Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Loving and hating

Dear readers, I have a tale to tell you today. This post is part one of what should be an interesting discussion, but more on that later. First, let me paint you the picture of a writer in love with someone else's words, and what happens when that writer gets within grabbing distance of their authorial idol.

It was summer 2009, and I was standing there at a crowded book launch, ten people away from one of my all-time favourite authors, Tim Winton. I'd been eyeing him off the whole time he was speaking, just like the other ten hungry-looking people in my way. I was running ideas through my head of things I'd say to him when I got my turn to meet him. Or maybe I was just thinking about running up, tackling him to the ground, and snuggling him. Or maybe not. Probably not. Did I mention how much I love him?

Anyway. I was thinking furiously, trying to decide what one thing was the most important thing to say when I got my chance, and in the meantime I was watching him. The first thing I noted was that he was incredibly generous with his attention. No matter who came up, no matter what they had to say, he listened with full interest, and he didn't cut them off. He waited til they were finished. We all waited til they were finished. I was fidgeting impatiently when I noticed a good friend of mine standing nearby, and I squeezed closer to talk to her.

Bernie* [names changed to protect the innocent!] was herself a guest of honour at the function- she was the Aboriginal Elder who gave the Welcome to Country address before Tim spoke. But I wasn't thinking about that when I went for a chat. I sidled up to her and gave her a hug. We had a chat about my new baby. And then I laid it out.

Me: "I am so nervous."
B: "Why?"
Me: "I love Tim Winton so much. So so much. I love his books, I love his writing- he's had such a huge influence on me and *my* writing and I'm dying to meet him."
B: Scans the crowd, noting ten-person queue. "Well, then. Come with me."

So, Bernie got me by the elbow and dragged me through the crowd toward my idol. She nudged her way through the queue until she got right to the very front (VIP coming through! Nobody argues with a VIP!) and then the two of us were standing right in front of Tim Winton himself. She waited until he finished the conversation he was having, and then the next person in line opened his mouth to start talking, and before he could utter a sound Bernie jammed out her elbow and shoved in front of him, dragging me with her.

B: "Tim, I've got someone for you to meet. This is Claire. She's a writer."

And then she gave me a shove, and Tim Winton gave me an encouraging smile, and I pretty much died. Mentally. Verbally.

Me: Giggling like a demented schoolgirl. "Hi! I love you. Your writing, I mean."
Him: Smiling. "Thank you."
Me: "I just had to tell you what your books mean to me, because I'm a writer too. And I love them because I'm an archaeologist..."

Right about there things get a little hazy, and I can't remember exactly what I said, except that he had one of those looks on his face that got a little bit more quizzical all the time, which means you know you're not making sense. I just spewed out a whole bucketload of crap about his themes and character development and stuff that should probably never be spoken aloud, only written about in writing textbooks and English lit classrooms, and it was like there was no off-valve in my brain.

When I finished talking, he just looked at me kind of sideways, still nodding politely, then asked, "D'you ever get out to the [*] Hotel? Great drinking spot."

And- erm- that wasn't an invitation. That was like the number one, biggest ever right-angle change-of-topic I think I've ever had in a conversation. I (almost) laughed. And then I told him about the mysterious hidden room purported to be under that hotel, and how I'd been applying my archaeological knowledge to try to locate it for the owner, and after that we had a good chat without me sounding like an idiot any further. Much further.

Oh, sigh. Love is a wondrous thing.

But I was just compelled to tell this guy what he meant to me. I was thinking about it author-style, and I figured it didn't matter if I sounded like an idiot- I just wanted to tell this person that his words had made a difference to my life, and that I appreciated it. I'm still glad I said it, even if he didn't understand a word.

Last week, Diana Gabaldon, the other favourite author I've had a chance to meet in person (though in this case we had a much more social and convivial couple of hours to talk over dinner!), posted on her blog about influences. She talked about needing to read other writers to absorb the excellence of the written word and to draw inspiration.

I will admit that in the early days of writing, I had a panic moment every time I picked up a book that had vaguely similar themes to mine. Merry Go Round in the Sea (by Randolph Stow) was a WWII book set in the Geraldton region- oh no! Jessica (by Bryce Courtenay) was a WWI book featuring treachery, siblings and shearing. Eeek! Even my favourite Tim Winton novel, Cloudstreet, featured characters doing some of the same things as mine, and some of the same settings.

Was I copying them unintentionally?

The simple answer to that is, of course not. Once I had a good chunk written, I could see with ease that my stuff was by no means similar to any of theirs. My voice was completely different. My characters were completely different. My settings and events were completely different. And I had a completely different book.

By putting those books down, I wasn't saving myself from unintentional plagiarism. I was robbing myself of inspiration.

Now, in recent weeks, I've written so much of my own work that I haven't had time for reading. But as a result, I keep coming across parts of my story that are a little sub-par, and I feel the urge to remind myself what amazingly perfect writing looks like.

(Re) enter Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and read 150 pages in one big gulp. Words can barely express how much I love that book. From the very first page, I'm in that world. Submerged, dragged along, unable to look away. It's told in multiple points of view, and more than that, it throws every conceivable literary convention out the window to achieve what it does. Present tense and past tense mixed together? Heck, why not. On the same page, even. In the same paragraph. Quotation marks around some dialogue and not others? Sure! Smooshing words together to invent new words? Bring it!

