How to change the world into words

My top three pieces of writing advice? Stop whining and write. Stop fucking around and write. Stop making excuses and write.    – Nora Roberts

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Sean Macgillicuddy: There’s writing, and there’s being a writer. Writing doesn’t always make you a writer any more than being a writer makes for better writing. That said, a good rule of thumb in becoming and being a writer is to turn up. Whatever that might be – a couple of hours a morning, late at night, or a number of assigned days a week that slot in with your other job, the one you do part-time for money – the hours you turn up are like surgery, or a precision athlete mid race. It’s a contract, this turning up to write. If you want a personal day or you don’t feel well, it’s a big deal. A really big deal. And don’t be shy. Let everybody know that this space is where and when you turn up to write and, within, reason, if the world wants you for anything it can go fuck itself. Alternatively, and this applies more to emerging writers than writers with an established path or agent or contract, find a writer you admire and pretend to be them: clothes, habits, hair. If they’re alive, attend a function as them. If they’re dead, the same. Transcribe one of their better known works – Illywhacker, say, if you’re Peter Carey – and look for a publisher under your own name. Enter it into competitions, a master class or two at Varuna, use it to find a mentor. If people ask what you’re working on, tell them. If they say it sounds a lot like Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, deny you’ve read it, or accuse Peter Carey of plagiarism, or confound them with some sleight of hand question like, ‘You’re not one of those people who never read anything they haven’t written themselves, are you?’ When you’re inevitably discovered, the lesson to take from the exercise, the tip, is to believe you have something to say. That inherent within you is something that matters, that’s legitimate, that carries with it an urgency and how it’s told will come. At that point, see above.

Ken: The view from my desk.

Ken Ward: Write when it’s hard to, when you don’t want to – are too tired, too disinterested, not inspired enough. It’s here your efforts will satisfy you the most.

The view from my desk.

 

 

Jane: Current workplace.

Jane Abbott: Forget everything the books tell you. Write with passion, as one possessed; write what you would love to read. Sacrifice everything else in order to write. And never, ever give up.

 

 

 

Elise: The State Library of NSW is most conducive. Except they won't let me sleep here.

Elise Janes: Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Life’s too short, and there’s too much to be said and done to waste time measuring sticks. You may need to leave the country to get any useful artistic work done because Australia is small and insecure and so are most of its cultural gatekeepers. Don’t let them trick you into thinking the world is small. They are just afraid. Don’t be afraid. Write what you want to write and forget everyone else.

Conan Elphicke: When my children’s books ‘go Rowling’, or even get published, then I’ll start dispensing tips. You won’t be able to shut me up. Until then …

Carmel: My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

Carmel Purcell: I don’t feel that I am skilled enough to give tips because I am still learning. But, I guess if I have any advice it is…learn to appreciate criticism. Criticism is inevitable and very important in the field of writing. I am a very stubborn person so this is something I will always struggle with.

My workspace is wherever I happen to put my laptop. Usually, I have a mug of tea by my side.

 

 

Ashlee: An obvious addiction to Apple products.

Ashlee Poeppmann: Keep writing! Every day, about something or about nothing! It’s all about practise and finding what you’re comfortable with. This is the best advice I’ve received from other writers, and it works best for me.

An obvious addiction to Apple products.

 

 

 

 

 

Because of Marty McFly

If you were born in or around the 80s chances are Marty McFly featured large in your childhood. Something about the combination of his wide-eyed wonder and teenage recklessness made Marty the kind of guy you’d want to hang around. The many harrowing experiences he endured simply endeared him to us further, as he saved himself from oblivion several times and repeatedly outwit the many iterations of Biff Tannen via the assistance of a handy hoverboard or some mad guitar skills, or the inevitable pile of manure.

In fact many of you would still count the Back to the Future trilogy among the best movies ever made. I know I do, not simply for the sheer entertainment value, which is significant even thirty years on, but because the films spoke intimately and intelligently to the sense of adventure and personal triumph that we all crave, making them truly timeless in their appeal and also their relevance.

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The movies had a vast impact on popular culture, with the crazy inventiveness of the narrative spawning references wide and varied from hiphop tunes, to presidential addresses, to the emergence of 80s skateboard culture. And the mild DeLorean was never the same again.

In honour of this very great of days, 21 October 2015, I’d like to acknowledge the linguistic contribution of Back to the Future to our modern vernacular. Here are fifteen things you now say because of Dr. Emmett Brown and his silver DeLorean.

Great Scott!

Manure! I hate manure!

Nobody calls me chicken.

Whoa. This is heavy.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 mph…you’re gonna see some serious shit.

Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?

The time-travelling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women.

You’re the doc, Doc.

What happens to us in the future? Do we become assholes or something?

I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with herself 30 years older would put her into shock and she’d simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe!

I’m your density.

Well, that is your name, isn’t it? Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.

It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone.

Elise Janes

Before Sunset

Few movies have the boldness to be both utterly romantic and painstakingly realistic, holding our emotional response in some sort of excruciating stasis between hope and despair, made all the more raw by the immensely empathetic nature of the lives and thoughts and feelings of the two central characters. This movie came out in 2004, a year before I first visited Paris, and now the two are inextricably linked in my mind. I cannot visit Shakespeare & Co without imagining that heartbreakingly casual reconnection between Jesse and Celine, nine years in the making.

