Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Taste of River Water" by Cate Kennedy

In my poetry class, we often come back to the question of what we think a poem should or could do. There are lots of answers, but one of my favourites is that a poem can show you something that you thought you knew about in a different and/or surprising way. To me, this is what Cate's poems do. While some might say they are too "prosey" or dwell too much on the ordinary, this is what gives her images such power. She sets the scene and then stuns the reader with imagery that you can see and feel and, at times, smell and touch.

Many of her poems, in fact, feel like narratives. When did we last read good narrative poetry? Some of Les Murray's do this, but many other Australian poets focus more on lyrical imagery and small moments in a landscape. Behind Cate's poems sit whole histories and what we see are not just glimpses but the bones of the stories within. She allows the reader to fill in the gaps, which is also what I think good poems do.

Not all of the poems are like narratives. Any collection benefits from variety, but I think what also underpins this one is a real sense of place. Some of you would be familiar with her poem, "8x10 colour enlargements $16.50" which tells of a farmer's wife, a talented amateur photographer, who enters a competition. The reader is invited into the poem: "Let me lay it out for you". We are in the local town hall with the poet, observing, commenting on the winning photo: "a massive sunset shot, the colours juiced with Photoshop" and the farmer's wife who said so little about the injustice that the poet felt compelled to show us what happened.

The collection is book-ended by two poems about writing poetry, an interesting touch given that I've heard Cate talk about her short stories and how often she tries to begin and end a story with images that mirror or connect in some way. As I said, I think this is where the strength of the poems lies, in the way an image will reach out from the page and hit you, make you pay closer attention to what is being created for you. For example, in "Windburn" after a day at the beach:
this rim of salt on my forearm
like unnoticed, evaporated tears,
as if I've spent today silent, unconsolable,
weeping into the crook of my elbow

My favourite poem in the collection is "Temporality". We don't need to know exactly what building this is, just that it's one with a secret history that the average museum visitor might well miss unless they looked more closely and used their imagination. This history is of ordinary working men, and the details tell us much more than you expect:
This four-inch nail banged in beside them to hold invoices
that they always meant to replace with a decent hook or clip;
see how it's holding fast
long after they have gone,
see how they were wrong
about what was temporary.

I could go on about this book of poetry all day, but I won't. However, I will recommend it very highly as one you should add to your bookshelf.
By the way, The Taste of River Water recently won the Victorian Premier's Award for Poetry.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why Do We Need Libraries?

I love libraries. (This is my lovely new local library.) I have been using them more and more over the past few years, mainly for research but also so I can read a wider range of books (without having to buy them). This might seem penny-pinching. Yep, it is to start with. But if I do find an author's books that I really like, I will often go and buy one or two. However, there are often books that I give up on after 40-50 pages (sorry, Quentin Jardine) and know that I will never read further. Or buy any. The voice or the style or the kind of story it is just doesn't resonate with me. And public libraries allow me to seek out what does resonate. Every reader wants something different.

However, I'm one of the lucky ones. Not only do I have access to the internet, so I can research online, but I also have access to some university library databases. Now I can find a huge range of articles, ebooks, scanned books (I hope legally), reviews and summaries that might assist me in my quest for the perfect essay. :)

But a blog post by Seanen McGuire a few days ago here has kept me thinking about this topic. She says that 20% - 1 in 5 Americans - don't have any access to the internet. I'm going to quote from her blog post (I hope she doesn't mind!):
It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don't want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can't store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.

This doesn't change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to "Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier," what I hear, however unintentionally, is "Poor people don't deserve to read."
In the media, I see a lot of stuff about the gap that is growing between the richest and the poorest, not just in the US but in Australia and other countries. Our (un)esteemed current premier politician in Victoria, Ted Ballieu, tried very early on in his election campaign, to present himself as someone who understood the "battler" - which in itself is a term that has been so commandeered by politicians here as to become a joke. What did Ted try to do not so long ago here? Cut funding to public libraries. Thankfully the huge protests (unreported by the media, I might add) made him back down.

Those of us who are able to buy books (in any format) tend to forget how many other people not only don't or can't buy books, but don't and probably won't have access to the reading technology of the future because of cost. All of those ereaders that we debate over - and I am one of the debaters! - are meaningless to a huge proportion of our population who don't even have a computer at home. If you can't afford a $10 book, why on earth would you even consider a $150 Kindle or a $600+ iPad?

