Today was the first day of the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers. There are nine of us, giving (hopefully) constructive feedback of each others’ stories, plus taking in feedback from Overlandassociate editor Rjurik Davidson. Each day, an established writer also participates in the workshop, and today it was Tony Birch. Tomorrow will be the incomparable Cate Kennedy, and Sunday will be Lucy Sussex.
I won’t go into the session too much, but my story was one of the ones looked at today. It’s an existential and bleak story about an alcoholic children’s book sales rep, who loses everything. His job is usurped by technology, his wife can’t take it anymore, etc. The feedback was very valuable – especially when the majority agreed on the same things. In my case, the beginning section needs reworking to make the protagonist more apparent. I also need to work on a few abstract phrases, and moments of ‘telling’ (rather than showing). Rjurik was also great at giving examples of where more drama and tension could be brought into the work. Too much just happens toRichie, my character, and I don’t give him a chance to make a clear decision (and make it even more bleak and tragic…). In general though, the feedback was positive and encouraging. I was pleased to have affected the other writers in ways I intended (feelings of bleakness and hopelessness through a challenging and flawed character). It’s brilliant to know with a few more drafts, it should be a publishable work, expressing themes I’m intersted in and passionate about – obsolescence, predominantly; consumerist society, technology, gender (masculinity and expectations of it); and self-destruction, alienation and hopelessness brought on by these environmental factors. Everyone seemed to like the title: Obliviated.
I got a lot out of the short time with Tony Birch: think about your ethics in writing, don’t be afraid to re-iterate a theme or issue in your body of work, be tuned-in during your creative observation, and more. He also spoke about literary heroes, and this is something I really relate to. This is why I dog-ear books – so I can go over those passages that grab me, surprise me, challenge me, awaken me. To learn from them, even if not to write like that author. And I think your literary heroes need not be just other writers – sometimes musicians, filmmakers, and other artists stimulate you in the same creative vein.
Here are just a few of mine:
I discovered the thin white duke in Year 12, around the time I was working on my first lengthy writing project – a screenplay. My interest in him and his music is more than just a relaxed disassociation, but an intellectual engagement. Lyrically, he astounds me. And he pulls off oddness, and pushes boundaries – two things I would like to do in my writing. Sometimes I ‘jam’ with Bowie. On those rare nights at home when I’ve completed all my work, I might pour a glass of wine and put on his DVD. I’ll pull up a blank page in my notebook or on the screen and I’ll explore the mood of the music, plus be stimulated by the colourful, daring visuals. His film clips are very inventive too – some are noir, some cartoonish, many dark. The musical runners-up in the literary hero field are Pink Floyd, Cream and Supertramp.
Someone I have called my ‘favourite Australian writer’ for a few years now. Sometimes when I read something else and I question this, I think back to Dreams of Speaking. This is pretty much a perfect novel to me. It’s slim, rich and intellectual. Every page engages with complex ideas about modernity, romanticism, violence – and all done in a vivid, stylistic, yet effortless-to-read manner. The characters are memorable – Alice and Mr Sakamoto. There are locations both familiar and strange. The writing is (to use a Jones-esque term) luminous. I could read it again and again.
I have read all of Kafka’s works. I am fascinated by his life and his belief that he was ‘literature, and nothing else’. I relate to that sometimes, feeling like some kind of creative vessel with a purpose, and I relate to the sadness and aloneness of that too. The short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ is devastating to me. I’m going to be terribly abstract here, but Kafka feels correct to me. Injustice, black telephones, miscommunications, fleeting moments of awkward intimacy, bla bla I could go on forever. And I shared this piece before about visiting the Kafka Museum in Prague. If you care to read it again, it captures what I feel. And, to be really honest with you, one of my biggest fears in life is to be Max Brod, as opposed to Kafka…
Tony Birch got me thinking about her because he gave us a copy of his favourite opening. I think my favourite opening is the first page of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water. It was a seminal moment, reading that, realising I did not need to punctuate a sentence formally. To realise I could create movement and rhythm with sentences and in that way create impact, and emote, stylistically – rather than just through word choice. Runners-up in this vein are Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and also for her prolificness (with consistent quality) Joyce Carol Oates. Woolf and Oates are heroes too for the strength and creativity of their nonfiction and critical work.
For Lolita. I will get to his others, eventually. I just think Lolita is the perfect book – challenging, lyrical, moving, funny, sad – unputdownable. My copy is severely dog-eared.
My Oma wrote. Short stories and memoir. She also had eight children, emigrated from Holland to Australia, sang operatically and was a stage actress. She also travelled to Africa in her 80s, and had a boyfriend several years her junior. She told me romantic stories about my Opa, who passed away when I was two. When I was about ten years old, she read my story about an Antarctic researcher/explorer who was saved by a kiler whale (obviously influenced by Free Willy). She told me I had a ‘gift’, and that I should pursue it. She bought me my first diary, and I have kept one ever since (I have about 16). Without her, my Year Three teacher Mrs Grant, and my Dad, I’m not sure how I would have found my path.
There are many more (oh Christos Tsiolkas, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, the Simpsons writers, Edvard Munch. Must. Stop.). This is merely a little taster. Do tell, who are yours?