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Friday 25 February 2011

The Getting of Writing Wisdom

Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald has a new feature, ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, where famous and successful people share life’s lessons they have learned. Reading the views of Australian swimmer Geoff Huegill, I noticed how pertinent some of them are to writing.

Huegill retired after participating in the 2004 Olympics Games. Then as he puts it, ‘I lost my way’. Several years later, he decided to return to competitive swimming, a goal that required him to train rigorously and lose 40 kilograms. In the 2010 Commonwealth Games he won gold.

I have paraphrased his comments (in bold) about his career and life, and then comment on how his views connect with writing.

More important than winning is learning to deal with disappointment—how you dust yourself off and look at the next challenge.

For many of us, writing is a game of snakes and ladders, sometimes with more ‘down’ than ‘up’ paths—we miss out on a grant, someone else wins the writing competition, publication remains an unfulfilled dream. So we better learn how to deal with disappointments.

If we apply Huegill’s idea, instead of wallowing in self-pity or anger because we have failed, we instead focus on our next writing project or challenge. Some down-time to get over a disappointment is realistic. But stay in this space too long and it becomes harder to return to being an active, forward-looking writer.

If you don’t have goals, you don’t have direction. And if you don’t have direction, you don’t have a purpose. And if you don’t have a purpose, what’s the point of getting out of bed every day?

If you see your writing as a serious pursuit, not just a pastime, consider where you want to go with it. Knowing your direction enables you to identify what in your life is helping you move towards your writing goals and what is creating obstacles.

To be your best, keep it simple. You can’t be excellent every single day, but you can go out there every day and be the best you can be at that moment.

Good advice to writers, to make the best writing effort each time you write, but not prematurely or overly assess if your output is excellent or not. Concentrating on doing the best you can in the moment brings freedom, a space to create something, anything.

Be honest with yourself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to climb Mount Everest—just don’t put an unrealistic three-month window on that goal.

His comment reminds me of going on bushwalking trips. Success depends on setting a realistic time period to prepare for the trip and attending to a number of variables, such as your fitness, mental attitude, knowledge, equipment, supplies, support.

If you have a writing goal, what is a reasonable timeframe for achieving it?

What do you need to address in your life in order to reach your goal in this timeframe? Maybe you can find more writing time, make better use of time, or create a constructive writing space. Or increase your technical know-how. Do you need to address any important financial, psychological or physical issues? Or find supports, formal or informal?

Motivation is a quick fix. It can spike you and lift you, but it doesn’t have the follow-through to change lives. Inspiration fills you from the inside every single day.

When you are motivated, you feel impelled to achieve. When you are inspired, you experience a higher level of motivation, what the dictionary describes as ‘an animating or exalting influence’.

We rely on motivation to finish individual writing tasks and submit our work to magazines, contests and publishers. We look to inspiration to keep us going over the long hau, to keep writing while we search for recognition, acknowledgement and other trappings of success.

How-to books on writing often downplay inspiration, warning that you cannot wait for it. True, you need ways to stay motivated when you’re working on a writing project. But underlying each project, your inspiration is what identifies why you have made writing part of your life.

It helps to find ways to recharge your inspiration batteries. Some writers rely on reading inspirational books on writing or attending workshops. Some enjoy the support of a writers’ group. Some create a schedule of some sort for their lives. Others choose an interest that seems irrelevant to writing, but it refreshes and recommits them to the writing life.

from Writing Companion

Sunday 20 February 2011

Memoirs: Fiction or for real?

A useful article to be found here at Writing Companion
Some readers get upset when a memoir is exposed as being more fiction than fact. It may help to remember that no memoir is wholly true but rather sits somewhere on the fact-to-fiction continuum. As such, memoirs belong in the literary category of creative nonfiction. Theodore A. Rees Cheney, writing educator and author of Creative Nonfiction, describes the term creative nonfiction as literary work  based on facts but relying on fictional techniques.  To move readers ‘toward a deeper understanding’,  memoirists  both inform and dramatise, drawing on the skills used by the expert reporter and the expert storyteller. Some of the most interesting memoirs I have read work because the author creates a framework of facts and within this weaves the magic of the personal—views, conjectures, and memories.
But combining fact, fiction and interpretation can be a tricky business, as memoirist Tracy Seeley points out in her guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, No Rules.

The no-fear path

Seeley describes a memoir as a shaped, meaningful path. Creating such a path or theme about one’s life  means deciding what to include or omit.  In doing this,  the memoirist has to deal with two inner voices. The voice of artistic instinct encourages the writer to include everything important, but the voice of fear warns against including material that may hurt or anger others. What to do?  Seeley says that she was writing her memoir, she found it best to break free from the fear voice and stick to telling the story. She also points out that it is possible to tell the truth in one’s memoir without making its focus that of humiliating or punishing the people included in it.

