Yesterday afternoon in the Saturday-afternoon feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing. We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work. That was because we were all in it together. Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open hearted acceptance. Everything you put on the page is acceptable.
Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’ But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring? Don’t give up your day job? It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing. It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is. All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.
The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.
Yesterday, as we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:
‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’
First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece. Where did the writing come alive? ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said. ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’ It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it. ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.
Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness. It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page. Keep writing. Something new will come up. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring stuff.
He’s waiting at the bottom of the ramp, just inside the steel fence that cordons off the entry to the station. He said to give him a ring from her mobile when the train passed Gosford. She quickens her pace, adjusts the overnight bag on her shoulder. She is close enough to see the soft fold of his graying hair, the clear smooth glow of his skin. In his white socks and slip-on loafers he looks very English. Continue reading →
Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about. Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.
It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time. Things they can’t let go: things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard. Continue reading →
One can never change the past, only the hold it has on you. And while nothing in your life is reversible, you can reverse it nevertheless – Merle Shain.
I’m imagining a cloudy autumn morning. There’s a room. Half office, half bedroom. Not too large and not too small. The windows of the room face east and look out towards the ocean across the expanse of a green gully.
I picture a woman sitting on a bed with pillows behind her back. The windows are open. Perhaps it is Saturday morning. On the bedside table is a mug of tea and a photograph of the woman’s daughter on her wedding day.
Sometimes there is a person in one of my creative writing classes who is obviously very talented. I can bring to mind one in particular. You could sense people holding their breath as she read, and often her hands shook. The writing process opened her up. She said she had wanted to write for years. She was so excited about writing that she straight away wanted to write a book. I said to her, slow down. Just practice writing for a while. Learn what this is all about.
In Japan becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship. After five years spent working with a master or teacher itamae, the apprentice is given his first important task, the preparation of the sushi rice.
Writing, like becoming a Sushi Chef, is a life’s work and takes a lot of practice. The process is slow, and at the start you are not sure what you are making.
Futomaki (“thick roll” – rice on inside, nori on the outside)
Uramaki (“inside-out roll” – rice on outside, nori on the inside)
Temaki (“hand roll” – cone-shaped roll)
That’s how it was for me. I thought I could jump in and write a book in 6 months. In fact, it’s taken me 20 years to write a publishable manuscript: ‘My Year With Sammy’, the story of a difficult yet sensitive child, published by Ginninderra Press last year.
So cut yourself some slack before you head off on a writing marathon.
Writing is like learning to prepare the rice for sushi: the apprenticeship is long, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a Futomaki, a Uramaki or a Temaki will be the end result.