Thursday, April 13, 2017

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Newcastle Writers' Festival 2017. My co-speakers on the topic of 'The Getting of Wisdom' were Dr Peter Doherty (The Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize') and Monsignor Tony Doherty ('The Attachment'). The session was mediated by Lee Kofman ('The Dangerous Bride').

                                    THE GETTING OF WISDOM

I am honoured to be speaking today on the ancestral lands of the Awabakal people and the Worimi people. I acknowledge the First Australians as the traditional custodians of the land and the waters. Their cultures are among the oldest living cultures in history. I pay respect to the Elders, and I extend my recognition to their descendants.

I want to show you this image. (See the picture above)

This is the tapestry on the seat of my piano stool. It’s a simple tapestry pattern for the Tree of Knowledge. Or is it the Tree of Life or the Tree of Wisdom. I won’t stop now to discuss the distinction between knowledge and wisdom – my purpose in showing you the image is to tell you a story. In 1981 I went to an auction and bought the stool. It is charming. Part of its provenance, according to the auction house, is that it was used in the movie The Getting of Wisdom. I’ve watched the movie at least three times, and most recently I watched it for the express purpose of seeing the piano stool in shot. So every time someone sat down at a piano, there I was with my finger on the pause button, waiting to get a glimpse of the stool. This did not happen. It seems that piano stools in movies disappear beneath long dresses. So it’s nice to have the provenance, but the girls might as well have been sitting on an orange crate.

However, when I sit down to play, I may be comforted to imagine that I am absorbing wisdom with my bottom.

What I have learned by this method, sitting on the piano stool playing the odd sonatina, is that science, spirituality and the arts, including fiction writing, are all concerned in one way or another with a search for meaning.
My special field is writing fiction.

One of my fictional characters bears the name Carrillo Mean, and he turns up in my work from time to time. He is a prolific writer among whose books are The Mining of Meaning and the Meaning of Mining. He also has a facebook page called The Wisdom of Carrillo Mean, but is quite lazy about posting on it. He’s a bit arrogant. So you can see that I am usually quite conscious that what I am doing when I am creating fiction is joining in the great human desire to know: Where did it all come from and where is it all going and why. Wisdom you see. The search for wisdom. But perhaps it would be wise not to ask those questions. I’m making my project, my fiction, sound rather lofty and grand. It isn’t though. But it is serious, although I can never help seeing the funny side of things, so my fiction is also funny, in a darkish kind of way. Where, you may wonder, is the wisdom in this?

The quest for meaning, the desire for wisdom, conducts itself in my head as stories. Human nature is programmed – if I can use that word – to make up stories and to respond to stories. Human beings make sense of things perhaps most easily through stories. The writer of fiction takes up the position of observer, interpreter, and ultimately teller. No matter how much you observe, how much you interpret – the important thing generally is to get the story into shape – orally or in print – and tell it to other people. Perhaps with the accumulation of all the stories in all the world, wisdom might be attained.
In one of the letters in The Attachment, Tony writes that Irish people – I think he might mean all people – value stories next after food, shelter and companionship. I’d go along with that. Great myths and fairy tales and stories from many different cultures, including religions, are storehouses of wisdom. And I think much wisdom is available in the life stories, however short and anecdotal, of other people. Listening to people is a great doorway to wisdom.
The title of this panel is taken from the Book of Proverbs 4:7 –
‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom:
and with all thy getting, get understanding.’

What I love about that verse is the constant use of the uncompromising verb ‘to get’. And Henry Handel Richardson adopted it in her title for the novel about schooldays. The Getting of Wisdom – which is somewhat tongue in cheek really, as the main character only arrives at the very beginning of wisdom by the end of the story. Of course it emphasizes the importance of experience in childhood as the key to learning wisdom, and there are examples in both Tony’s and Peter’s books (The Attachment, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize) of vivid childhood memories which remain with the writers, nourishing their long search for meaning. And if wisdom comes with experience, Lee’s book
The Dangerous Bride is a very personal reflection on experience, and carries a lot of hard-won wisdom.

Lee asked me to give some indication of how wisdom is approached in my own work. Well in my manual for writers Dear Writer Revisted there is a suggestion for which I have been famous since 1988. It is that if you want to be a writer you have to give up housework. That’s probably the wisest thing I ever said. The other one – it isn’t in the book – is what I sometimes say to students in workshops – sit down shut up and write a sentence. Now write another sentence.