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In an age when it is all to easy to give audiences exactly what they want, Richard Linklater has become a master at the slow burn, engaging us whole-heartedly in bare-faced dialogue that is at the same time both lyrical and recognisable, carrying us along an ebb and flow of intimacy and smokescreen that seems, if possible, to be even more genuine than our own personal experiences.

Before Sunset is the central movie in a trilogy of exceptional films, each made exactly nine years apart and each one a continuation of a conversation between two characters who seem at the same time made for each other while also unreachably different. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine first meet by chance on a train to Vienna and spend a night walking its cobblestone streets talking life, love and art.

There is no hidden agenda in this movie. There will be no betrayals, melodrama, phony violence, or fancy choreography in sex scenes. It’s mostly conversation, as they wander the city of Vienna from mid-afternoon until the following dawn. Nobody hassles them.

– Roger Ebert on ‘Before Sunrise’

After promising to meet again in six months’ time, we as an audience are left hanging for nine years until we rediscover them as they rediscover each other over a day in Paris, gently edging toward revelations about the questions we desperately want to know: are they married, are they happy, are they meant to be together? The third iteration came another nine years later, in 2013’s Before Midnight, where we discover what has become of them since that fateful reconnection on the banks of the Seine.

Will there be a fourth film in 2022? We both hope and fear it to be so. Such is Linklater’s remarkably uncontrived effect on his audience.

Filmed in long uninterrupted takes that trick us into the feeling of real-time, these movies are dialogue journeys that take us on a winding path through all the beautiful and tragic ideas we have always wondered but rarely voiced.

All three movies make grand use of their European city backdrops, incorporating history and geo-social landmarks into the narrative, making the trilogy that much more beautiful and entrancing. After the first movie, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined the production team as writers, adding an indispensable layer of realism to their onscreen relationship.

The movies have consistently scored exceptionally high on IMDB, Meteoritic, Rotten Tomatoes and even Roger Ebert. They are timeless, beautiful, deep and entangling, and you will find yourself revisiting them again and again.

If ever there was a fitting narrative tribute to the phases of the sun as paralleled in the waxing and waning seasons of life, it exists in these three films.

 

Elise Janes

The Ubiquitous Three Acts: A Marriage of Chaos and Construct

So in our previous two discussions (here and here) we have seen that form is an immensely complex and fluid concept, but at its core may simply be a multifaceted way of telling the same story over and over again.

A scan of popular and historical forms reveals certain trends in the way we construct narratives, not only within discrete societal frameworks and but across all cultures and eras. But is that the whole story of story?

Of course not.

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Deconstructionism

Following on from Frye’s and Campbell’s notions of literary structure based on cyclical mythic forms we see the inevitable counter-movement developing in the French philosophers of the 60s and 70s. Jacques Derrida is often attributed as the instigator of Deconstructionism, which started out as a philosophical and literary exercise and went on to influence many forms of art and social sciences.

Derrida delivered a lecture at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences which is often cited as spreading post-structuralist thinking outside of France. He elaborated on those central ideas in his seminal work Of Grammatology in 1967.

Thus Post-Structuralism evolved out of deconstructionist thinking to become the umbrella term for it and other associated theories. Michel Foucault is often referred to as a central post-structuralist, though he himself denied the classification.

Unsurprisingly, deconstructionism evolved into metaphysics and existential philosophies, which themselves emphasise the great unknowability of life, and therefore art.

In a nutshell:

  • People are too infinitely variable to subscribe to any central notion of how a text is received or how the central message is conveyed.
  • The interpretation of a text is influenced by far more than simply the content and form of the text.
  • The message and meaning of a text can be undermined by or run counter-intuitive to the author’s intended ideas shaped by content, form and structure.
  • Pursuing meaning in a text ultimately exposes its contradictions and internal oppositions.
  • Texts and stories are irreducibly complex and unstable.
  • By definition, no text’s meaning can ever be completely known.
  • Fundamentally, humans are too unstable to ever be studied or understood in a complete way, and as it is never possible to escape the structures we find ourselves in, it is therefore not possible to examine them from an external perspective.

In summary, Derrida’s theories propose that the labyrinth can never be fully known because humans are infinitely variable, and as long as we are inside the labyrinth itself we will never be able to critically examine it from an external perspective.

On the surface it may seem that deconstructionism contradicts structuralist thinking, but in reality these two schools of thought form two opposite perspectives from which to view textual meaning and human interpretation. Indeed it quickly becomes clear that both concepts bring to the table essential ways of examining art. So we come to see that while the labyrinth is thoroughly known, it is also thoroughly unknowable.

The three-act journey

Post-structuralism, while immensely fun, does not help us much in our thoughts about form and narrative structure. And through the 80s and 90s, when movie blockbusters became a central part of social culture and the telling of global stories spread far beyond literary texts, we see the emergence of a trend in story-telling based on the twin successes of cultural popularity and audience understanding: the good ol’ three-act structure.

Most people are familiar with the notion of beginning, middle and end. There is a set-up, a development and a conclusion. This notion is basic, if not universal. Why? Well, it seems at its most fundamental to parallel life itself, and that’s a philosophical question for another day. It is so inescapable that you will find even the most non-linear and abstract of narratives will inevitably follow this three-act formation in some way.

