Friday, February 18, 2011


With the academic teaching year about to start again I'm reminded of how much student work I've seen and how I'm constantly amazed by the amount of work out there. By the amount of story out there. From projects carefully aimed at a market to pieces that signposted a cathartic journey of discovery or getting through the process of grief. Non-fiction memoirs of refugees from wars on the grand scale, and within the four walls of a home or a family. I've shared laughs, I've seen narratives so harrowing I felt like I was turning to ice with each turn of the page.

People often share in story what they may never in conversation.

Sometimes when watching television and its endless reality shows and advertorials disguised as documentaries or pseudo-dramas you wonder where all the stories have gone, the stories with bite and poignancy or humour and individuality of vision. But they're out there waiting to be discovered, waiting for a writer to be their conduit. Their guide.

A writer works to carve those stories out of their surrounding stone, bring them into the light. Often in subtle gestures that speak of not just the characters' struggles but our own. I recall reading an instructional book that gave an example of this. A woman is at the counter of a crowded fish and chip shop, ordering a large portion of pretty much everything, and as she reaches into her wallet her Weight Watchers membership card falls out onto the floor. It's sharp observation like that that brings us all into a story, flips the characters over to expose their underbelly or their heart. As writers we gain from scratching away at the things that hurt us as much as they hurt the characters we create.

The act of writing with honesty gains us a certain amount of wisdom, not in a guru on a mountaintop sense but in the everyday sense of a farmer (or a cat, for that matter) who sniffs the air for rain and knows the implications of that, whether it will or won't. I was in a pub in rural Australia once in the middle of a drought, and being a tourist I wanted a fine day for the next day's travelling. The weather report came on the news being played on the pub TV and said rain was likely and the place went into an uproar, hats being tossed in the air. I was disappointed that my trip might get rained on, until I saw the excitement on their faces. I was thinking holiday, they were thinking their family's survival. That was a writerly moment.

When those moments come, you hold on to them, develop them, with clarity of detail, with empathy, with care and respect. You smile momentarily at the woman in the fish and chip shop and the Weight Watchers card, but not for long. Because you know that story, the promise to self broken. Those moments of vulnerability and communal understanding are what makes great literature, not fancy language or fashion.

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