Negotiating content

Seeley suggests memoirists send their finished manuscript to the people who figure prominently in their life-story. In this way, writers will discover if anything is inaccurate or upsetting. They then have the chance to respond before publication, telling anyone who is upset why they included certain material or wrote their life-story in a certain way. Memoirists are of course under no obligation to make changes.


CYA stands for Cover Your Ass. (It was a useful term and procedure I learned when working for a large and chaotic organisation.)
I am seeing more CYA prefaces in memoirs, where authors explain their creative choices in establishing the path or theme for their life-story. Here are some examples:
  • The story of my life relies both on documented facts and my memories. I acknowledge that the people I write about may have different perceptions about the events and their meaning.
  • In shaping  my story, I have collapsed some events, changed the chronology, and created composite characters. I have chosen not to include minor or repetitive elements of my life.
    For a model, see the revised preface in the memoir by James Frey, who was ‘outed’ for writing a memoir far to the fictional end of the continuum. He explained his actions as resulting from wanting his material ‘to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.’
  • The conversations I have included are obviously not verbatim. I have reconstructed discussions according to what I remember about the topic, tenor and views exchanged.
  • To protect the privacy of some people who figure in my story, I have given them different names and occupations.
Lawsuits concerning memoirs often come about because individuals mentioned in them believe they have been defamed or their privacy compromised. American writers interested in such issues may find it helpful to read Seeley’s explanation of legal matters relevant to memoir. Memoirists anywhere should consider having a legal beagle check their manuscript.

Friday 18 February 2011

The Painting

Small houses huddle round about the quay,
Slipshod and shadowed by dusk’s charcoal veil.
The fishing fleet lies, hulk-like, in the gloom.
Dark figures work the decks and thick,
Blunt fingers knot and twist the dangling ropes and nets.
A single moonbeam cast upon the sea
Suggests a life lived hard, lived honestly.

© Gill Dunstan
All rights reserved

Saturday 12 February 2011


I find you in a distressed gentlefolk’s
bungalow clad in a tartan dressing gown

wearing the soft, sad slippers of old age.
A shadow of the irascible man who only wore
shoes, as he trailed honest dirt and debris in
through back and front door, into the lounge.

My mother lives dangerously in her dotage:
she wears crimson high-heeled hostess mules,

replete with a tacky feather trim. We listen out for them:
clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It signals Scarlet O’ Hara
has made it down the stairs again: a perilous journey
from her bedroom to the relative safety of her hall.

They do not flatter her early morning attire:
a long sleeved, full length high-necked nightdress,

but the colour matches her hostess robe.
And her flaming aspirations are still red hot.

© Sophia Roberts
All rights reserved


This counterpane on our bed
isn't the one I made when we married,
but the tradition – white crochet cotton –
survived. Until today.

I don’t know if
I care to unravel
the hours of work
start over again.

All this time
there had been
a mistake,
near the beginning.

© Sophia Roberts
All rights reserved

This is the House Sophia Built

I climb
the stairs of that house, fragile
with age and fear of dry burning ~ Carolyn Forché

As I climb the stairs of this house,
fragile with age and fear of dry burning,
I recognise a familiar ambience

I perceive the old aspirations –
what I thought I wanted
to come home to. 

How I anticipated, as I surveyed, measured,
weighed up and planned for our life together,
that I would love and caress every imagined inch. 

But I now know, as with questioning footsteps
I stumble through the gloaming, to climb
the stairs of this house, there was no faith in me.

For within months of taking possession
I’d be saying, “I’m so sorry; it’s hopeless. 
No matter your potential - how very lovely you could be –
you are beyond me.  I do not have the resources
(the time, the energy, the money, the aptitude)
to make you, sing.  I regret that history must repeat itself:
that I must give you up, not for another.”   Not yet.

This abandoned house is the measure
of all the works in progress I sabotaged,
thought my own deliberate fault. 

And I am a foolish virgin, fragile with age and dry burning,
praying not to be extinguished, before the door is locked.

But the attic still stands:
radiant rooms, connected by
low doorways and corridors. 

My glorious garret rooms,
naked of décor since 1974, now
hung again with faded ottoman silks,
cushioned with worn antique tapestries,
furnished with chaise longues
and my everlasting soirée guests.

I am home.

(Author’s note: ‘dry burning’ simply means to let the heater run dry of kerosene and extinguish itself).

© Sophia Roberts
All rights reserved