Then at the end of a story of mine – ‘The Woodpecker Toy Fact’ – there’s this:
The night before they buried my grandmother she came to me as I lay sleeping. She had taken by then the form of a small blue butterfly. She resembled a forget-me-not. She alighted on my quilt and smiled at me as she always smiled. And all she said was one word. She smiled at me and she said “listen”.

Another thing is that in my novel Family Skeleton there is a comment about death, at the beginning of every chapter. Such as ‘The afterlife is our true home. It needs good furniture.’ This may or may not be wise, but it’s a thing.

Anyhow, my main source of wisdom is probably the piano stool. They really should have shown it in the movie. Have another little look at it, and marvel.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Evolution of Dear Writer Revisited - a glimpse of a publishing history

This essay appears in New Adventures in Literature, edited by Simon Groth 

                             So You Think You’re Going to Make and eBook

For my seventeenth birthday I got a typewriter. It was an Olivetti letter-writer, bright red. I planned to be a novelist. So in the university vacation, when I was not working in the ice-cream factory, or as a waitress, I taught myself to type. I still have the Pitman’s Business Typewriting, with its thick grey cardboard cover and lovely round blue, green and yellow typewriter keys. Today I am typing on a MacBook Pro, and between this and the Olivetti there have been many other machines. I am learning to make an ebook.

One day in 1987 I had lunch in Fitzroy with Diana Gribble, my publisher at McPhee Gribble. As we crossed busy Brunswick Street on our way back to the McPhee Gribble office, Diana said she thought it would be a good idea if I were to write a book on how to write fiction. This moment has remained with me, vivid in my memory, an illumination in heavy traffic. Diana died in 2011, and at her funeral the thought of that instant in Brunswick Street kept flashing into my mind. 

This happened in the days before writing courses had come into being in Australian universities; there were no such things as writers’ centres. However there were some initiatives from state governments in the area of the arts, and I was involved in a program of manuscript assessment. I was Assessor Number Eight. I was anonymous and so were the writers whose work I assessed. I had been writing letters to the authors – yes, I typed them out and put them in the mail. I wonder now which designs were on the postage stamps. The letters went to people I referred to as ‘Dear Writer’. I kept copies of these letters – possibly some of them still exist in my files – and I realised I already had the core of my book on writing.

So in 1988 Dear Writer was published. I licensed it to McPhee Gribble which in 1989 became an imprint of Penguin. The book was published by Virago in London. By the time the licence came up for renewal in 1995 my publisher was Random House and so I licensed it to them, and wrote a revised version of the text. Between the end of the Penguin licence and the beginning of the Random one, I had a request from a university for fifty copies. There were not fifty copies in existence so I printed a limited edition of a hundred copies in a plain cover with Wild and Woolley, a Sydney publisher who specialized in producing small fast print runs. In 2010 Random decided not to renew the licence and the book went out of print. Since then I have had many requests from universities for copies of Dear Writer. It occurred to me that perhaps the time had come to see it as an ebook.

The file of the proofs from Random House (which was soon to merge with Penguin) had not survived the various transfers from one computer to another. I realised I would first need to scan the text. It so happened that I had only one copy in my possession. If I tore it apart for the purpose of scanning, I would end up with no copies at all. It seemed wrong not to have at least one copy of my own book. You’d think that I could find one somewhere, at least online, but no. Although there were plenty of copies in Indonesian. So I persuaded a friend to relinquish her copy in exchange for a copy of the limited Wild and Woolley edition (which uses the original, not the revised 1995 text). The process of scanning, while being perhaps elegant and astonishing, was tedious. As the book on my left shrank page by page and the pile of loose pages on my right grew, the data on my laptop lay in between the two.
When the scanned pages at last became a file, I began an exhaustive revision of the text. While the basics of writing fiction remain constant, the vast and rapid changes and developments in technology, publishing, and teaching had to be acknowledged, reflected and addressed in the new version of the book. After all, today people write novels on twitter. The notion of the letters is now quaint in its formality, but to abandon it would mean losing the tone of the book, and it was this tone that students and readers found particularly helpful and engaging. I say ‘readers’ because this is a book that can be read as a piece of fiction as well as a manual of instruction. It isn’t simply a matter of tone; Dear Writer is an enactment of its own principles. Interestingly, people frequently refer to Dear Writer as Dear Reader. I assume they feel the text speaks to them, that they, the readers, are the writer being addressed.
There are two characters: Writer and Virginia. Writer is a middle-aged woman living somewhere in rural Australia and writing short stories which she sends to Virginia for assessment. The novelist Virginia, as it happens, is a character from my novel The Bluebird Café . The readers of Dear Writer never see the script of the story under review, but must build it up in their imaginations. There are no letters from Writer. Because the characters are of their time, which was long ago in 1988, they think about the virtues of writing with pens compared with working on a typewriter, and then on a computer. I remember being resistant to the image of the old Royal typewriter on the cover of the Random House edition, because I thought it was suggesting the text was nostalgic and ossified. Yet people said they loved the image. The cover of the Virago version was never admired by anyone I ever heard of; it suggests, with its blood red woman at a typewriter, that writing fiction is something to do with menstruation.

