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Archive for the tag “creative nonfiction”

Throw your arms around him? No. Carry a Big Stick by Tim Ferguson

Tim_Ferguson_Carry_a_big_stickTim Ferguson may want to throw off the shackles of being a Doug Anthony All Star but I’m not going to let him. I’m 18. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s late. It might even be midnight. I’m feeling like I’ve taken an E but the rave scene is yet to come. I’m screaming like those girls at the Beatles. I’m in the audience for the Doug Anthony All Stars and a girl in doc martens is chasing Paul McDermott around the stage like she’s going to eat him alive. She is fast but he is faster. They are both completely desperate. I want to be her.

DAAS had a huge impact on my life at the time. They were inventive, creative (I bought a great deal of their memorabilia), sexy, at times scary and often just plain filthy. I spent many hours weighing up which one I desired most. Poor Richard never got much of a look in, but I was drawn to Paul’s on-the-knife-edge humour and voice (of course) and Tim’s sweet looks and sense of vulnerability (and ability to harmonise). Once I saw them lounging (and I think Richard fell off his chair) at Mietta’s (where I was pretending to be posh by ordering a Brandy Alexander, the way you order completely wrong drinks when you’re 18) and spent hours trying to work out a strategy to approach (and which one to choose) by which time they’d left. They were like Violent Femmes meets Monty Python: a heady mix.

I always followed their careers as they meandered through Good News Week, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Radio National. I felt that Paul and Richard kind of found their natural fit in the media but with Tim, I was never so sure. His puppy dog cuteness meant he could get away with everything, but he still always seemed too subversive for mainstream Channel 9. He’s wandered his way around to teaching and writing about comedy, now wielding a big stick, and it works.

His memoir, Carry a Big Stick, traces the usual steps: childhood, parents, family, poor sportsmanship, difficulty with girls (who could have thought?), monumental success, looking for jobs in all the wrong places, and a body that starts to let him down. He reveals here why he walks with a stick:

When you’re reading memoirs (good ones), they trigger memories as you search for connections. Tim’s career is clearly shaped from early experiences. When he talks about moving from school to school, never settling, it reminds me of the many times I was new kid at the door, teachers doing their best (or very little) to settle me in. I love Tim’s interrogation of the strategies he would use for making friends; I had my own.

I also start to recognise, with an increasing sense of dread, characteristics I fast-tracked to my later years — influenced and explained by the transient life: the fear of being unmoored; the inability to handle conflict; the desire to be noticed (if indirectly); and the strange way I used to let friendships sail off without me.

I was constantly nervous and didn’t know why … it was the dread of drifting … The ache for performance racked me. I was desperately, breathlessly jealous of my friends and lovers, envying their lackadaisical confidence in their futures. Adrenaline would kick my system at the slightest change in their circumstances.

* * *

I hadn’t learned how to lose my temper – after so many years in strange seas, why would I have learned to rock the boat.

* * *

As attracted as I was to new people, I had to maintain the friendships I’d already developed. The darker side of the many shifts of my childhood had given me an ability to let people drift away as soon as they were out of my line of sight.

All of these things struck a nerve because I could see the threads going back, unravelling, to my time in the playground. As a child I desperately craved standing out (for my passions) while being at the same time extremely self-conscious. These two competing forces often threatened to tear me apart. For Tim, he desperately wants fame for the same reasons. He sees a therapist, who comes up with:

 … after my childhood attending so many schools in so many cities and towns, I was after something beyond cash and a gang. I was anxious to achieve a feeling of recognition, to no longer be considered an anonymous ‘new kid’.

This becomes the driving force for Tim’s career — and the strength of his memoir is based on it. I lingered over that passage for a long time, as it revealed something profound to me. It explained my desire to write just_a_girl, and the sense of release that writing it achieved. It was like all those ‘new girls’ in the playground had merged to become Layla and my adult self could shuffle forward like a Darwinian monkey to stand tall and walk away.

Tim also frames the Doug Anthonys’ success (and his general desire to perform) within an analysis of a wider Australian culture:

Australia’s convict past instilled in the culture a deep suspicion of anything classy, clever or feminine … No other country would bother with such self-defeatist numb-nuttery. Only Australians strive to pretend they’re dumb and downtrodden.