These are all things that I'm quite sure would annoy the living daylights out of me in any other author's work, but for some reason they all come together for perfection in Cloudstreet. They're approaches to writing that I would never take myself, but what I do take from them is the way those words make me feel. The way the characters stay with me weeks, months and years after I first read the book. The intense feelings of despair and joy and everything in between that are brought to life so convincingly that they take your breath away. And above all else, the passion the author has for his home- Western Australia- and the way place becomes a character in his tales. Now *that* is something I like to think Tim Winton and I have in common.

All of this is, of course, subjective opinion. And I was out to lunch with my two best friends last week, talking about this exact topic, and my friend of nearly two decades (OMG, we're so old!), lifelong debater and WIP-critiquer extraordinaire Ricki just looked at me and said, "I hate Tim Winton's writing."

Cue shocked hand to the heart.

And as we talked about it, we discovered that all the things I love, Ricki hates. All the reasons his writing resonates with me are the exact same reasons it puts her off.

So, we decided the blog post I was thinking of would be a lot more interesting if we presented both sides of the story. Next week (note: *probably* next week, unless life gets in the way), I'm going to talk about the techniques used in Cloudstreet and a couple of other Tim Winton books, and why I think they work. I'm going to talk about how he throws out every possible convention and still makes it brilliant. And Ricki is going to counter-argue with her reasons why those same things don't work for her.

It should be good. Stay tuned!

(NB: That debate never did happen- maybe sometime in the future :))


  1. While I know every writer's process is different, and one's not better than another, just more right for that writer... I've never understood writers who don't read fiction while they are engaged in writing their own novels. Like you mention here, my writing gets a bit stale if I'm not constantly filling that well. And I mean constantly. I have at least three novels going at any one time, at least one of them an audio book. All it takes sometimes is another author's use of a single word, and suddenly multiple layers of my own WIP are peeled back and see how I missed opportunities to go deeper into character, emotion, plot, what have you. Reading is an essential part of my writing process. I can't have one without the other.

  2. PS: I recently read a book that slides quite well between past and present tense. Listened to it, actually, so how it reads in hard copy I can't attest to. Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Excellent book!

  3. Claire, in my reading last night I came across some very good advice about writers and reading. Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, recommends four to six hours of reading a day. He says the real importance of reading is that it "creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing" and that writers begin to get a feel for what works, what is fresh or what is trite. He says, "The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor."

    He also mentions that new writers may adopt the style of their favorite author. Nothing wrong with that, he assures. "This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one's own style, but it doesn't occur in a vacuum. You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so."

    And lastly, he says, "It's hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or none at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but it's true."


  4. Claire, I ADORE Cloudstreet, so I'll be very interested to see why it doesn't work for Ricki.

    As with Lori and Susan, I just *have* to read, all the time. I've got four books on the hop at the moment; I can safely say I'm totally addicted to being transported to other worlds and being engrossed in a story and its characters. And as with Lori, I'm *always* inspired to write when I'm reading a Really Good Book; especially on those days when writing just seems too bloody hard. :-)

    Lori - Oh, I'll have to check out Sacred Hearts. Have you read The Birth of Venus, also by Sarah Dunant? I just finished it, and loved it.

  5. Great post Claire - that's pretty much how I was when I first met Diana, only a couple of months after having read The Books for the first time, before I'd jumped into the forum and before I really knew anyone (except the friend who'd lent them to me) who adored them - I took a looong lunch at work to attend a book signing and felt very gooey the whole time. I think I asked her a question about that guy training to become a nurse (mentioned in a footnote in the Outlandish Companion) - I was trying to be *original* you see... Ha ha! She barely remembered what I was talking about but was her usual gracious self.

    I have, shall I confess, never even heard of Winton. But I'll add him to the wishlist pile, to be read after the toppling TBR and In Progress piles... Ah, books.

  6. Hello one and all- to Lori and Susan especially, it occurs to me that reading fiction while one writes is akin to continually practicing a second language if you want to retain it.

    I say this because I was attending a course for work this week which was lectured in part by a linguist, and we were discussing languages we'd all learned. I've learned six languages in my life other than English, but I can only speak one of them now- and that's because I did a three-year bachelor degree in it (Italian, that is). But I certainly can't speak it anywhere near as well as I could when I finished my degree eight years ago, because I just haven't used it much since, and even at the time I certainly couldn't speak it as well as a native Italian, because I hadn't practiced it in context.

    The parallel: I think that the written word, or the putting together of language in a way that tells a story, is as much of a learning process as a foreign language. And unless you continually practice it and expose yourself to that language, you get rusty. Sure, you might still speak it, but you'll be bastardizing the bits you can't quite remember, making up half of it, and anyone who's fluent in that language (in this case, any reader) won't find it quite as polished as the language of someone who does practice constantly.

    That's quite the extended metaphor, but there you go. I agree with all of you guys- you've gotta keep reading if you want to write well.

  7. I too love every salty 'Breath,' every colourful word that spills from his *palette and can't get enough of his work. I grew up on, in and under the ocean and Tim's painting of land, sea and coastal characters resonates vibrantly with me.
    I too have recently met my 'Ricki' (someone who just doesn't get Tim Winton) and was totally stunned. I look forward to reading both sides of the coin for without darkness their can be no light......each to their own.