When I was a kid, I was 10 before I owned my first book (a gift). I relied on my school library and then later, the public library in town. Now I will spend money on books before I spend it on movies or DVDs or dinners out. That's my choice. There are a lot of families who need to spend money on rent and food before books even get considered. Kids need both public libraries and school libraries. They need books they can take home. Not computers in the library or classroom that tell them a few things while they have their turn.

Before we start debating the various experiences of a paper book versus an ebook, let's stop a moment and think about how a paper book gives simple and cheap (free via libraries) access to learning and reading experiences for millions of kids who aren't going to get it electronically. And let's support our school and public libraries. We can lobby our politicians at ALL levels (a lot of public library funding here comes via local councils), not just for public library support but for school library support.

There have been a lot of new school libraries built in Australia over the past 3 years, thanks to building funding, but too often there have been not nearly enough books to put in them. Call me a luddite, but I don't believe that replacing books with computers is a sensible move. But more than that, our schools need librarians to encourage and help kids to borrow books that excite and interest them, that give them the mind-expanding experiences that TV and computer games will never come close to. ALL of our kids should have access to books and libraries, not just the ones who can afford it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Me and the MFA - Part 4

I have a confession - I love writing essays. Who knew? Not me. Up until four months ago, I hadn't written an essay for 18 years, and then I had to write two for my application to Hamline. I had no idea whether what I wrote was OK - I just focused on what they asked for and had a go. I figured the essays couldn't have been too awful because they let me in!

While I was at the July residency, we had a session on essay writing. What is this MLA thing, I wondered? When I did my BA at Deakin, I studied a whole range of subjects, mostly literature and writing where I could find it, but also Philosophy and Australian History 1 (and although at the time I only found the history of Melbourne vaguely interesting, it came in handy when I started researching for the Our Australian Girl books). I still remember in Philosophy being told, "We don't care what you think. Do not use "I" in your essays." So to hear that your opinion was valued in an essay, as long as you based it on what you had discovered in your reading, was both exciting and scary.

MLA also requires a different kind of referencing. The last time I wrote an essay, we used Harvard and it was all books and articles. Now, of course, we have the internet and data bases of stuff, so it can get tricky. I tend to do bibliographies with a magnifying glass to get the punctuation and numbers right!

But mostly what I am enjoying is the reading. Literary theory seems so much more accessible when you read it with your own novel writing in mind. Suddenly it's no longer abstract - it has a meaning and a context. I like being able to write essays about topics that will teach me something, and that will make my own writing better (I hope!). At the moment I'm reading about voice and point of view in historical fiction, and also reading some novels to see how other writers do it.

It's like taking the whole "reading as a writer" to a different level. It's focused, and I write down gold nuggets of ideas, theory, practical application and inspiration every time I find one. What is also exciting for me is that the information and theory is actually giving me more ideas for my novel. At times, almost too many! I guess judging their worth and keeping or tossing these new ideas is going to be a big part of my writing for the next few months.

As for the "residency glow", no, it hasn't faded. I was worried that it would. That after a month or two, I'd forget all the inspiration and advice, the feeling of growth and purpose that I had while at Hamline in July, and perhaps lose interest. Instead, every time I sit down to study or write, it comes back and keeps me working and thinking. I especially enjoy finding things I can share with my classes. Last week I read half a page about voice from Janet Burroway's Imaginative Writing to my poetry class - it fitted perfectly with what we were discussing that week. Now if the other Burroway book would just arrive in the mail, I'd be set for my mid-semester reading!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time Management, Goals and Writing

The other day, I spent a couple of hours with one of my classes talking about time management and goal setting. It's a class where they are learning about being a freelancer (either as a writer or editor or any other myriad ways of earning money when you have good skills). So we've covered small business, ABNs, tax, record keeping, networking ... a whole range of things they may well need once they get out into the real world. Mostly what I say to the writers is "Don't give up your day job".

Yes, I am a bit depressing, I guess. If you want to look at it that way. I like to think about it in terms of "the more you know and understand, the more likely you are to make wise decisions and create a foundation for adventure". And when it comes to goal setting, I'm an advocate, whole-heartedly. Why? Because I've been doing this for about 20 years. I started it back when I didn't even really understand what it was. When the workshop leader told us to write down things that we really wanted or dreamed about, that's what I did. I've done it each time the exercise came up in different opportunities.

