Portrait of the artist as a young woman

Monday, 18 June, 2007

So I was thinking yesterday about how people develop their creative talents—especially when they're young and especially in the context of relationships. For me, I started writing fairly young and I'm sure the creative writing we had to do in primary school was a part of it. It was a logical step to move beyond homework and start writing my own stories on the home computer. Fortunately we were wealthy enough to have our own desktop PC which ran such fabulous program as Print Shop and a very very basic word processing program. I wrote my first “novel” on it (dreadful dreadful stuff, let me tell you). I was nine, I think. If you have to get through 10,000 words of tosh before you get to the good stuff, it's a good idea to start early.

But what kept me writing? It was partly that I had time—I started my second “novel” in Year 8 when there wasn't much homework to be done and hours of lazing around in the pool in the summer could give rise so such creative projects. And it was also partly due to technology: I was very fortunate to have had my own laptop from the age of 13. Sure, it ran the same very basic version of Microsoft Word but it did the trick (even if I lost half of my first draft because I didn't know it's a good idea to save things in small files instead of your entire novel in the one file). I think back then writing was part of play—I was at an age where I wasn't quite ready to move beyond the imaginative world of my stuffed toys and teasets but at the same time there was no suitable substitute: I was way too young for clothes or make-up, and boys were scary. Maybe that's wishful thinking; perhaps if I had been given the opportunity, I wouldn't have gone for clothes, make-up or boys either. No, books bridged the transition period because books stay with you. You can be told off for reading Miffy when you're nine but no-one will care if you're reading Dickens at 13; they'll thnk you're clever (even if it's abridged Dickens).

Still, I don't remember where I got the idea that if they could write it, I could write it too. I know my imaginative world was rich enough to spill over onto the page, and I kind of miss the way the obsession would grab me and I would just ... write. None of this song and dance, and big production.

But I do think it helped that in early high school I got put in the mentor scheme which linked me up with Libby Hathorn. I didn't understand then that she was trying to nurture me as a writer rather than finding me avenues to get published. She introduced me to poetry and all sorts of other things but I think perhaps I was a little too young to appreciate it. Still, I kept writing, and I kept writing most of the way through high school. And I was friends with a handful of girls who were also into writing somewhat—perhaps not as avidly as I was but certainly one friend was working on her own “novel” (what Anne of Green Gables would call a “pot-boiler”) and we would read each other's work—not so much to criticise but to enter the other person's world and be a part of it.

And then I grew up and entered university to do a degree in writing which taught me loads about craft but not enough about persistence. They just assumed you would have it, and if you didn't, you would just sink into obscurity. They weren't into establishing community—they weren't into support—they weren't into collaborative endeavours ... and I think that was their biggest weakness. Because creativity, I think, is a very hard thing to do on your own. There are so many obstacles in the way—time being pre-eminent. I'm not saying you need to rely on others to keep going; I'm just saying it's nice to be encouraged—to be told that what you're doing is actually worthwhile and interesting and gee, I'd like to see the end product! I really would! A little encouragement goes a long way.

But creativity in community is almost counter-intuitive. We have this picture of the artist shut away in his or her ivory tower, emerging only when they have given birth to something worthy of worship. In these latter days, postmodernism has directed our focus more to the work-in-progress but it's still something we feel we cannot touch—we cannot engage with—and I suppose in a way that's fitting; too many cooks spoil the broth, and I try not to show my first drafts to anyone in case the vision of what I'm trying to do hasn't been realised enough so that the other person can catch it too. But I want to have friends I can trust with my first and second drafts—who will take the time to sit down with me and listen to what I want to do—and, furthermore, be excited about what I want to do. I wish I had friends who, knowing that I'm working on this graphic novel, would occasionally ask me how it's going and be interested in the answer. I'm still in control—I'm still the captain of this particular ship—but I'm not alone; I've got other people who can give me a little push when I get stuck on a reef or don't want to leave the island for unchartered waters. And I'd love to do the same for them, but at the moment, none of my creative friends are as passionate about their particular project as I am about mine.

Still, I stop and wonder if this is just wishful thinking too. Writing, like fishing, is a solitary occupation. Maybe it has to stay that way. Maybe you just have to put up with the world thinking you're bonkers until the day you can help them to see what you see.

Posted in: Writing

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I’m sure you don’t need to be convinced, but this is why Varuna is such an excellent place.  A place to be a writer, with other writers, our work all in various stages of inspiration and completion, where you can be hidden away for long periods but come out at night to feast together and celebrate/commiserate about how it’s all going.  I never understood how important a creative community was until I went to Varuna.

And I’m going again tomorrow!  Hurrah!

I agree about the uni writing course - at UNSW, anyway.  Very much about craft as opposed to community, and very little in the way of practical help in terms of publishing (I hear the course at RMIT is very different, almost the opposite).  A few of us from my class forged a little writing group that continued for about a year after the course, but it gradually fizzled out because I don’t think we were an especially compatible bunch.  I think that’s the thing too, you need to have sympathetic / complementary personalities and styles for something like that to work well, in the long term anyway.

One of the biggest turning points for me as a ‘mature’ writer (I think you and I have a lot more in common than we realise - I started writing in pretty much the same way as you did and have some equally embarrassing stuff in boxes somewhere) was having Kate Grenville take our MA classes for a few weeks.  She was warm and funny and real and helped me to understand that the ‘writer’ is not some unattainable ideal, a person brimming over with words at all times, someone who has the structure for her next four novels outlined in her head.  Kate said she often just writes as it comes, plays with characters and place, comes up with a whole bunch of different bits and pieces.  When she thinks she has enough to go on with, she jots down the essence of each ‘scene’ on index cards and then spends some time laying them out, moving them around, seeing what kind of book she can make from them.  I absolutely loved that as a way of working, and realising that you can write in whatever way you want unlocked a whole realm of possibility for me (don’t know why it took me so long but I always felt as though I had this gift but someone would find out sooner or later that I didn’t know what to do with it).

Anyway.  Another mammoth comment.  You can tell I’m gearing up to write for a week, can’t you?  smile

PS if you ever want to show me anything you’re working on, I would love to be a sounding board…

I can’t remember when my dad bought our first family desktop PC. But I didn’t have a computer from the time I left home to go away for college/university until 2003. I didn’t need a laptop for classes or assignments, so my dad didn’t get one for me.

Any writing I did, I did longhand and then copied onto the WordStar word processing progam. I mostly remember writing poems, not stories, though.

Please hurry up, do something which can shift the non-Christian spiritual perspective and finally gain traction within the arena. Even fiction is fine, isn’t it time to enter the collective conscious loop?

Posted by philip on 20 June, 2007 2:49 AM


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