This is where applications of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth become incredibly useful in defining structure. Essentially, the three-act structure is approximately twenty-five percent set-up (Act 1), fifty percent development (Act 2) and a final twenty-five percent of climax and resolution. Of course these ratios can be stretched and modified, but this division forms a stable basis for a well-structured story. The second act is then often broken into two halves, the first establishing the decline of the hero’s former state and the second accelerating the transformation by increasing risk and upping conflict, building into the inevitable climax. The resultant four quarters are broken up by three turning points, which often work as a palindrome in terms of character agency, with the second turning point (the mid-point) serving as a reversal of the first turning point decision, and so on.

When compared with the cyclical graphs of the monomyth, it becomes very clear how the two are intrinsically similar. And this basic idea has been elaborated upon by some of the greatest modernthinkers about story structure and narrative design, from professors such as Michael Hauge, to writers like Blake Snyder, to entire theories of work such as Dramatica, and so on and so forth.

Now of course such a broad-stroke approach brings forth a barrage of anti-conformist dialogue about how three-act structures are a construct of society and an over-simplification of truly ‘good’ writing, or further evidence of the film industry dumbing-down what once was a great art form. These arguments may be partially true, but there is little point in being reactionary simply for the sake of it, especially when both sides of the argument may in fact be equally correct.

Interestingly, the three-act concept can itself be interpreted through both the lens of structuralism and deconstructionism. The hero’s journey can be applied to almost any narrative, no matter how abstract or anti-heroic the story may appear at first. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men: while these characters may at first seem to be the antithesis of self-sacrifice and maturity, even they subscribe, somewhat convexly, to the hero’s journey in a world-specific interpretation of initiation and renewal. Denial of call and movement away from ‘heroism’ can be interpreted themselves as acts of transformation, even salvation of an idea or concept, however hideous and antiheroic that idea may be.

Similarly even narratives that at first seem to thwart the three-act structure because of overly complex or meta subject matter, non-linear chronology or pastiche style exposition can still be defined in a three-act manner, right from Hamlet to Catch-22 to Pulp Fiction. Even other act delineations, such as the two-act, four-act, five-, six- and seven-act formulations can all be interpreted as a play on the basic three-act trajectory.

This all leads us to consider the old chicken and egg conundrum. Do we see three-acts because we want to or because they really are the basis of all well-told stories? Is it simply a futile exercise in applying structure to a vast chaos of widely different interpretations, or is it actually the foundation of the way we perceive, live and retell our stories?

Again, these questions are both fun and important to consider, and again it all comes down to how we can apply these theories to make our stories better, both for critics and audiences alike.

For my part, the three-act structure applied post-composition has been incredibly valuable in helping me to see why certain elements don’t work and how to effectively shift them structurally to make room for a greater development of character or story. It doesn’t mean that I have reworked my entire novel in order to fit a shallow, culture-specific mold, but instead that I have learned to examine my narrative through an age-old framework and use these fundamental ideas of story-telling, both ancient and modern, to help me tell my story in the most effective way.

Yes, sometimes it’s as much fun to break the rules as it is to follow them. But even then, the ‘rules’ are still rules, right?

Or are they?

Therein lies the great mystery at the heart of all artistic endeavour.

 

 

Elise Janes

 

One Thousand Words

The first thing I noticed about Bombay, on that first day, was the smell of the different air. It’s the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are in the Island City, and the blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and rats. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of the crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches, and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense, and freshly cut flowers.’ 

(Roberts, 2003)

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I’ve been back in Australia for one week now and already, India feels like a dream. I’ve fallen back into mundane routines. It’s week two of the uni semester and I’m back to work. The busy cycle of adrenaline and fatigue has already taken away that freeing feeling of confidence and possibility I brought back with me to Australia. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I find myself thinking about the pink soap box of Sard I left back in India in the guest-house. I tried once to wash my clothes by hand, only to be left with damp clothes smelling of dirty air, curry and vomit. As unpleasant as this reflection is, it reminds me of the reality of India. I must remember that study tour wasn’t all smooth sailing and exploring. There were times in India that were very challenging for me. Despite this, India was great. It’s fueled me with knowledge. It’s changed my ambitions, my perceptions. It’s changed my life.

I think back to when we visited the set in Vasai. The area seemed very industrial in contrast to the green landscapes surrounding it. People across the road from our bus were chipping away at white stone in the sun. As we walked closer to the set, we passed a group of ladies working with clothes. They sat in an area that looked like the back of a petrol station or a dirty, concrete toilet block. And yet, in their hands they held beautiful, intricate, colourful garments. ‘Embroidery for film costume overlaps considerably with embroidery for private clients and the fashion market, and its specialists share the same social attributes. Several independent workshops are located in known slum areas of the city, where artisanal industry flourishes owing to the concentration of urban craftspeople and the availability of affordable space’ (Wilkinson-Weber, 2014).

The culture of India and the Bollywood industry runs so differently, so uniquely. Everyone and everything has purpose or potential. The slums aren’t seen as places of poverty, but, rather places of productivity. I went to India expecting to see an industry like Hollywood where people pursue film from an early age for the creativity and the popularity. In India, you work for money and for survival. Even those with a lot of money produce films ‘to sell popcorn’ and pocket the rupees. Professionals in Bollywood acquire skills through practice and seem willing to take on anyone with a drive to learn.