I'm a hoarder. So over the years, every now and then I have discovered old goal setting notebooks and files that I've tucked away. And each time, I have been astonished at how many things I wrote down years ago, thinking they were impossible dreams, that have come to pass. I'm not talking magic here. I think the key has been that rather than write down one thing and decide it was impossible, I wrote down many things - most of which were connected. I can't remember when I first started writing down "Study MFA". At least ten years ago. Now I'm doing it. Who would've thought? Not me, back then.

But many of the other things I wrote down were like steps. Attend conferences, learn how to plot, write X and Y, send out manuscripts, get an agent, gather information... one way or another, they were all to do with writing and becoming more professional, and to do with learning. So as I stood in front of my class and took them through the goal setting exercise, I could see some skeptical faces. That's fine. I've done goal setting with other groups, so I'm used to it. Because I know that the only people it works for are the ones who commit.

Committing is an individual decision. I can't make anyone do that. I can only provide some tools. It's the same with time management. I've spent years trying to work this one out! I've read some great books, such as Eat That Frog by Brian Tracey. And done the Simpleology course. I've wrestled with procrastination and time wasting until I wanted to take a big stick and simply hit myself on the head with it. In the end, after all this, only two things work for me. A To Do list on which everything is prioritised (that I make myself stick to) and working in half hour focused bursts. Give me a whole day and I can waste it just like that! But those two tools are what work for me.

Maybe it's like giving up smoking or dieting - we all have to find what resonates, what works for us. There are dozens and dozens of books, courses, articles and gurus out there who will show you how to achieve your goals and manage your time. Sometimes you have to give some of them a try (hopefully without paying too much!) if only to realise what works for you. I sent my students off at the end of the class with one wish - that they will persevere and find what creates results for them.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Dying To Tell Me

Some books have longer or stranger journeys than others. When I do school visits, sometimes the kids ask me what happens to the books that don't get published, and usually I say, "They are the ones that need more work, so I put them away until I'm ready to rewrite."
But sometimes you have a manuscript that you just know in your gut is the one you wanted to write, and after a lot of revision, it feels right. And then what?

Dying to Tell Me is one of those books for me. I could have changed a lot of it to please people who didn't like some of the plot elements, but it felt "right" to me as it was. I just had to keep faith with it. And now it has found a wonderful home with Kane/Miller Publishers in the US. It came out on 1 September as a beautiful hardcover novel that I am totally happy with.

Here's the blurb: Sasha doesn't really mind moving. It's not like there was any reason to stay in her old life, after all the trouble. But Manna Creek is strange. And when after a pretty nasty fall, she starts hearing and seeing things that haven't happened yet, or happened a very long time ago, it gets even stranger. Maybe King, their new retired police dog, can help solve the mysteries. He thinks he can. He told Sasha he could. And she heard him ...

"A stronger-than-she-realizes heroine uses her disconcerting telepathic gifts to help others and heal herself in this satisfying adventure." - Kirkus Reviews

Thursday, September 01, 2011

How Do You Feel About Plot?

After a terrific session at the Writers' Festival on plotting in the crime novel (see previous post), I was a bit astonished to see a report of another session in which Kate Grenville apparently said plot is the last resort of the mediocre writer (and cited Stephen King's On Writing to back up this statement). How intriguing, I thought. My first thought was: surely Stephen King didn't actually say this. So I went looking along my shelves and found that what he did say was this -
Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

He actually talks about stories in that chapter, and says he believes that they are like fossils that you dig carefully out of the ground with a variety of tools. He likened plot to a jackhammer. For someone who was criticised for many years as being a hack genre writer, he obviously doesn't equate genre with plotting. And yet this is the literary writer's first attack weapon - genre writers rely too much on plot.

It all seems to me like another writing furphy. Tack it up there along with "writing courses are a waste of time" and "the only decent poetry is rhyming poetry" and "literary novels don't have plots". Really, it's just opinion, isn't it? Everyone writes differently. Some writers, like Jeffrey Deaver, are known for creating 150 page outlines for their novels. Other writers, both genre and literary, start with an idea or situation and fly by the seat of their pants.

I guess I would just like people like Kate Grenville to acknowledge that their way is only one way. Theirs is an opinion, that's all. So having said that, what do you think about plot?