Although I’ve been writing for most of my life, I’m new to creative writing. I’ve devoured it as a reader since I could first decipher words, but in industry terms I’m an emerging writer. I’ve written in my journals to understand life and written as part of my academic and professional work, but I’m trying to shift to a space between the confessional blurt and the coldly crafted logical piece.
I’m working on an idea for a novel that has haunted me since childhood. It’s a narrative that weaves the present and past, juxtaposing the story of an ancestor, Isabella, who lived during the Enlightenment era, and my own experiences as a women emerging in the sixties and seventies. Over this year I’ve been to two workshops about writing novels.
The presenters, Sue Woolfe and Kim Wilkins, are both established novelists and teachers of writing, although they write very different genres, as you can see from their websites. Their ways of writing novels appeared, at face value, to be radically different, but both spoke to my writing dilemmas. I’m summarising their approaches together as both were engaging, enthusiastic and deeply encouraging teachers and presenters. I left both workshops feeling inspired and confident that I had a way to approach my continuing writing. Basically Sue focused on an intuitive approach (a pantser) while Kim focused on the story line (a plotter).
Sue Woolfe describes her writing approach in her book, The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer looks at Creativity and Neuroscience. As she spoke about the value of lulling the mind, emptying thoughts and finding stillness before writing, tears sprung to my eyes. This is what I love to do in journaling, as the writing comes from a space deep inside. If I drift into this open space when writing a story, I castigate myself as the words often seem off-target nonsense. Sue spoke of this kind of writing as ‘loose construing’ and described how writing in this playful way, without reading or editing, for between 50 and 100,000 words, lays down a rich hummus of creative ideas, leaps of imagination and lateral synergies. These can be composted before eventually being crafted into a story. She types up the hand written jottings, then searches for connections and recurrences by colour coding, cutting up and collating this early draft. Over time (and more loose construing if needs be) Sue finds that the story and its underlying theme emerges. It can then be crafted through narrative techniques, adding suspense and shape to form a full first draft.
Kim Wilkins developed a highly successful Year of the Novel writing course at Brisbane Writers Centre. Kim focuses on what makes a novel engaging; a narrative drive built around the idea of ‘what’s at stake,’ combining key elements of conflict, character and context. She began our day, however, with an invocation to rich imagery, describing what she calls ‘lush language’. These are words that evoke the feeling of the story for us, to keep in our minds while writing. I learnt an enormous amount about story structure and narrative drive. She approaches stories by laying out a template of key scenes so that the plot, tension and turning points can be mapped in a ‘decisive yet flexible’ way to guide the process. Because I was approaching such a complex story, with split narratives, I found this approach deeply reassuring (it appealed to my logical academic mind). Kim also uses colour coding and places each scene on individual cards.
I plan to use both approaches. Both respect creativity and structure but have a different focus – partly because of different personalities and genres of the writers. Both involve playing with a palimpsest of colour-coded pieces of paper or card. I intend to enjoy and indulge in the playful composting of ideas and words for a lot longer. I intend to stop obsessive research into historical aspects (I have years’ worth). When I find, as I hope and trust I will, the voice, theme and essence of my story in these writings, I intend to plot the detail in scenes so it makes sense. I hope to draw on the composted ideas to clothe these bare boned scenes. I’ll let you know how it goes.