“Writer’s block is a myth. Just get on and write.” I’m paraphrasing but that’s one of the things I was hearing at the at the Melbourne Writers Festival last week. We heard from authors including Paddy O’Reilly, Robin Hemley, and Tony Birch on everything from writing the first page to sustaining a career as a published author. We also listened to Lee Gutkind discuss creative non-fiction. He drew on “true stories, well told” by Gay Telese, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe and others to inspire us in the audience to take up this flourishing craft.
As an ethnographic researcher, I’ve listened to peoples’ tales of their lives and sought to account for them in my research. So far, I don’t think I’ve done a very good job of it. As I’ve said before, I’ve only recently found my own voice. It having been suppressed and distilled by co-authors and processes of peer-review, and left on the bench whilst playing the academic game. So I chose to attend these events to figure out whether I should (I’ll come to the could in a later blogpost) find a new game to play; to write something beyond the confines of the academy, something that we all might want to read.
I’d struggled with the distinction between ethnographic narrative and creative non-fiction, but Lee cleared that up for me. My interpretation of his illustrations was that his craft is not constrained in the same way that mine is. We each conduct rigorous and ethical research. We each produce stories that aim to enchant our readers. We are however each writing for different audiences. Few of mine wish to be enchanted. Most are more interested in how I research than in what I research. So to venture into creative non-fiction really appeals to me.
Then, however, there is the business of getting such work published, and what will follow. That’s why I went to hear the other authors (and publishers) speak. What I learned is that, not unlike academic publishing, there are a few unwritten rules to follow and there will be challenges along the way. Yet, I was inspired enough to see these challenges as ones I want to take on.
So I listened intently, and jotted notes diligently. I learned a lot at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Later in a new favourite café over the road, I went through my jottings and reflected on the discussions. I came up with a few learnings that I’ll try to remember to bear in mind as I explore my writing more broadly (alongside the day job of course). If you’re interested, here they are:
- To write about something that I don’t know enough about and need to (after Paddy O’Reilly);
- It’s not about discovering meaning but working with it (after Paddy O’Reilly);
- Research and internalise my subject to write the prose (after Robin Hemley);
- Limber up before writing (after Robin Hemley);
- Storyboard the project (after Robin Hemley);
- Work with the editor, not against them;
- A story finds its own length;
- Have a conversation with my readers;
- See writing as doing, not as talking (after Tony Birch);
- Rituals (Paddy O’Reilly) and regularity (Tony Birch) are important;
- Don’t get fixated on the ‘creative’ and forsake the ‘non-fiction’;
- Publish what I’m proud of
- Be free to write, not isolated by it.
I think I’ve enough here to at least begin to become writerly.