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On the set in Vasai, we talked to well-renowned actor, Sachin Tyagi. He seemed more than willing to speak to us and was very charming. He admitted that sometimes acting is good but, most of the time it is torture. What I loved most about the study aspect of study tour was learning from the honesty of people in the industry. Here in Australia, I feel that guest speakers always strive to be inspirational. They are all about fulfilling dreams. In India, Vivek Vaswani taught me that ‘you have to set goals, not dreams. Because, you wake up from dreams and they are gone. Always deal with facts when you make decisions. You must make mistakes.’ These are truths I needed to hear. These are facts that work in the entertainment industry, an industry that is quite frankly, less about dreams coming true and more about profit.

In the meeting with Hansal Mehta, we were told that in India, everyone’s values, the things they say even, come from what they’ve seen in films. I feel that even at twenty years of age I am still confused about my own identity and my own values. This study tour has made me surer than ever that the way I’m going to form values and learn in my life is to do what I’m passionate about, travel. Meetings in India taught me that if I pursue producing I should take advantage to co-produce on international projects, get to know international filming laws and treaties. Working internationally in film would be an invaluable experience. However, I’m not sure if I’d focus on producing. Learning so much about producing and directing made me realise that maybe it’s not for me. I think I’m more passionate about writing, specifically travel writing or scriptwriting.

I found myself very drawn to and inspired by the meeting we had with the scriptwriter. It was interesting to observe that the scriptwriter had the ability to balance writing for films with other roles in the industry. He still had time on top of this to engage with his hobby, creating mash-ups and film trailers. At Everymedia, I learned that in public relations you take a small part of an interview and turn it into a big story. In the same way, I suppose I’ve taken a small aspect of the study tour and brought it to the forefront of my mind.

Listening to the scriptwriter, taught me that telling a story you want to tell will make you enjoy writing.  One day you’ll read something and think ‘there’s an idea there.’ You have to believe in the idea because you will spend six months with it. ‘Any script that we write we make sure it’s not more than two locations because if I have to freight the equipment to 5 different locations, I’ll go crazy if I don’t have that kind of money to move. Dangerous Ishq is a film that actually needs 5 different locations, but I’m shooting one around Bombay and shooting around Rajasthan and finding everything there, otherwise I would have to go to Mysore and go to Calcutta, and I can’t afford that’ (Tejaswini, 2013). This reflection from Tejaswini reminds me that if I pursue scriptwriting or any role in the entertainment industry, I need to remain realistic. I need to be smart about the content I create and make the most of the resources available to me.  In the scriptwriting meeting, I also learned that inspiration often comes out of writing for other projects. I believe that in my life, a lot of what I do will stem out of working a variety of jobs. I am an indecisive person and my career will likely be fluid as a result.

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Photo credit: Joe Carter

There are so many pieces of advice I learned on study tour that I can apply to any profession in creative industries. Hansal Mehta for instance, taught me that it is important to stick with a story and always have a pitch and a visual in your mind. And, never forget the heart of your story. As Gautam Kohli said, have a big idea and take it to the end. Suparn Verma taught me that industry is about establishing relationships and using them, there is nothing else to it. Komal Lath taught me that you should always have teams of three so you can depend on at least A, B or C being available. You should have about six people in your line of business and you should have a point one and a point two. Point two should have a link directly to the person you need to reach, perhaps a star or a valuable contact. Komal Lath also reminded me of a crucial fact. Everyone in society wants something for an exchange. ‘Filmmaker Arin Crumley, of Four-Eyed Monsters fame, attended Cannes this year to make connections for his next, in-progress feature. He describes his strategy: My process has been talk my way into events I’m not on the list at, talk to people about what they’re looking for, and through my own insights and ideas, see if I can help them. And through that people are offering to help me. It’s been a big lesson in working together as a community’ (Macaulay, 2012).

Study tour gave me the opportunity to learn information that I’d never considered before from people who live in a culture so different to my own. The fact that I’ve been to India gives me an advantage. I should take aspects of the way India works and apply it to my work in Australia. For example, in writing I can consider the structure used for content in Bollywood. Structure in Indian film is much different to Hollywood. In Bollywood, there are two different movies in one, before and after the interval. In Creative and Professional Writing we learn to avoid being cliché. By writing a story with the same structure as a Bollywood film, I immediately move away from what is cliché in the Western world. I can produce something with my background knowledge of Bollywood that will separate my work from other people’s.

I am so thankful for the experience of study tour. It was such a privilege to learn from inspirational and genuine people who seemed so confident in you and willing to help you. In Australia, most professionals in the industry would not give you the light of day. Sharing this experience with a group of students who are so like-minded and driven and interesting was what made study tour the best it could be.  I miss the experience every day. It is amazing how transformative three weeks of your life can be.

Take me back to the fifth of July. I want to do it all again.

 

Carmel Purcell

First published on Carmel’s blog.


