doable and seek these opportunities.
And sometimes it is fun to take a long shot and submit work to a national or international competition or publication. Who knows—as in a horserace, an outside favourite sometimes wins.
*Photo from Sydney Morning Herald
The annual Man Booker Prize for literature, with its £50,000 prize, often elicits not only discussion but controversy—about the judges, the long list, the short list, the overall selection process, and the winner.
This year, Julian Barnes won with his 150-page novel, The Sense of an Ending. Dame Stella Rimington, chair of this year’s judging panel—and former director-general of MI5—described it as ‘exquisitely written, subtly plotted.’ Gaby Wood, panellist and the British Daily Telegraph’s head of books, said it was technically ‘one of the most masterful things I’ve ever read.’
This year’s controversy was not about the winner but the issue of readability. Criticism started when the panel picked a shortlist that did not include well-known writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, Ali Smith, and Edward St Aubyn. Barnes was the only major writer to make the shortlist and also the only writer to have been previously shortlisted.
This change was interpreted by some critics the result of the panel’s concern for readability. Rimington said the panel favoured readable books, which she describes as those people will actually read, not simply admire. Another judge, Chris Mullin—author, journalist, and ex-politician—said people told him they hoped ‘something readable’ would be chosen this year.
Mullin added fat to the readability fire when he said that for a novel to be considered worthy of the prize, it needed to ‘zip along’. A critic responded that novels were in danger of being rejected if they used experimental techniques or other elements that characterise ‘non-zipalongability.’ Last year’s panel chair for the prize accused this year’s judges of creating a false distinction between ‘high end’ and ‘readable’ literature.
Mullin’s view of the controversy surrounding the shortlist is that the problem is the ‘London literati’, who are upset because they were not able to ‘call the shots’ about which authors to include. The panel chose the shortlist by assessing each book’s quality, not its author’s literary reputation.
Whether it was the controversy or the creation of a ‘readable’ Man Booker shortlist this year, booksellers reported record sales of the shortlisted books.
Part of the problem in this controversy is that people have different ideas of what the term readable means. Mullins thinks critics equate readability with ‘dumbing down’. Rimington does not define a readable book as one that is simple to read. She found Barnes’s novel ‘incredibly concentrated’ and suggested that re-reading it would help readers discover ‘new depths’ in the story. Barnes believes ‘most great books are readable.’
Part of the problem is that the term readability is too broad for literature, while also being a specific term in text analysis, a field I worked in for many years. Many countries—including Australia, Great Britain and the USA—have or had readability guidelines for government documents, and many businesses have adopted these. Readability here refers mainly to material created for consumers, for example, information about your car insurance, medical prescription and your house loan. The aim is to help readers comprehend, so elements of ‘plain English’ is used: short and simple vocabulary, sentences, and paragraphs, plus removing information readers do not need.
We cannot apply these readability elements to literature. Literature can inform but a major part of its value is in bringing readers pleasure—for example, the enjoyment of reading elegant prose, being kept in suspense, and bonding with characters and the issues they face. Similar to going to a popular or artistic movie, you read literature not just to ‘learn’ something, but to enjoy and perhaps be moved in some way as well. A good, readable book does not have ‘dumbed down’ writing. What it does have is a quality that gets me so completely into a world, character or situation that the story feels real and compelling.
The opposite is what writer and educator Barbara Turner-Vesselago calls gray writing. She says that any story, be it fiction, memoir or whatever, needs a ‘strong emotional pull’ to grab readers’ attention. Gray writing, which she says is more often found in ‘cerebral literature’ lacks this impact.
I agree. I love short stories and novels that are utterly engaging. Others leave me cold because conflict, momentum or change is absent. I sometimes suspect that some of these works were created by writers jotting down what they heard and saw while at a bar, cafe, party, then passing it off as a trendy—but oh so gray— effort.
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- Chris Mullin. Booker judge Chris Mullin turns on literary snobs, Radio Times beta. 18 October 2011. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2011-10-18/booker-judge-chris-mullin-turns-on-literary-snobs
- Richard Alleyne. Man Booker Prize drops critic’s favourite from the shortlist. The Telegraph, 6 September 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booker-prize/8744781/Man-Booker-Prize-drops-critics-favourite-from-the-shortlist.html
- Mark Brown. Man Booker prize shortlist includes first western and novel by care workers. The Guardian, 6 September 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/06/man-booker-prize-shortlist
- Mark Brown. Booker prize 2011: Julian Barnes triumphs at last. The Guardian, 18 October. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/18/booker-prize-julian-barnes-wins/print
- Chris Mullin. Booker judge Chris Mullin turns on literary snobs, Radio Times beta. 18 October 2011. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2011-10-18/booker-judge-chris-mullin-turns-on-literary-snobs
- John Self. Booker prize populism may well backfire. The Guardian, 17 October 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/17/booker-prize-populism-backfire
Has anyone else noticed the recent invasion of writing education offerings tagged as masterclasses? The term is becoming so popular that the more prosaic term, writing workshop, is in danger of going the way of the dodo.
The masterclass label can be stretched only so far. Go beyond that and term loses meaning. Here are two stretched examples I recently found—a masterclass of three hours and what can only be described as a general masterclass. What’s wrong with the three-hour one? Given that a masterclass suggests an in-depth learning experience, does this mean the presenter simply talks faster to cover the material? And the general masterclass, what a contradiction in terms. This masterclass covered fiction, a subject so huge that people study it for years to gain mastery.
To consider what a writing masterclass could encompass, I turned to the world of music. Here a masterclass refers to an intense educational activity, led by a world-famous conductor or musician. The aim is to improve the technique of a the talented group of musicians selected to attend.
The format of the masterclass often involves having each musician play a prepared piece, then the leader demonstrates how to improve the performance. Participants may be asked to play their piece again and again until they accurately apply the advice. The leader, drawing on his or her knowledge and personal experience, may also discuss common problems the music presents, as well as wider issues in music.
Although the leader usually works with one person at a time, the session is group-based. Participants learn by listening to the exchanges between the leader and each student and by observing the changes they and others make in their music.
Before you pay big money for what sounds like a prestigious opportunity to develop your writing, consider what an advertised offers. Here is my list of what a masterclass should incorporate. In creating this list, I am applying my definition:
A writing masterclass is an intense, focused learning experience that an illustrious writer runs for high-achieving participants.
- A notable, respected presenter
People sign up for a masterclass partly because they want to hear pearls of wisdom from a respected, successful writer. Consider carefully if an advertised masterclass is being led by a one-hit wonder or someone who is not currently writing or being published. The presenter needs to be a well-known expert in the field, preferably with a national or even international reputation. If the presenter has won prestigious awards for his or her writing, even better.
- A knowledgeable, caring teacher
A strong reputation as a writer is only one aspect of what an expert needs to bring to a masterclass.Would you be happy sitting through a class with a famous author who is windbag, full of anecdotes, or who is the dictatorial type–do it my way? The best learning experience happens when the presenter enjoys working with writers and brings out the best in them by challenging, supporting, and demonstrating different ways to improve their writing.
- High-calibre participants
For a masterclass to work, participants need to be at a similar high level of skill and knowledge. For this reason, the masterclass is not open to everyone. Those who apply are sometimes asked to provide details of their writing history and achievements.
- An intense learning experience
Intensity is achieved partly by how much time is provided for learning. A couple of days seems the minimum; even better is a class that covers a week, fortnight, or longer. These longer masterclasses lend themselves to a residency. Here intensity is increased because participants have removed themselves from their normal life to immerse themselves in writing.
- Narrow focus
To provide in-depth learning, the writing masterclass must work within a narrow focus. How narrow?|
A masterclass on nonfiction is much too broad, compared with one that centres on a single type of nonfiction, such as memoir or nature writing. A masterclass about a single genre, such as crime writing, may still be too general, compared with a masterclass that concerns a single element—voice, character development, structure. Whatever the topic, it should fit realistically into the amount of learning time available to enable in-depth learning. A week-long masterclass in romance writing may be doable. A two-day masterclass in romance requires a smaller topic, such as innovations in developing romance protagonists or special issues in plotting a historical romance.
- Interactive learning and feedback
Ideally, a masterclass includes opportunities for participants to share their writing and to get oral and possibly written feedback from the teacher-expert. It is valuable for participants to have more than one feedback opportunity, such as getting additional feedback on work they have revised according to the suggestions of the expert.