You can see some of the problems that changes in technology have introduced to the revision and re-presentation of a book like this. Often when I see the phrase ‘changes in technology’, the image of Tess of the d’Urbervilles comes to mind; that tragic emblem of a young woman trapped in social revolution, destroyed. Writing, revising takes courage; I am brave enough to do this.

I must now switch to a present tense narrative, because as I write this essay I am still working on the revision of Dear Writer in preparation for its new appearance. I say ‘appearance’ rather than ‘publication’ because I have a sense that something dramatic and revolutionary is happening to it, and that ‘publication’ is not a term that serves the purpose.

I have considered the fact that most of the students of writing today (2013) are very young, that they use social media, that they are probably keen to by-pass traditional publishing, that traditional publishing is also morphing even I sit here at my laptop, that those young students of writing are probably writing novels with their forefingers and thumbs on their iPhones, that possibly anything Virginia might say to Writer about, say, the agreement of a verb with its subject, is not going to matter to anybody much.
Yet I know that it does matter, and that it will continue to matter. I am not talking about rigidity and inflexibility and fossilisation, but about clarity and freedom. The more you know about how language behaves, the better equipped you are to use it, the more power you have over your own thoughts and ideas. Not so long ago I was teaching a university course. At the end of the second session I asked the students what areas of writing they would like me to cover in the course. They asked me to teach them grammar. In the early nineties I taught a course at an American college where the students wrote all their work, including their journals, on computers. A group of them came to me after class and said they were going to England for a semester and would have to write their journals by hand. They asked me to teach them how to do that. I know, and not just from those examples, that the things Virginia and Writer are able to convey are still important to people learning to write fiction, and I am keen to re-fashion the book in such a way that the original flavour is preserved, while the nature of the world into which it will go continues to change.
The challenges I face are not just those presented by the current technologies, or by the changes in publishing, or the changes in hardware and software, but the changes in the whole climate and make-up of readers and students and writers themselves.
So I think I am going to make an ebook. By the time it is done, ebooks might be obsolete, might be the luxury houses built on the edge of the cliff, only to disappear beneath the waves as the level of the sea rises in the heat of the blazing sun.

Having converted the old Random House book into a Word file, I then completely revised the text, taking into account the changed landscape of writing and reading, and I was ready to meet the technology of the ebook. Ready, it turns out, but not really quite able. I had to admit that I could not do this alone, and searched for support and help. There are websites offering methods and varying levels of support, but it was clear to me that they were not going to be my thing. There are of course people who can just get in and take up the challenge of the technology – I was not one of those. I confess I had found it hard enough to do the conversion to scans and then into Word. I think I did quite well for someone who didn’t know what they were doing.
Ebook help eventually came in the form of Bronwyn Mehan who is the publisher of Spineless Wonders, a publisher dedicated to, among other things, the production of ebooks, or books without paper, books without spines. Bronwyn offered to take over the making of the ebook – but then she pointed out something I had been trying not to think: she said a book such as Dear Writer is a book that many readers and students of writing like to hold in their hand, to consult in the old-fashioned way, to use the Index for quick reference, to keep on the bookshelf. This was obviously true, because I had found it impossible to get hold of a copy of Dear Writer until a fellow writer volunteered to let me have hers. So Bronwyn’s suggestion was that before she produced the ebook, maybe she could produce the paperback. The new title would be Dear Writer Revisited.

We would proceed from the paperback version to the ebook version, the ebook requiring its own specific layout and other elements needed for electronic delivery. How to manage an index in an ebook? Such matters would impact on the text.

The ebook exists, and the hard copy of Dear Writer Revisited, published by Spineless Wonders, is in shops, in classrooms, in libraries, on the bookshelves of writers. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


                          NEWSWRITE (March 2017), the newsletter of the New South Wales Writers' Centre

One: It’s the middle of winter, and snowflakes are falling like feathers from the sky. A queen is sitting by her window; she’s sewing.

Two: Once in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat by her window and sewed. 

