Had a great day up at Massey University, Palmerston North, last Thursday working as an author/tutor with a group of extramural creative writing students. I was given a whole hour to talk about my writing - which felt both indulgent and exciting - and then I led a workshop on writing characters in fiction.
The theme of my talk was 'I gestate' which I took from a great essay by Andre Dubus called The Habit of Writing. Dubus talks about the need to let stories and characters come to the surface and how that may take some time, some thinking ... and lots of scribbling in notebooks.
I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it's there. I don't think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender.
Since The Blue came out in 2007, I have indeed been gestating: an adult novel Precarious, a children's novel (nearly finished), a play (in bits and pieces - trying to ignore it) and, just recently, some poems. I read the Massey students extracts from all three novels - it was the first outing for the children's book. Reading work out loud is a marvellous way to see what is good and bad about it as well as helping you believe that what you have is something that's 'alive'. At the end of the Precarious extract, Massey writer-in-residence Jennifer Compton clapped her hands spontaneously, and told me later how much she liked it. Which helps me to push on.
Here are the sorts of things I shared with my workshop group on the art of writing characters. And here again is the review of my Massey colleague Bryan Walpert's collection of short stories. It didn't get a lot of air play on the blog when I posted it, and these are great pieces of fiction for students and readers alike.
These stories are extraordinary things. Each one is centred around a single character who grieves for a loss that is usually withheld until the story plays out. Memory and the unravelling of it, and the way people try to make some sense of the apparently senseless by remembering - always a faulty business - is at the core of the book. So too is the questionable power of love to save us.
Author Bryan Walpert is an award-winning US writer who is a NZ citizen and teaches creative writing at Massey University, Palmerston North. As such, that makes him a colleague of mine (I teach at Massey Wellington). His poetry collection Etymology was launched last year and his poem No Metaphor kicked off our Tuesday Poem blog.
As his poetry does so wonderfully, Bryan's stories use language and the prism of science and philosophy to try to rein in and explain the vicissitudes of life and the resulting anguish of the people who suffer at its hands. Bryan has said: 'I think for me, as a writer, the way to the heart is often through the head.' Hence the lack of sentimentality, hence the careful, erudite and skilful writing that gives you deep rivers of emotion but without once leaning in from the important task of rowing the boat to trail its hand in the water.
In discussing No Metaphor on Tuesday Poem, I talked about the interior struggle of the man in the poem to both remember and forget, and the same struggle is to be found in Ephraim's Eyes. The characters' thoughts swirl around philosophy or mushrooms or magic tricks as both a distraction and as a way to explain what has happened to them; and in the same way they also tell stories that they believe to be true and that are sometimes clearly fiction. But Ephraim's Eyes is most emphatically not a bunch of cerebral ramblings. The muscle of the stories is in the well-wrought complex characters who pitch-perfect voices who live ordinary lives alight with detail (in NZ and the US), and undertake work that is both authentic and fascinating.
Whether it be a man damaged by war who owns a magic shop and finds himself teaching tricks to a needy boy, a man whose job is to check billboards for damage but who is wholly taken up with checking the perceived wreck of his own life, a teenage girl who finds numbers beautiful but is diverted into a destructive sexual relationship, a woman with a secret who needs a new cupboard and gets a mycologist in as a housemate to help pay for it, a girl whose Hawkes Bay olive grower step-father is making her uncomfortable, a man who thinks he's the incarnation of the comic book character Flash.