Ganti, Tejaswini. 2013. Bollywood. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Macaulay, Scott. 2012. “12 Tips on Networking from the Cannes Film Festival.” Filmmaker, May 30. Accessed August 10, 2015. http://filmmakermagazine.com/46168-1-tips-on-networking-from-the-cannes-film-festival/#.Vccp1vlbGed.

Roberts, Gregory D. 2003. Shantaram. Australia: Scribe Publications.

Wilkinson-Weber, Clare M. 2014. Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

 

Whose voice is whose?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Voice Array, Subsculpture 13", 2011. "Recorders", Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Voice Array, Subsculpture 13”, 2011. “Recorders”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Writers have a platform. A platform is a voice. Voice is influence.

Whether your audience is one or one million, what you say (and the way you say it) has lasting impact, not only in the minds of those who consume it firsthand but also as a fleck on the wider canvas of cultural commentary.

We live in an age immensely conscious of voice, arguably more so than any era that has come before. This is the time of struggle for equality; of wrestling out the vast complexities of privilege and poverty, the established and the transient, the dominating and the dominated.

As such the concept of voice is under greater debate now than ever before. This creates a vast shifting tension between points of difference, as we dig deeper to unveil the true core of the conundrum of inequality.

What is privilege? What does it mean to be represented, faithfully or otherwise? Who has the right to tell what stories and how? These are questions shaping the way we engage with narrative of all kinds, moulding the way writers write and readers read.

At the National Writers’ Conference in Melbourne last year, two authors sat on a panel titled “Voices on a Page”, both young; one female, one male. One Arab-Australian the other Anglo-Australian. One spoke about dialogue and the other about rights. Even with only two artists weighing in on the topic, various and completely alternate interpretations of ‘voice’ were explored.

The discussion about privilege took precedent, eliciting the strongest emotional reactions from the panelists and the audience. It became clear that one writer was writing with the mission to proclaim identity and while the other wrote to explore it. Questions of narrative ‘rights’ and responsibilities became heated, not just between the panelists but between audience members as well. There was a point where I glanced around to make sure an exit was nearby, in case things got out of hand.

Now, riot-inducing panel sessions are not something we expect from writing conferences these days (though maybe we should) as people tend to steer clear of these raw issues for lack of a concrete grasp of their own thoughts. Because when we burrow down through the politically correct lingo and vitriol, we must ask ourselves, and each other, what we really mean by terms like ‘privilege’, ‘rights’ and ‘identity’. After all, whose voice is whose?

One author went as far as to say we are not entitled to write from any voice except our own, that when we try to interpret the world of others, we undermine their authenticity.

Do you agree?

The other emphasised the scope available to writers in observing and understanding other worlds and other voices, in interpreting them through the multifaceted lens of society and in doing so exploring alternate perceptions.

Again it comes down to this concept of representation, a topic I explored in greater depth in this article about Patricia Arquette’s now-infamous Oscar speech.

While I agree that representation should be wider spread, I believe this is a fundamentally complex issue that is only just now beginning to unfold and take shape. If we are not open to other perspectives on our own voice I fear we miss a significant aspect of what it means to be part of a diverse community, finding our own identity within the wider collage of lives and voices that make up our society.

Writing, in its essence, is art. Art is not only life, it is the lens that enables us to see ourselves from angles we can’t reach on our own.

Could Vladimir Nabokov write from Humbert Humbert’s eyes without being a pedophile? Could Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina’s without being a rich society girl? Could J. K. Rowling write the voice of Harry Potter without being a 13 year old boy? Could George Martin write Cersei Lannister without being a female, a mother and an incestuous sibling?

When artists toil over ‘voice’ and ‘narrative rights’, are they only referring to gender, race and class? Or should we accept that the discussion simply isn’t that straightforward, and that privilege and voice come in all shades of grey?

We need to maintain an open mind when it comes to deciding, as a global artistic body, what we can and can’t do. Without a solid definition of this slippery concept, we cannot, in all honesty, accuse one another pell-mell of discrimination and inauthenticity.

I agree that there is no black and white solution. What some people call archetype, others will call stereotype. What some people call privilege, others will call restriction. What some people deem authentic, others will denigrate as derivative.

So where is the middle ground?

In the end, as I’ve said before, good writing is good writing. A good writer will not take on a voice that they are unable to faithfully render, or at least render in a fresh and valid perspective. There must be a cohesive balance between creativity, observation, and respect. Yes, we need greater diversity in our narrative casts, but not by means of forced contrivance. Yes, we need to find representation for a wider span of voice, but not at the expense of stripping others of their right to creative expression.

In Robert McKee’s brilliant discourse on Story, he discusses exactly this universal application of characterisation, and the responsibility story-tellers have to render authentic human experiences.

“Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity…to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.”

Exploring voice is one of the primary reasons humans read and write, and engage in the act of telling stories. Voice should not be a restrictive category; it should enable authors to explore the nuance of worlds that are both far and near to our own, to mine the complexities of life and in doing so find the answers to how our own life should be lived.

McKee goes on to articulate this.

“Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?”

As authors, let’s not use voice as a way to marginalise, but instead to open up, to ourselves and others, the incredibly vast spectrums of human experience. Let’s commit to authentic and deliberate renderings, to considered and thoughtful approaches, and provide the world with the profound and delicate emotional experiences that come from stepping into another mind.

Your voice is valid. Use it.