Given his years of practice, you’d hope Tim’s memoir is funny. This is his forte and what he’s spent most of his life researching. At times cocky, at times blunt, Tim challenges the accepted view (especially among filmmakers; they get a good serve) that good dramatic writing needs to be, well, serious. He argues that the two masks — comedy and tragedy — are weighted equally, that all drama writers need to learn the craft of comedy too. It’s an interesting observation, especially as some of the best Oz television at the moment straddles that tragi-comedy divide beautifully: I’m thinking of Rake, Offspring, Chris Lilley’s exceptional series and The Moodys.

While Tim lets the audience in to MS and its effects, his intention is made clear: he wants no sympathy. The focus is on working around the illness and carrying on. Sometimes this skating around topics means there are obvious gaps. For example, he refuses to talk about his children, his former relationships, his breakdown. While I understand this reluctance, it means there are layers to him that we miss. To not see him as a father, for example, given the wonderful evocation of his own dad, is ultimately frustrating.

But for Tim, it all comes back to the comedy. And what’s the grand principle?

Surprise the audience with a truth they recognise.

I guess that’s why the Doug Anthony All Stars appealed to me so much. I saw myself in their diatribes against and for feminism, art, wankers, and musical genre. They tore down my defences and allegiances, and rebuilt them in ways that challenged, frightened and excited me.

As for comedy, I’m working on learning from his approach. I find just_a_girl and Layla’s adventures pretty funny in parts but most readers use the word ‘disturbing’. Before I write the next novel, I’ll be looking into the craft behind comedy — and using it to get up to no good.

What about you? Were you a Doug Anthony All Stars fan? Have you ever tried to write comedy?

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The lure of introversion: QUIET by Susan Cain

Quiet_Power_of_introverts_Susan_CainI’m having a pyjama day today. I’ve had a couple lately. Every now and then the world gets too busy, I get run-down and I jump into bed (I try not to take my laptop – too often). The kids are at child care so I can luxuriate in nothingness. Sleep. Read. Try not to think too much. Recuperate. When I was a teenager I used to need pyjama days a lot. Each year in high school, I’d take one day, and it would turn into a week. I would lie on the couch and watch morning TV, then the soap operas, then vegetate. I’ve always loved my mum for understanding that I needed to do this. As a kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t need parental expectations, I had enough of my own. I was a hard worker, a passionate student and wanted to excel. This downtime kept me going. There’s a reason people call them ‘mental health days’. But I wonder, does everyone need them?

I’ve recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the world, and given me real insight into the way I approach things. Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (she also does a great session on TED). It’s become my Bible that I want to carry around and refer to all the time. It’s certainly explained a lot of my behaviour for the past 41 years. Cain focuses on introversion not as a form of shyness, but how we respond to external stimulation. Most introverts prefer, and get off on, quiet environments. They prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities, usually D&Ms (deep & meaningfuls), not social chitchat. They enjoy time alone. They like working in spaces where they have their own office (and can shut the door), where they can focus right in, without distractions. All of this is so familiar to me.

But problems can arise because these days there is great pressure to be an extrovert (especially when you’re a writer, an often introverted profession), to be a great public speaker, to work the room at events. While I don’t think Australia is quite at the level of the US (where it’s almost seen as a stigma to be introverted), many grow up thinking that to be successful they need to be a ‘people person’. It makes me laugh thinking back to my first job interviews as a teenager, as I always said this about myself knowing it to be key, but even then I felt like it was a deceit.

Susan Cain talks about the power of introspection at TED

Susan Cain talks at TED

As I grew older, I put more pressure on myself to take on roles that involved a public life (information officer, marketing) but in the end it was exhausting. What I really wanted was to be an editor or writer, to work on projects, to be thorough and demanding and immersed. And as a freelancer working from home, I’ve created that space. The digital world has opened that up to me.

When I worked in the public service, offices were being removed, everyone was going open plan, all staff were being trained to be trainers, brainstorming was the ‘in’ thing, the constant noise was deafening, and no-one ever got any work done. Cain systematically goes through many of these ideas (open plan, brainstorming, group activities at school) and argues that often the end result is not the best outcome (either for introverts or extroverts).

There is also a great deal of pressure on parents to have social children who fit in easily and make lots of friends. Even at kinder level, my son is doing talks to the group. Many parents enrol their kids in whirlwinds of extra activities after school like dancing, soccer and music. But what about the child who would rather stay at home and lie on the couch, reading? In the school holidays I used to take a stack of books, wherever I was, and find a comfy corner. We’re going to the beach! Swimming! The sun’s shining outside! It was very hard to drag me out…But I was passionate about words. And I was completely, blissfully, happy exploring those worlds. And still am.

