I’ve spent this year writing a collection of short stories as part of an Advanced Diploma in Creative Writing at Whitireia New Zealand. At 41, I was one of the oldest members of the mixed genre group, yet I loved being amongst the young talented writers as we gathered to workshop each other’s scribblings each week. The course ended last week, and our manuscripts were sent off for marking. We had a brief party, and went our separate ways. Already, I miss it terribly.
I entered the course wanting to write a collection of poetry made up of narratives about dysfunctional people in dysfunctional relationships. Instead I have written a collection of short stories with a similar theme. Very early on in the course, guided gently by the wonderful Anna Taylor, I discovered that I am very much a prose fiction writer, and not a poet. I think in terms of story and character, not pattern and rhythm as the poets in the room did. This was the most valuable lesson of the lot, because it has resulted in my collection: Tangled up in Blue; 52,000 words and thirteen short stories.
The title story is one I wrote about seven years ago and have rewritten both before and during the course more times than I can count. I still intend to rewrite it. It needs to be longer, or does it need to be shorter? Or is it part of a novel, as I first had it? It is the true story of an experience I had in Thailand, where my Rum and Coke got spiked with Acid at a party, and everything became literally ‘blue’. The colour descended like a pall and I saw everything in different shades of blue. This experience completely changed my life and I had to write about it. This is a character tangled up in the colour blue, and in a wholly unfulfilling and miserable marriage. The story ends with the couple sitting in a car waiting for their world to return to how it was before, but they’re going to be waiting for a long time, because it’s never going to happen.
As I was trying to think of a title for the story and for the collection, I was, as usual, listening to Bob Dylan.
Tangled up in Blue is the title of my favourite Bob Dylan song. It is full of the pathos of love, hooking us into the narrative with an array of broken relationships and broken characters, all ‘keep on keeping on’ and underpinning it all is a broken heart and a lost love.
This is the story of most of our lives. It’s what we do, we keep on keeping on, all the while carrying our pain and loss. This is what the characters are doing in this collection. They are all ‘Tangled up in Blue’ in their way, in the ocean, in depression, in their inability to love and be loved, just as the man sings in the song.
Doing a Creative Writing course means that I’ve learnt plenty of technical ‘stuff’ – the stuff of writing I thought I already knew. ‘Show not Tell’ is basic, and I thought I knew what it meant: just write in plenty of action and dialogue. But, it’s also in the detail, in the realistic gestures that show how a character is feeling and who they are. It’s in writing that someone’s guts turned into knotted snakes instead of saying that they were suddenly anxious; how you describe them physically taking a step back, instead of saying they’re appalled by something they’ve seen; it’s in how they walk and sit and speak; who they find themselves reluctantly staring at.
I’ve learnt how restricting narrative voice and perspective not only makes for logical easy flow in prose, but can also hold it’s own story and characterisation. For outstanding examples of this, read the short fiction of Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Doerr.
I discovered my own bad habits as a writer. Anna would gently push me away from those easy one-liners that meant I was getting a cheap laugh instead of exploring realistic emotions and getting to the crux of what is making the character tick, or not. I would speed past crucial moments instead of hovering over the scene for the reader, and portraying carefully and thoroughly what was going on.
I’ve learnt that knowing where to end a story and where to begin it is key to its success, but that has to be something the writer is entirely in control of. Ultimately, the writer has to call the shots in the building of a narrative.
Most importantly, I’ve learnt that rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and sometimes from scratch if need be, is essential to the crafting of a story, and in digging for layers and meaning that would be missed if a writer didn’t look at the action from the viewpoints of different characters and narrative voices.
The freestyle writing exercises at the beginning of each session have proven to be the genesis of most of the stories in the collection, and I’ll take that practice with me. These were triggers to writing, maybe a sound or a picture, even a postcard or the mention of a place. The most important writing exercise for me has proven to be the cantilevering exercise from Peter Carey. You take a paragraph you are not entirely happy with, and rewrite it completely from scratch. Then you do it again. Then you do it again. This has proven invaluable in the rewriting process for me. I’ve mined gold doing that exercise. I intend to do some over the next couple of weeks to a couple of stories I’ve only just finished the second drafts of recently, The Apothecary and one I’ve playfully titled The Dangers of Casual Sex.
The diploma is significant, but what is important to me now is that the process I’ve been engaged in for nearly a year at Whitireia does not end just because the course has. This collection is a work-in-progress and one that I’m extremely proud of. There’s still a lot more to learn, explore and write about now; I find that I need to write, like I need to go to the toilet, to eat, to sleep.
The creative process is often romanticised and being a tortured, blocked creative genius may seem sexy for some, but it’s not for me. For me, writing is about hard work, discipline, leaving the dishes to rot in the sink, and passing up invitations for coffee. It’s about ‘sit your ass down and write’.
So, even though my manuscript was posted to be marked last week, each and every evening I’m going to make myself a pot of Earl Grey, listen to Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Sessions, and I’m going to sit my ample arse down and I’m going to write.