 

Elise Janes

 

Are you sick about hearing about feminism in fiction?

Women, right? They’re always prattling on about something. Wanting something. A Black Widow movie. Equal rights. The ability to express an opinion online without getting death threats. So needy, amiright? Everyone knows once you’ve declared something has happened (gender equality), you’ve done all the heavy lifting and everyone should just carry on the way they’re going, with no further inconvenience. So what’s with the constant barrage of people tweeting/blogging/otherwise ranting about female characters in fiction? THIS IS SETTLED ALREADY. EVERYTHING’S FINE NOW.

Buffy-Willow-season-4-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-1272084-1859-2560Sarcasm aside, I’m a feminist but even I sometimes feel tired when I see yet another blog dissecting female characters in a book or film and bemoaning the state of the industry. Sure, you’ve got female characters, but are they strong enough? How’s their agency? Are they TOO strong – caricatures, or just men with tits? Sufficiently and realistically flawed? How about Joss Whedon, is he an ally or part of the problem? I mean, I googled something about Frozen the other day* and ended up reading dozens of opposing articles about whether it’s a good feminist movie or a bad one, whether the characters are good for women or not, whether it subverts tropes or reinforces them. It’s exhausting.** As a writer, it seems terrifying – so many chances to get it wrong.

But never fear, dear readers. I have a solution to all this agonising.

Just put more women in.

Seriously. It’s not that hard. Forget about obsessing over your female characters, trying to work out if they meet all the criteria. Spoiler alert: there’s no settled criteria and you’ll never please everyone.

I mean yes, your women should have agency (by which I mean, they should not be passive little lilypads bobbing on the sea of your plot – they should make decisions and take actions which drive the plot), but that’s about your writing, not about your women – ALL interesting characters have agency. No, they shouldn’t be clichés; but again, that’s because clichés are boring writing. If you’re writing stories where your characters have no agency and/or they’re all clichés, you might just be a shit writer, not a bad feminist.

If you can look at your own work and see common traits in most of your female characters that isn’t just the shape of their genitals, you’ve probably got a problem, and that problem is you’re being thoughtless and lazy. This is true whether that trait is submissiveness, red hair, sarcasm, massive upper body strength or bad BO. If you only write ‘strong women’ and you think that means ‘women who aren’t like those other crappy women – hey, I hate sewing!’ you’re contributing to the problem as much as someone who only writes women as props for men. You don’t beat this problem by writing women who epitomise traditional femininity or tear it down – you beat it by writing BOTH. ALL.  Gender isn’t the most important or interesting thing about a character – it’s not even up there in the top 10.

Just put more women in.

Write women into a bunch of roles in your story – God, maybe lash out and make it something like half the roles, since, I dunno, that’s the reality of the world we live in?***

Cos here’s the magic of my solution – you don’t need to panic that your female characters don’t perfectly embody the right amount of strength and the right number of flaws and are likeable but not too likeable!! and are sex positive but not all about the boobies if you don’t make all of this crazy difficult juggling act rest on the shoulders of only a couple of ladies. Spread the load! Write women in powerful and powerless and power-indifferent positions. Make them nice and naughty and jerks and generous and spoilt and clever and clueless and every other character trait that people routinely, without thought, apply to male characters. Write them young and old and fat and hot and thuggish and graceful.  Write them all over the gender spectrum. Write them from different backgrounds and cultures and with different priorities. Because the thing is, women are just people, and people are not all interesting in the same ways. They don’t have to each of them be perfectly imperfect if there are only enough of them.

Just put more women in.

We wouldn’t need to scrutinise every word Black Widow says if there were dozens of female superheroes on screen. We wouldn’t have to worry about Bechdel and Mako Mori and teeth gnashing about writing strong women if women were just routinely given as much screen/page time as men. Every woman in Buffy didn’t need to be free of problematic traits from a feminist perspective, simply because there were plenty of them in there, and they were all different. If you’re sick of all the constant analysis, know this: we all have the power to actually make this issue retreat, not by getting every female character ‘right’ but by having enough of them that it’s absurd to even lump them together just because they’re women. The discussion would just go away.

Like magic.

Now go forth and populate your stories with so many ladies I never have to think seriously about whether Elsa is a triumph or a disaster.


 

  • Don’t ask me why. I have 2 small boys and Frozen is part of parenting now.

** Yes, I know, I could have NOT kept reading. Shut up, I have poor impulse control and the internet has a hold on me, all right?

*** I too am a fantasy writer so yes, you could make up a world that has a different gender balance – but you should probably only do that if it’s a genuine part of the ‘what if’ associated with your story. Don’t just do it because your default position is ‘white man’. There shouldn’t be a default position. (But that’s a rant for another time).

 

Sam Hawke

 

Sam Hawke is a Canberra-based author who has recently been signed with agent Julie Crisp, formerly of Tor UK.

This piece was originally published on her blog, samhawkewrites.com

Pennsylvania

“I’ve said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia, and I meant every one.”

David Lynch

philadelphia

I’ve lived in this city far too long. Philadelphia is full of filthy streets and fatties. Being the home of the cheese-steak hasn’t done the people any favours. Sometimes it’s warm and muggy and pigeons lie around lethargically and your butter always softens real quick for your afternoon ham sandwich. But then, winter rolls in with spikes on its boots and cuts your cheek with a blade of ice and cuts and cuts and keeps cutting until your socks bite your toes and your skin is as flaky as careless shredding on a block of blue cheese.

