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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Life as art

I expect the blogosphere has already been going crazy with this one. But it does raise some interesting issues...

As you've probably heard, performance artist Marni Kotak is planning to give birth in front of a live audience at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, The Birth of Baby X has seen the artist accused of "narcissism", of “exploiting” her baby and even of child abuse.

Kotak says she sees the performance as an assertion of authentic personal experience in a world that has become consumed by an unreal hyper-reality. "As an artist, I am most concerned with the question of how one can have and convey a real experience. I believe that our most intriguing performances occur when we are not aware that we are performing."

More specifically, she says "The Birth of Baby X" is about "addressing the assumptions about the way birth in our culture is viewed".

"I hope that people will see that human life itself is the most profound work of art, and that therefore giving birth, the greatest expression of life, is the highest form of art,” she told the Village Voice.

She is also planning a post-birth conceptual art project, dubbed "Raising Baby X", which will "help us think about and develop a greater respect for the intricacies of child rearing".

Hmm. Well, I guess that's one way of keeping your creativity going: just turn everyday life into a performance.

But why does living need to be a public act? And is it really art?

I have to admit, I've never been entirely comfortable with the notion of giving birth as the ultimate creative act. Of course, it is the ultimate act of creation. Amazing, yes. And profound. But the incredible beauty and wonder and mystery of nature is something that exists in and of itself. Plants will still be sending out their seeds and animals will still be giving birth whether humans are there to witness it or not. Surely art is our response to this world we find ourselves in.

As for Marni Kotaks' performance: What does it say about our desire to always be on show in order to create meaning in our lives? Does this only take us further away from being present, in our own body and our own life, or do you dig her idea of letting it all hang out in public?

Certainly life doesn't get more real than when you're giving birth. And if there's ever a time when you're going to turn inwards and lose all self-consciousness, it's while birthing.

Though I wonder if that will be true of Marni Kotak...