The Mishaps and Discoveries of a Five Year Creative Writing Journey.
Macquarie University Master of Creative Writing Professional Context Unit ENGL8075
Long ago when I was a child, I opened a new book, breathlessly anticipating another exciting reading adventure. One page in, the words grabbed me and didn’t let go. It was the publication information page and at the top was a message:
‘To any child who rests their gaze on this page, be warned: if you continue reading, you may die of boredom.’
Today, I can’t recall the book, but I still remember that shocking warning.
All of which brings me to my own warning: If you are not into introspection and navel-gazing you may want to steer away from some of the reflective passages underneath the story boxes. Instead, click on the images to go straight to the stories.
If you are, however, someone who likes to know about the stories behind the stories – why and how they came into being, then dip your toes into that reflective pool of words under the images. These stories – written in selected units for my Master of Creative Writing degree – are far from perfect. They were experiments and exercises that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. The House of Criminal Love, for instance, comes with a special warning. As the title suggests, it’s full of every kind of dysfunction masquerading as love as well as a very unreliable narrator. Approach with caution.
I’ve tried to mine these stories for linking themes, but can find none, other than verbal evidence that I have a very busy head. All of which may link back to that childhood message seared into my brain: I don’t want my readers to die of boredom.
CWPG810 Creative Writing Seminar 1: The Midnight Haired Gardener
Early in Seminar 1 – the first unit in my Master of Creative Writing course – I learned about focalisation. I was still intimidated at this stage and had convinced myself I couldn’t handle all the heavy-duty academic stuff, the alien terminology and forensic approach to creative writing. This short piece began with a prompt taken from the opening lines of James Joyce’s short story ‘Araby’: ‘North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when…’
The focalisation was of a mature adult looking back on a moment in their childhood without explicitly using phrases like: ‘I remember’ or ‘many years ago.’
Paying attention to focalisation, trying to write something engaging from the perspective of an older narrator gave me more than a few moments of writer’s block. What followed was one of those ‘ah, what the hell,’ moments where I decided I didn’t know what I was doing, so why not just go crazy. I had some fantastic feedback in the workshopping session, including some comments on its eroticism. The finished story received full marks with an added bonus from the marker, who said it made her laugh.
ENGL 8015 Writing Creative Non-Fiction: The Missing Olympian
This exercise involved incorporating a childhood memory with an historical event. My family lived in Mexico City during the 1968 Mexican Olympics and we also owned a pet hamster called Max. We adored that tiny, cute rodent, and, after reading about writer and philosopher John Berger’s idea of animals being household gods, I decided Max was the perfect candidate.
Sticking to the exercise brief meant the story felt at times – forced and the narrative fought against itself, particularly in reference to the Olympics.
The story also started with too much telling and not enough showing and there were things I took for granted – like how exactly did Max escape? Facts were not correct – for example steroids build muscle, they don’t make athletes faster.
Looking back at the story now, I can see exactly how it needs to be changed. It might benefit from being longer in order to do that whole extraordinary experience of living in Mexico City in the late 1960’s justice. The story also needed more detail about the positive elements of my subjective experience (i.e. less Olympics). This was something the marker mentioned – she wanted more – more of Mexico, more of my childhood. And, of course, Max – who deserves another shot at sainthood.
ENGL830 Digital Voices and Publishing Tools: The Girl Who Lost her Fly
The Girl Who Lost her Fly is piece of micro fiction designed to be read on a mobile phone. The challenge of this piece was keeping it short and easy to read. The story’s dystopian future, oppressive government, underground rebellion and restless protagonist all needed to be tightly conveyed in a few short sentences. Imagining the entire world and then compressing it into only the most essential information was hard. The feedback I got was excellent and re-reading the piece I can see its flaws clearly. There was too much unresolved information: why doesn’t Noriko recall what happened? Why did she step off the designated path? The story also needed more character depth and plot focus. The reader needed to see Noriko transform from an obedient citizen to a radical member of the resistance. The backdrop of the world and the character fought against each other. And I can see how I got too caught up in the idea of the world and had fun with phrases and concepts like ‘no fly zones’ and ‘SmartFly™’ at the expense of the story.