Now, somehow my introverted husband and I have managed to raise two extroverted kids (there’s another story in itself – it really helps at parties when your son know all the kids’ and parent’s names) but the important main point of QUIET is that introverts should be left alone (in many senses), not forced to change, and can even teach others in their own ways. Without introverts, we’d be missing out on many writers, artists, researchers and scientists who step back and look at the world from a different angle.

Social media is an interesting space because it is an easy way for introverts to become extroverts. It’s much easier to approach others, to comment, to be part of the conversation, to self-promote. But it can be too easy too. When I opened my Twitter yesterday I saw a tweet that I don’t remember sending. I thought I had been hacked! Kirsten Krauth read a book by Kirsten Krauth. It had gone out to everyone! It really brings solipsism to a whole new level, doesn’t it? But what had happened was that I had marked my own novel  in Goodreads (ie I had ‘read’ it) and Goodreads sent that tweet off via Twitter without me realising. The ludicrous nature of that tweet really brought it home. As Cain points out, there is a point when I need to stop talking. And I’ll be ironic and use my blog to say that.

It’s time to get back down under the doona and start on the pile of novels I’ve got beside the bed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU AN EXTROVERT OR INTROVERT? DO YOU NEED DOWNTIME? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?

Talking Writing: an ebook featuring great Australian writers

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers' Centre

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers’ Centre

I love having the flexibility to swing between freelance writing and editing. I’ve been commissioning editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, for a number of years now. I enjoy commissioning articles almost as much as writing them. There’s something about the ideas process, talking through possible articles with an editorial team, and then seeing writers respond to a theme and bring it to the page fully formed. More often than not, writers completely surprise me with what they bring back.

For an editor, working on a magazine composed by writers is a dream job. The writing that comes in is taut and well-shaped, with virtually no typos. I can just sit back end enjoy. For a writer, I’ve always got a lot to learn. Writing short stories. Or sci-fi. Or the love poem. I’m always keen to try new things. This ebook covers the gamut.

Newswrite has always been a members-only magazine, for those based in NSW. One of the frustrating things about editing each edition has been that I haven’t been able to use social media to share the articles that I find exciting and helpful for writers (and there are many).

So the Centre came up with an idea: we’ve produced our first ebook, Talking Writing, a collection of the best articles from the past couple of years. It was launched last week. Yes, it does cost money. But $9.95 is a pretty reasonable outlay for some of the finest writers in the country, both established and emerging.

My favourites from the book include:

  • John Safran on writing TV comedy. I went to uni with John. I was involved with making an early music video at RMIT of his song ‘Melbourne Tram’. His work has always fascinated me. Here, he berates writers for being so precious. To come up with ideas. Lots of them. 
  • Kate Holden on writing good sex. I’m intrigued by Kate’s evocation of the erotic in her nonfiction. She has lived it. Writing sex (that’s not cringe-worthy) is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Kate has some great tips.
  • Arnold Zable on writing as therapy. In the aftermath of the bushfire tragedy in Victoria, Arnold did workshops with some of the survivors. They wrote about what they had lost, shared, and remembered. It’s an article full of spirit and rejuvenation amidst the devastation.
  • Writer on WriterThe magazine has a regular column (that I get very excited about) where writers are asked to talk about the author who has had the greatest influence on them (writing practice and reading). It’s a wonderfully intimate space for reflection and featured writers include Emily Maguire (on Graham Greene), Benjamin Law (Zadie Smith), Jon Bauer (Ray Bradbury), Sam Cooney (David Foster Wallace) and Mandy Sayer (Ernest Hemingway).
  • And then there’s Rebecca Giggs on writing and the environment; Sam Twyford-Moore on writing and depression, James Bradley on blogging, Kirsten Tranter on the second novel and Geordie Williamson + Angela Meyer on criticism in the digital age.

If you’re an emerging writer looking for hands-on nuts and bolts help, this ebook will be useful to dip into. It covers a range of genres so teachers of writing can add it to their syllabus.

You can read it on your computer screen, iPad, Kindle or other e-reading devices.

This release is a bit of an experiment. If we get lots of digi-readers, the plan is to keep publishing Newswrite articles in a variety of formats. I hope you enjoy reading the articles as much as I have over the years.