The tone of first one resembles directions for a play or a movie, or a summary of a story; the tone of the second resembles the opening of a traditional tale. They are both valid ways of beginning to tell a story or an anecdote.  However, unless the Jack the Writer is skilled and practised, it will be more difficult for him to manipulate order and duration with clarity and elegance if he sticks to the present tense. To tell you the truth, the second one really should begin with the phrase: ‘Once upon a time.’ This phrase is of course a traditional English introduction to a fairytale, an introduction that places the narrative, in a strangely specific (once) yet airily vague historical time. And the tenses of the verbs used in language are indicators not only of the era in which events took place, but also of the minutes, days, years between one action and another.
Time is one of the key subjects of narrative. This happened and then that happened, and then the other – a sequence of events across time, until the end of the story or the end of time.  Tempus fugit – for along with sex, the other key subject matter of fiction is death, the marker of earthly finality.

When you write in an eternal present, you have the luxury of denying the inevitability of death, and this can be a comfort to you as the writer and also to your reader. In 1939 Joyce Cary published Mister Johnson, a novel written in the present tense. The novel was seen as experimental, and Cary explained he wanted readers to be ‘carried unreflecting on the stream of events’ as the character ‘swims gaily on the surface of life.’ He wanted the reader to ‘swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives.’
As I write this it is 2016 – and by the time you read it, it will be 2017 – and nowadays a novel written in the present tense is not only unremarkable for its tense, but even fashionable. Perhaps this fashion, which as far as I can tell began to gather momentum in Australia in the 1980s, is fading out, but much fiction and non-fiction, is still being written in the present tense.  With more or less skill.

One: It rains so heavily throughout the spring, that by early summer the leaves on the ivy are the size of dinner plates.
Two: It rained so heavily throughout the spring, that now in early summer the leaves on the ivy are the size of dinner plates.

There are moves you can’t make without the use of a past tense, but maybe you don’t want to make them. Because the present tense gives you an eternal ‘now’, you can’t shift from ‘then’ to ‘now’. As I say, perhaps you don’t wish to shift, although in the first one, if you think about it for a minute, you don’t really know when ‘now’ would be. Not that ‘now’ is invoked. ‘Now’ is inserted in the second one, affording this one an opportunity to draw attention to the rhythm of the time shift, and also allowing a lilt in the music of the prose. It is all a matter of you as the writer taking charge of the effects you want. My examples so far have placed a certain reliance on mention of the seasons, for the seasons are useful pinpointers of time. By putting a season of the year in the narrative, I draw attention to the passage of time, however slightly.

In Book One of My Struggle Karl Ove Kknausgaard sometimes writes in what I call the Ecstatic and Eternal Present: ‘I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges’. This is just one example of a skilled and practised author whose work can glow with the light of recollected truth, defying time, while deep within the fabric of the work, facing the reality of death. David Malouf does this brilliantly in 12 Edmondstone Street, as does Hal Porter in The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony. In my book Writing the Story of Your Life you will find discussion of ten English tenses, and a detailed analysis of seven different kinds of present tense. 

As you read and as you write, try always to be alert to the ways you and other writers are using tenses, and why.

Monday, February 6, 2017



One    The skeleton in the closet speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the behaviour of the characters, and also telling the reader where to look, what to bother about. What effect does this narrative device have on the telling of the story?

Two    Margaret’s life story is mostly revealed in her journal. Does this intimate view of Margaret help you to understand her, even to empathise with her?

Three   Lillian is a bit different from the other characters in many ways. She is the central location of goodness in a messy, wicked world. In what ways is she different?

Four   The Second World War fractured the twentieth century. How did it affect Margaret? How did it reach into the lives of the O’Days of Toorak?

Five     Doria is ‘the stranger who rides into town’. What effect did she have on the lives of the other characters?

Six    Margaret thinks the past should remain in the past. Most of the other characters seem to want to explore and expose the past. Who is right?

Seven    The subject matter of the novel is dramatic and serious, yet much of the style of the writing is comic. How do you think these two elements work together? Does the comedy make the drama more memorable?

Eight    The chapters are headed by a short quotation form Margaret’s late husband Edmund. What effect do these sayings have on your reading of the novel?

Nine    The novel ends in such a way that the reader is invited to complete the picture. Did you enjoy this freedom for the reader’s imagination?

Ten    What does the skeleton want the reader to notice in the advertisement on page six?

Eleven    Without the presence of Doria, would the secret have been buried forever?

Twelve     The skeleton says to take no notice of such things as the butterflies. What game is the skeleton playing?