And here I stand at the table with my family. Philadelphia born and bred. I’ve never put one foot into Ohio or Virginia or Maryland or Delaware. I would have made it to Arizona in October if Mom hadn’t wrapped a tight leash around the family credit card.

‘Sit,’ Dad barks at me, as if I’m our neighbour’s Presa Canario, Princess.

Poor Princess. Every Monday, I watch the yellow sunlight drift through the glass and illuminate the bristles on the legs of the Hacklemesh Weavers clustered in the corner of my room. When I hear the padlock click, I open my bed-side drawer and pull a box from the plastic wrap of the Tic Tac multi-pack. Every Monday, I watch Buck mow the grass. I sit by the window, slamming the orange box down at the perfect angle on the edge of the window sill. I place a Tic Tac in my mouth and soften it and chew it and swallow, throw one in the air, catch it on my tongue and soften it and chew it and swallow. Then I cross my fingers.

‘I said sit.’

The beauty of a collapsible cage is that it is collapsible. Every Monday, I place the last Tic Tac on the sill in the hope that one day Princess will break through the metal bars and eat Buck while he’s scratching his filthy redneck scalp. I imagine I’ll walk down and offer his girlfriend Tiffany a cigarette and offer her a Tic Tac and give Princess a scratch behind the ear. Tit for tat for a tiny morsel of entertainment in a city sucked dry by dope and derision.

‘Jacob sit, now. Next to your sister,’ says Dad.

‘Father, relax. I’ll sit,’ I say.

I lean forward towards the table snacks. The box of See’s candies feels cool in my hands. I pull it towards me and it rattles softly like a maraca. Everyone stares sharply as I pop a bubble in the wrap.

‘Not necessary,’ says Mom, shaking her head.

As Gram rambles, I pick up the brown paper from the box and sniff the nutty, Easter-like scent. I take a bite and assess the centre. The caramel is beige as bitter tea. It’s chewy. Gram finishes her speech about the Blanket Society. Now she’ll ask me about life at the burger store and history and examinations and guitar and friends and probably, girls.

‘I don’t swing that way, Gram,’ I’ll remind her, again.

Again and again and again and again. When Gram was my age she wasn’t into computers or cell phones or video games or telly but rather tennis and the pictures and young men and picnics and picnics with young men. Young men, Jacob, you and young men? No I don’t think that’s right, my dear.

I stare at the gold pendulum swinging left and right ever so slowly above Gram’s head. I study the clock’s face. It pokes a thin black tongue at me. I’ve never noticed the scratch next to Roman numeral seven.

‘Ding dong, ding dong,’ it sings.

I hope the clock doesn’t unhinge and peel itself from the wallpaper.

‘Ding dong, ding dong,’ it sings again.

I hope it doesn’t drop from the wall and fall onto Gram’s head and make her stop yapping like a Chihuahua in a tiny crochet jacket. The wallpaper really is ugly. It looks like frothy Cool-Aid. Mom had puffed out her chest at every wallpaper store in the city back when they were renovating and looked more than deflated fumbling at registers and stuffing rolls of old stock into the back of her grey Ford Escort.

‘Aint that right, Jacob?’ says Dad, nostrils flaring.

‘Huh? Ah yep, Dad,’ I say.

Roman numeral three looks like a little cage.

‘Jacob has a friend called Jess,’ says Dad, making twitching rabbit ears with his sausage fingers. ‘She’s here all the time.’

I try to roll my eyes as far into my head as I can without detaching an eye-string.

‘Is it cherry pie for dessert, Mom?’ I ask.

Mom plays with her necklace.

‘Jess is lovely,’ continues Dad. ‘She’s sophomore at Jacob’s school and I’ve heard she’s top of her volleyball team.’

‘Dad, shut up,’ I say, looking out the window.

A maple brushes its fingers against the glass. A distant tree sags under the weight of a thousand red ants. Ants, scuttling and smothering. I imagine a leaf snapping off in fall and floating in the warm breeze and floating down the street, past the main drag of stores and past the power station and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean where a current could carry it to somewhere distant like Israel or Italy or India. Escape this hell-hole little leaf, while you can. Have a say in your own damn life, while you can. I’ve said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia, and I meant every one.

 

Carmel Purcell

The Cringe welcomes Carmel Purcell, the newest addition to our writing team. Look forward to a variety of articles and short fiction from Carmel in the coming months.

 

The Genre Gap

In this glowing age of equality us literati still happily overlook one of the more entrenched and obstructive ideological discriminations that, if we’re honest, is now largely irrelevant: the cold war between literary and genre fiction.

It is a strange war indeed, a war waged most enthusiastically by certain mass-media critics, awards juries and pseudo-intellectuals, clans seemingly ignorant of the fact that the rest of the world has moved on without them. In reality, the strangely-evolved notion that internal monologuing and odd pronouns are superior in some way to an active plot is beginning to lose traction.

100421FranckenIIThis notion of superiority evolved out of the world’s rebound from the Modernist period, as we trundled through the mid-20th century and mass-market paperbacks became a mode of dissemination and academia dug it’s fingernails into Joyce and Faulkner. One could argue that the publication of Ulysses was tantamount to the commencement of an arms race between the literaries and the hacks.