The World According to Gutkind: Creative Nonfiction (Australia)

The 'Australia' edition of 'Creative Nonfiction' magazine

The ‘Australia’ edition of ‘Creative Nonfiction’ magazine

Creative Nonfiction magazine, edited by Lee Gutkind, has been one of my favourite reads of the past couple of years. I like its focus on various forms of nonfiction: immersion, memoir, the lyric essay. Reading it has taught me a lot about style, and how to embark on my own nonfiction path (I have always found fiction easier). I tend to be drawn in by what Sam Twyford-Moore calls  ‘semi-fiction’ (in an article in Seizure magazine), that tender and fragile writing that’s kind of a personal history (but not quite).

When Creative Nonfiction called out that it was taking on an Australian edition, it was the incentive I needed. I had a subject looking for a place to live. It took me three months to write the 4,000-word essay. When I sent it off, I wasn’t completely happy with it. How do you fit into the ‘Australia’ idea. How do you corral a subject so it represents the small and the large? I struggled. Part of the problem was that I wanted to write about a journey as it happened, a search. But when I was doing the research, the people I was interviewing found this hard to understand. I was setting off without any plan. I had no end in mind. It’s difficult to get people involved, when they don’t know where you are heading or, more importantly, where you are going to end up. But this is the place in writing that I enjoy the most: the being lost.

I wasn’t successful in getting into the magazine. But when you’re rejected, stats always make you feel better. There were 343 submissions. Seven essays were eventually published. My rejection letter was also unusually exciting in that it said that the magazine was hoping to publish a book and my essay was of interest. Yay! Unfortunately this didn’t happen in the end. Which got me to thinking. What happened to those other 335 essays? I bet there are some beauties out there. I could easily do a website, or an ebook that throws them all together: the fish that John West rejected – McSweeney’s-style! If you’re interested, contact me. It’s a project I’d like to get my teeth into. For, despite the fact that nonfiction is a growing genre, and what the publishers want, there aren’t enough publishing options.

The launch of the ‘Australia’ edition of the magazine hit the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Lee Gutkind was in the house. What I didn’t realise about Gutkind is that he has a message to push: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Because that’s the title of his latest book. He is an entrepreneur, regaling the audience with stories and passion. But the message is starting to wear thin (after you’ve heard it for the tenth time). There’s a culture clash happening here, and it was made clear on the night of the launch. Like most attending, I was keen to see who was in the magazine, what the essays were about and who had won the prizes (call me shallow). The ‘Emerging Writer Prize’ went to Susan Bradley-Smith for ‘Writing an Obituary in a Hot Climate: Seven Things’. (It’s interesting to me that Bradley-Smith is called an emerging writer, despite her bio saying she has been a journalist in Sydney and London, and has two publications under her belt — at what point do you emerge from emerging?) Her essay encompasses everything I love about creative nonfiction: it is in the form of a list; it is intensely personal; it is full of passion; and it frogleaps: from a runaway mother to the death of her child to racism to why we don’t read Australian novels to hating real estate agents to grey nurse sharks to the horror of fire to boys dying in car accidents. She read excerpts from the essay on the night and it was powerful and provocative.

Which brings me to the overall winning essay, Rachel Friedman’s ‘Discovery’. Now I have to admit it. When Rachel started reading her essay into the Wheeler Centre — via satellite  — the combination of an American accent and the words ‘James Cook’ in the opening paragraph threw me. I knew the essay competition was open to international contributors but I didn’t expect an American to actually, you know, like, win. I was doing battle: with my idea of cultural imperalism — of having an American tell me what Australia is all about. Suddenly I found myself feeling patriotic. The defender of all things local. I’d have to erect an Aussie flag in my backyard. Where was this coming from?

Now, having read Friedman’s article in a more open frame of mind, I realise, it just doesn’t compare with the other essays, in terms of style, spice, flavour of the place. Just look at Stephen Wright’s ‘Nation of Grief’, Madelaine Dicke’s ‘Battling Collective Amnesia’, Rosemary Jones’ ‘Arms of the Earth’, Kirsten Fogg’s ‘After the Flood on Harte Street’ and James Guida’s ‘Strong Loyalties’: these essays sing with a shared spirit. Friedman’s work may be clever and tricksy, but it doesn’t match up, for me.

As an editor, you’re always going to commission articles with a certain bent. But I think Gutkind’s framing of the ‘Australia’ edition is pushing his (somewhat conservative) idea of ‘true stories, well told’ too much, to the occasional detriment of the magazine. His quote by Geraldine Brooks on the magazine’s cover (‘It’s either true or it’s not true, and if you’ve made it up, then it should be on the fiction shelf’) seems a disappointing reduction of all the elegant questioning that’s going on within the pages. It seems a shame that much of the magazine focuses, in such a limited space, on the (old hat) musings of Brooks, Robert Dessaix and Robyn Williams, when it’s clear from the few essays reproduced that there’s a lot of insightful, exciting, questioning going on by other (less established) writers. I would have liked to see a few more.