When ideas battle against character and story, instead of working together as an organic whole, the plot can lose focus. Some good lessons learned were here. Short does not mean easy.
CWPG822 Short Form Writing: The House of Criminal Love.
I found the short story cycle – where stories and characters revisited in separate stories are linked by a meta-story – a challenging and intriguing concept, and The House of Criminal Love’s early incarnation grew out of two of Georges Polti ‘s Thirty-six Dramatic Situations: ‘Involuntary Crimes of Love’ coupled with ‘Madness.’ After I workshopped the shorter piece and submitted it as a work exercise, I was told what was missing was more detail about the ways my stories expanded and elaborated on one another. I introduced an unhinged narrator to tie the pieces more firmly together and after a great deal of deliberation, decided to submit this piece as my major course work. Although I had a more resolved and workshopped piece ready (which was probably a safer bet in terms of getting a good grade), it was one of those moments where I reminded myself that I wasn’t doing this course for the grades, but to improve my writing. After all, we don’t learn from our successes, but from our mistakes. I also decided it would be far more interesting for the marker to read something new. Despite its deranged narrator, The House of Criminal Love received a HD. And no police arrived on my doorstep.
I selected these pieces of writing to showcase my learnings across four of my MCW units.
These four stories also reflect the hubris and insecurities that were conflicting parts of my creative self. Two are examples of unexpected successes – pieces where I took risks, had fun and anticipated criticism (and possibly howls of offence). The pieces that didn’t work so well are examples of how sometimes, when I put my inner critic aside – perhaps because of sentimentality, trying to force the parameters of a brief, or falling in love with an idea – I lost the plot, went off on tangents and got a bit self-indulgent.
These exercises helped me recognise my bad writing habits – a tendency to fall in love with ideas at the expense of character depth, to sweep over important details and to engage in that most seductive of writerly traps – to tell rather than show. Sometimes my whimsy also got the better of me and I sacrificed depth for the sake of humour. Balancing these opposing forces is an ongoing challenge and knowing when to go deeper and when to step back is something I still grapple with. Yet somewhere in all of these quirks and missteps is my unique, writerly voice and one of the challenges of the course was to work out how to balance spirited writing with discipline, depth and application of good craftsmanship.
Learning Outcomes, Skills and Knowledge
Overall, this MCW course has helped me: ‘demonstrate the capacity to think creatively, critically and imaginatively to research, evaluate and present complex ideas, concepts, problems and processes through creative writing (Learning outcome 4). This includes taking more notice of every word choice, sentence and paragraph. It includes asking myself constantly – what is it I’m really trying to say? And considering the reader is paramount. It’s something so obvious, but so easy to forget in the throes of creativity.
Speaking of readers, I loved the workshopping process. Workshopping was a great reminder that we learn by helping others. Often, during workshopping sessions mistakes that the writer can’t see are obvious to others. After they are pointed out, and when we take a second look, they are often painfully obvious. This is in part, a symptom of total immersion in our craft, but also a reminder that we need to correspondingly step back and engage our inner critics. Endless thanks to all the students and lecturers who managed this workshopping process with such gentle support and respect.
Across all these sample pieces, keeping to word counts was another magnificent challenge which forced me – in every piece I wrote – to hone in on what was important and discard the fluff.
Looking Towards the Future
I’m a more confident writer now– in part because I recognise those creative traps we can fall into. The knowledge and skills I’ve gained in the course will all help me forge ahead and apply my writing to a wide spectrum of different formats – including but not confined to – promoting my ideas in a crowded marketplace and writing (and selling) my next novels.
Major Work Showcase
You can have a look at the poster prepared for this final unit by clicking on the image below: