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Lynn Freed: Reading, Writing and Leaving Home

4 November, 2007

freed-pix3.jpgLynn Freed’s 2005 book, Reading,Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the page, comprises 11 essays that combine memoir with reflections on writing fiction. This combination generally works well. I enjoyed dipping into her story of her life, and as well reading details of some of the problems she has faced as a writer.

I suspect that Freed’s book may be infamous in some circles because of a single essay, tellingly entitled ‘Doing Time’, in which she laments having to teach classes in creative writing. She does not believe creative writing can be taught. A teacher can only show students how to edit their work.

She complains about university writing programs, which she calls the cash cows of the humanities departments. The programs are popular but attract students who expect to progress, despite their lack of talent and experience, and who are driven more by the perceived glamour of being a writer than by writing itself. She says that writing workshops can be dangerous because they can confuse new writers. She shares Donald Hall’s view that the workshops trivialise art by minimising the terror. (Great phrase!)

 

The memoir part of the book is based mainly on Freed’s experiences growing up in an extended and privileged Jewish family in South Africa. Freed now lives in California, where she is a professor of English. Several of her novels have been included on The New York Times’ list of Notable Books of the Year. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. In 2002, she was awarded the inaugural Katherine Anne Porter Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Some paraphrases and quotes from Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home:

  • As a writer, you need to find and write from some kind of ‘revenge’. Here revenge does not mean writing to settle the petty scores in your life. It means using some trouble or love from your life, which your writing helps you claim or own in some way. With this ‘revenge’ as the core of your writing, you are writing to explore a justice at the heart of your ‘pathology as a writer’, where you function like a ‘God or a mass murderer, whose driving force is to make things right in the world.’
  • I had deafened myself with thinking. Under the weight of my anxiety, the novel would no sooner struggle to the surface than it would sink, surface, then sink. There was nothing below the water to hold it up, no seven-eighths of the iceberg.
  • To write, you need to be a murderer, killing off anyone (parents, loves, mentors, friends) whose opinion might matter. If you allow them to stay in the front row of your ‘interior audience’, you’ll never get your fiction right—or want to get it right.
  • Writers struggle with vanity and void, wanting to exercise their ego by displaying the self on the page, but at the same time eliminating their ego by vanishing into their fiction.
  • Life is a mess; fiction is orderly.

  • The term ‘voice’ means the way the rhythms and meanings of the words you choose converge. Vlice is as individual as a thumbprint on paper or the inimitable voice of Maria Callas.

  • WC Fields, after reading an analysis of his juggling, couldn’t juggle for 6 years. Similarly, knowing the technical aspects of writing won’t help you get closer to the mystery of it.

  • In a writing class, mentioning talent makes everyone nervous (Do I have it? Whose the teacher, anyway, to judge?). But people feel comfortable with the idea of vocation or ambition. It is an example of confusing the calling to write with the desire to be a writer.

  • If you are writing something that doesn’t seem to have any heart in it, ask yourself what obsesses you and write about that.But remember, our obsessions are so familiar and so intimate that they occur not as ideas but as images, as daydreams that we barely acknowledge in the noise of daily life.

  • Trying to think a character onto the page is like trying to be funny—it is bound to fail.
  • Rational intelligence has little bearing on fictional intelligence. The rational mind can make us forget the contradictions inherent in life, which are constant only in that they surprise us. When creating characters, we may choose only those characteristics that are consistent with each other. We end up with a character that can hardly breathe under the weight of predictability, or one so pieced together that there is no chance of drawing breath at all.
  • When we know too much about the technical aspects of writing, we can become paralysed by choice—this characteristic or that, this scene or that?

 

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