Which brings me back. Where are those missing essays? If you have one (and it hasn’t been published), send it to me. And we can take it from there…

DO YOU LIKE READING CREATIVE NONFICTION? WHAT ARE YOU FAVOURITE JOURNALS, BLOGS OR WEBSITES?

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Crafting the truth: Jeanette Winterson + Kate Holden

Kate Holden, The RomanticAs the NonfictioNow Conference heads to Melbourne in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about creative nonfiction. It’s my favourite genre at the moment. I love its playfulness, its lyrical language, the ability to create exciting narratives with historical resonance, the way writers can shape people’s lives (and their own).

I think I’m most interested in where boundaries blur, where nonfiction blends into fiction and other genres, at what point the self dissolves in memoir. Recent discussions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival around nonfiction concentrated (as always) on the truth. Lee Gutkind, the so-called ‘godfather’ of the creative nonfiction movement, kept repeating his mantra: true stories, well told. But I found this emphasis frustrating and limiting. Why do we always have to focus on the ‘truth’, that slippery and elusive notion? Why do readers get so angry when the author is revealed to have made things up? It’s the same for documentary film. Many still carry the notion that docos are somehow real, rather than carefully constructed arguments.

I’ve never understood this strong attachment to ‘what really happened’. It seems that when you write nonfiction you’ve signed a contract with the reader. As with an intimate relationship, if you lie, it’s a betrayal. Readers don’t seem to forgive. But I’m more interested in the slippages, what lies between what happened and what the writer reveals. Take a look at your daily life and the story you tell about it to others. I’d guess you lie to yourself (and others) many times a day; or if not quite a lie, then not quite the truth. If you write about your life, this takes on an extra dimension; you’re creating for an audience, shaping a narrative so that others will want to share the journey.

Kate Holden, author, The Romantic

Kate Holden, author of The Romantic

Kate Holden is one of the most interesting writers working in nonfiction. Her first memoir In My Skin was a page-turner, in the best sense (one of my favourite books of past years). Her tale of heroin addiction, and the lure of prostitution, was unusual in that it worked almost as literary fiction, beautifully crafted and confident in technique and attention to detail and character.

In her second, The Romantic, she has even more of an experiment with style and genre. In an interview for The Age, Jane Sullivan spoke to Holden and commented:

Everything in The Romantic is true, but it has been “filtered and worked on”. Readers tend to think a memoir is a chronicle or record of a life, “but it’s a much more subtle form. You’re compressing, eliding, using your craft to present a good story.”

Her disclaimer at the beginning of the book (that she read out at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival) is a careful reminder to readers that all may not be as it seems:

This is a work of imagination as well as truth. All names have been changed and characterisation compressed. It is a sincere memory in shaped retrospect. The author is real.

Although again a memoir, Holden plays with the conventions of a rom-com-style odyssey through Italy — while revealing the passivity that plagues her in many situations, especially in her relationships with men. This is no Eat, Pray, Love. While a recovering addict, she is also in a sense testing out her new identity as a single woman abroad, re-learning how to be independent, and working out how to relate to men (with sex and without) now she’s no longer a paid sex worker. While there’s the occasional joyous moment, many of her experiences are brutal and painful, full of self-doubt and despair.

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Jeanette Winterson is also prepared to be brutal (about herself and others) in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir about growing up in an abusive household, with a deranged mother who’s waiting for the end of the world. Winterson’s style is savage, rushed, compelling — as if she’s running down a mountain trying to escape an avalanche (of emotion). But there are some gaps (big ones), years that she jumps over, a suicide attempt mentioned in passing.

As with Kate Holden’s writing, her strength is in her ability to feel, convey and translate pain. But also maintain a sense of wonder. As her mother bans and burns her books, she decides she can hold them close (within her body) by memorising texts; her connection to literature, to the local library, keeps her alive.

I’ve just started on my own nonfiction path. I don’t find it different from writing fiction, really. I try to inhabit my characters (real or not), play with the landscape I’m creating, and transform research into something dynamic. I don’t like being tied down by boundaries and expectations. But I do let the players involved read the end product, and if they’re happy, I run with it.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? READ ANY GREAT NONFICTION LATELY? 

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