I myself am a bachelor of literature. I have read Ulysses cover-to-cover (an alarming life-achievement). Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Pynchon are among my favourite authors. I appreciate a well-strung sentence and a verbose description of madeleine cakes as much as the next snob. I believe in the art of experimental framing, the poetry of precise imagery and the power of lyrical cynicism.

However I do not consider the writers of such to be superior to genre authors simply based on a legalistic classification.

You see, the truth is much more straightforward: some writers are simply good and some are simply bad.

Unfortunately many bad writers are writing genre fiction, which has given genre an unjustly bad aroma of clunky prose. But, in much the same way, plenty of bad writers are also writing ‘literary’ fiction.

Not so long ago I stumbled across a marvellous and highly controversial dissertation from the well-known journalist B.R. Myers, in which he holds vehemently forth on this exact issue. His perspective is rather traditional, mainly in that he despairs of the plight of contemporary literature exclusively, but in doing so he highlights some of the greatest cons of modern literary pretension:

More than half a century ago popular storytellers like Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham were ranked among the finest novelists of their time, and were considered no less literary, in their own way, than Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be “genre fiction”—at best an excellent “read” or a “page turner,” but never literature with a capital L.

[…] Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, on the other hand, is now considered to be “literary fiction”—not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.

What once may have been a useful designation for the purposes of academic study in the mid-20th century is now as obsolete as the floppy disk.

He goes on to explain:

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

Is it possible that Stephen King is more ‘intellectual’ than David Guterson? Quite.

SnowFallingOnCedarsThe distinction between literary and genre writing is no longer necessary. Our entertainment has evolved, like our audience, to the point where literary fiction is now itself a genre, not a ruling class as many ‘highbrow’ reviewers would still have you believe.

I direct your attention to the screen arts. Here is a medium that has far overtaken literature as a means of popular entertainment (gasp!), partly because of the responsiveness of screen artists to the demands of widening opinion. Much of that comes down to a bottom-line matter (by comparison no author these days will be a millionaire unless their work becomes a movie franchise) but people tend to put their money where their mouth is so perhaps it’s worth a thought in this discussion.

220px-BagofbonesIn film twenty years ago the gulf between ‘blockbuster’ (genre) and ‘indie’ (literary) was vast and easily depicted: one mindless, crowd-pleasing and action-packed, the other thought-provoking, character-driven and (possibly) meaningful. But directors and producers have since become wise to the fact that audiences themselves are becoming wiser, more discriminate and better educated. In response they’ve invented a whole new class of filmentertainment that manages to span the genre gulf: films that are both thoughtful and active, both character and plot-driven, both smart and entertaining.

And why not? Why can’t we admit that perhaps we are no longer the hallowed few, the only beings on earth guarding the keys to taste, intelligence and sophistication? Why can’t we admit that people are getting smarter? That perhaps they want their insightful discourse on humanity with a touch of action? Or their tightly-woven plot framed with beautiful prose?

Are we afraid that we’re not up to the challenge?

In 2009 The Guardian unwittingly (or perhaps very wittingly) shed light on this disparity between what readers (intelligent readers) actually enjoy and what the critics think they should enjoy when they published this article asking people to comment on the decade’s worst books.

Expecting, no doubt, to see a flurry of finger-pointing at the Dan Brown’s and Stephanie Meyers’s of the writing world, the result was actually quite startling. Many of the 875 comments named awards-listed books, Cloud Atlas and White Teeth among them, and others listed widely acclaimed novels such as Kite Runner and The Falling Man.

No one, however, was prepared for the particular quality and quantity of rage that generated around Ian McEwan. Commenter StuartEvers summed it up nicely:

StuartEvers 8 Dec 2009 21:54
In a shit -soaked field of its own is Saturday by Ian McEwan.
It has it all: smug, self-satisfied and completely unrealistic characters, tediously over-written “research”, plot holes you could drive both Branson’s spaceship and his ego through, quasi political noodling (isn’t it lucky that the central character knows an Iraqi?) and an ending so ludicrous it’s hard not to be personally affronted. Oh and a squash match! A bloody squash match!
On Chesil Beach was at least short and provided a good joke on Peep Show.

The ‘noodling’ alone makes me wonder if Mr Evers himself might write a better novel than McEwan.

I declare it’s time for our self-important gatekeepers to emerge from out of the dark age and embrace the new literary rainbow. It is possible for a work of fantasy to win the Booker Prize, according to Salman Rushdie. It is possible for an author to be ‘good’ without writing literary fiction, declares Stephen King. It is also just as likely that a writer can be ‘bad’ while trying to be literary, thank you Ian McEwan.

Myers sums up with a concluding anecdote in his trademark candour:

At the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say that she had had to puzzle over many of the latter’s sentences. According to Oprah, Morrison’s reply was “That, my dear, is called reading.” Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing. Great prose isn’t always easy, but it’s always lucid.

It’s time to move into the future, people, hand in hand with the rest of the world in declaring once and for all peace between literary and genre fiction; that all writers should be held to the same standards of good writing regardless of the affectation of their prose.

Equality for all.

 

Elise Janes