I’ve read heaps this year. It’s been a huge part of the course for me, and I think my writing has improved because of it. One of the things I’ve got the most out of this year is that I’ve been recommended some new writers – most I barely knew existed. George Saunders, Samantha Hunt and Joy Williams have been the big ones for me.
George Saunders. How did I not know about him before this year? He has encouraged me to let my sillier side back in. Interesting: when I did the short-fiction course back in 2000, I had that side. I think I’ve lost it by making a big assumption about what good looks like and to be considered a good writer you shouldn’t be having fun. I really relate to George Saunders’ own story as a writer in this way – that he had to find his way back to something he already knew how to do but had suppressed in order to do it properly, or something. From what I can tell he went through his whole MFA like this, and it wasn’t until many years later that, almost as an act of desperation, he allowed himself to be guided by his own neurotic and highly amusing voices.
Saunders as a teacher has been huge, too. I’m now a subscriber to his Story Club newsletter and love getting his little blasts of heartfelt encouragement, curiosity and, of course, story analysis.
I think one of the things that has spoken to me the most during the year is his advice to ‘accept who you are on the page’. Arrgh! So hard. So many other better writers! So many other better people! But it’s very freeing advice. And when I am bold enough to follow it, it has made writing much more of a pleasure than it has ever been for me.
I’ve enjoyed her wry humour, her fairly dark but domestic and seemingly familiar worlds and her focus on women and women’s bodies, especially around reproduction. I like that she is unafraid to experiment and that her work hovers around the edge of reality, but has a surreal quality too.
I am still discovering Joy Williams now. It’s only been a couple of weeks! I think she still has a lot to teach me. I have recently read her essay ‘Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks’, which comes from Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. I found it incredible. Every paragraph is quotable. This part (p. 7) leapt out at me:
The writer is separate from his work but that’s all the writer is—what he writes. A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness. He must be reckless and patient and daring and dull—for what is duller than writing, trying to write?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mel Johnston was active in the Wellington theatre scene in the late nineties and now works as a business analyst. This year she’s been developing a collection of short stories as part of her MA at Te Pūtahu Tuhi Auaha o te Ao, IIML.