Friday, October 28, 2011

The hows and whys of writing

The Guardian recently launched a 'How to write Fiction' series, with all sorts of famous writers giving us their tips. As always, the comments thread can offer as much as the actual articles.

But I found this piece from Meg Rossof on 'Finding Your Voice' really helpful, because the notion of "finding a voice" has plagued me ever since I started writing.

I have never really understand what it means to have a "writing voice" and so I feel very intimated every time I hear writers discuss the matter like it's a given -- as if a real writer will have developed a writing voice they know and can rely on.

So I found Rossof's demystification of the term very comforting -- especially her emphasis on the importance of living deeply in order to write deeply.

She says: Self-knowledge is essential not only to writing, but to doing almost anything really well. It allows you to work through from a deep place – from the deep, dark corners of your subconscious mind. This connection of subconscious to conscious mind is what gives a writer's voice resonance.

You can of course completely overdo the "how to" thing. As with parenting, I try to limit how many guide books I read and largely go with my instincts. (I'm also very selfish when it comes to my limited reading time and want to spend it indulging in novels, not slogging my way through detailed parenting guides, though I'm sure some of them have a lot to offer.)

My mum, who was a nurse and very much self-educated, told me from an early age that if I wanted to understand myself better, look to the philosophers. Pop psychology books will try to offer shortcuts, but unless you've arrived at those revelations yourself, it won't stick. Common knowledge to most of us grown-ups, I know, but an important message to me as an adolescent.

It helps to compare it with maths. At school, even if I was given a method and could use it to get the right answer, it just didn't stick until I did actually understood how the method worked. I was one of those kids who drove my teachers crazy by constantly asking "Why?".

I suppose it comes down to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. In other words, deepening the questions rather than looking for the answers, and being prepared to discover that you might become less rather than more certain of what you know. The ideal place for a fiction writer to be coming from!

In the same way, you're probably far better off reading other people's novels, and getting a sense of how other writers build characters and structure a story, than looking for answers in how-to books, which can just be another way of avoiding putting in the practice.

But I am a total sucker for hearing writers talk about the process of writing. I remember finding Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe's Making Stores a total revelation when I read it years ago.

And when I go to Varuna, the writers' retreat in the Blue Mountains, it takes all my will-power not to just curl up on the couch and work my way through its enormous collection of Paris Review interviews.

On that front, I also love The Write Tools, a series on Damon Young's blog where authors and artists talk about the tools/visual aids/substances that help them get their words and pictures down on paper.

And while I'm spruiking, I found Jane Sullivan's interview with Ann Patchett at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival particularly interesting. Hearing about Patchett's approach, I suspect she'd be in total agreement with Meg Rossof about the most important things for a writer to do: "Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. Confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are."

Illustration (at top): Jirayu Koo


jen storer said...

Meg Rosoff's writing is achingly beautiful. I would read her shopping lists if i could get hold of them. Great post, rachel. jx

wen said...

Oddly, the problem of voice is one that plagues me when it comes to writing non-fiction, rather than fiction... I find it much harder to write as my self - feel less certain, less authentic than when I'm making things up. & like you, I find how-tos are less helpful than the works themselves, and writers' writings about writing....

I've only read How I live - but it is very beautiful - and the 'voice'( whatever voice is) certainly resonates.

Hope you're well, Rachel - have been in dark writing (etc) cave for a few years -- very nice to emerge at last -- and have time to listen to all the other wonderful voices....

Rachel Power said...

Hello there! Good to hear you've been hiding away to write. Suspect writing requires a cave-like existence, as much as possible. between bouts of socialising! Does that mean you're planning to start blogging in earnest?

And yes, I totally agree with you. I am finding the shift from fcition to non-fiction very confronting. I am so used to being able to say it like it is, rather than having to create characters to deomnstrate how it is!

Rachel Power said...

Woops -- that was meant to be shifting from non-fiction to fiction! ;)