Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Lorrie Moore
A short, page turning novel. First person, told from the perspective of the narrator in later life. ABABAB structure, alternating between the present and flashbacks. What I learned was that I shouldn’t be afraid to cut away from the action. The reader wants to be held in suspense (as long as what you are cutting away to is fairly interesting as well). There are no chapters either, which meant I read longer before putting the book down. (Often I have a bargain with myself — ‘just to the next chapter and then I’ll…do dishes, washing’ etc etc).
Talking Frank Sargeson with Peter
We are going to read and talk about a few New Zealand authors. This pleases me greatly because when else would I get the opportunity to learn about NZ literature from someone so knowledgeable in a one-on-one setting, and also it relieves the pressure of talking about only my work. I read five short stories for our meeting. I only found one simile, which was used twice. It was so striking I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I love the writing, but need to become more familiar with the interior world of character for my novel.
Case Histories Kate Atkinson
I remember reading and enjoying ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ but can’t recall the content. Hmm, I wonder if that is good or not. There are lots of points of view in this novel but it is still very satisfying. I like how not all of the mysteries are specifically solved for the characters (although they are to us as readers). Somehow the author manages to avoid making the reader feel tricked when it turns out that someone else committed a murder than we originally thought, I mean we have had the scene described, but inaccurately.
The scenes and point of view shifts are shorter and quicker toward the end of the book. I guess this keeps up the pace and allows the mysteries to be solved but not in a linear and potentially boring fashion.
Content, all seems relevant to plot, even the minor things. This makes me conscious of only including relevant material in my story, even if only performing a double duty in a peripheral fashion. But, must be careful not to force it, overdo it. It has to appear natural, effortless, blah, blah, blah…
(note from later in the year: I can’t remember most of this novel already!)
Old School Tobias Wolff
I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.
That passage reminded me of something I read or heard somewhere which said that as a novice writer you almost have to fall under a teacher’s spell.
We boys stand in circles and trade witty remarks, all the while straining to catch what the masters are saying that makes them laugh so easily, so unguardedly. The boy closest to them smiles into his punch glass. He can hear them; he has slipped into their camp and can hear the secret music of these sure and finished men, our masters.
This book has an interesting structure. It is all in first person, all told from the point of view of the student who is expelled, except for the last section which is narrated by the teacher who left the school at the same time as the student. In terms of theme, it deals partly with atonement, which relates (partly also) to my novel. This was a novel that made me want to read all the writers referenced in the text.
Writing is a solitary occupation. Something I have heard but am just coming to understand that it isn’t just because you do it in a room by yourself, but also that you have to retreat from the world into your own head, and it excludes people, they can’t follow you there. Interesting when in a relationship. At her reading at the City Gallery Curtis spoke about how good it was to have a novel in your life, and it is wonderful to have this thing going on all the time, even if it isn’t in front of you on the computer screen.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Upside Down David Ballantyne
In class Damien talked about the opening of stories and how Muriel Spark will often ‘give it away’ on the first page, and that we shouldn’t get hung up on the meticulous drip feeding of information to the reader throughout the text. This is an example of where everything is on the first page, but for some reason we ignore it, it doesn’t sink in until much later. It’s unusual in that the narrator is a murderer, although we are not party to the actual killings. Initially we are on the side of the narrator when suspicion falls on him but as evidence mounts up you become afraid of the narrator, which is really spooky as a reader, like he might leap out of the page and grab you by the throat.
Happy Baby Stephen Elliott
This is structurally interesting. The ending is on page sixteen and it goes back in time and becomes more and more heartbreaking. I felt sad after reading this book. Shocking things told so matter of fact cease to be so shocking, they are how the characters live and, weirdly (because we are talking about screwdrivers-up-the-arse/masturbate-till-you-bleed type stuff), I felt less concerned by the physical than the emotional stuff. This is an example of a set of short stories which form a novel. I tried this reverse method with our False Starts exercise in class. I don’t think it was entirely successful, but it got me thinking.
Radio podcast from Christchurch writer’s festival. A Novel Way to Make a Living, chaired by Owen Marshall. Emily Perkins, Stuart McLean, Paula Morris, Glen Duncan.
I listened to someone interview Alice Munro the other night (it was from a Canadian 2005 festival) where she talked about her stories being in peril at many points of their life. This was echoed by Emily Perkins when she said that her stories were perfect in every way before they were written.
Emily Perkins said she had an idea for a novel and then heard that a film was being made of it and at that point she felt that the story did not belong to her any more and abandoned it. Oh dear.
Stuart McLean talked about how people always say ‘how do you get your ideas’, as if to say that if they could only get a good idea then they would be able to write a good novel. Whereas the idea is actually the easy part. I feel a bit irritated when, if someone asks what I am doing and I say a creative writing course, trying to write a novel, they say ‘there’s a novel in everyone’. It seems to belittle what I am trying to do. But I also have days where I think: there are millions of books, how hard can it be, just get on with it! I thought it would be later in the year before I began having these kinds of internal debates.
I am really enjoying the class exercises. Some people have produced amazing, complete stories.
He talked about his approach to writing the longer poem. He said he used a structure as a machine for them. Interesting.
He also spoke about writing different types of poems, getting outside your comfort zone. I realised that this is what we have been doing in our exercises. I felt it especially this week when we did the dialogue exercise. If there are two characters in the scene it’s easy enough. More and it becomes more challenging. It made me aware of making each character ‘themselves’ and reflecting that in their speech.
A couple of sound bites I’m taking from Damien this week: ‘use the amount of dialogue necessary to unlock the emotional moment’, ‘give everyone the best lines’ and that ‘although dialogue places the pace in ‘real time’ it does the job of time passing because it moves relationships on’. He also talked about thinking who the piece belongs to, because there is a danger of flatness if the reader doesn’t know what to pay attention to. Gold. Learned a lot this week.
I finally got a chance today to watch one of the author videos at the IIML. I chose Grace Paley, and it was a really entertaining hour. She read three stories, two of which I was familiar with, and they were far funnier than I remembered. In the interview that followed she said that she was not, as had been suggested, brave to write the stories she did, but that she felt a ‘pressure’ to write them. Having recently (unwillingly) had time away from the page I felt there was a pressure to write also, (although probably not in the way Grace Paley meant — I just had the urge to write) and surprisingly it was quite a physical reaction of stomach churning, and head filling up, of irritability and anxiousness, that only getting something down seemed to fix.
Another helpful thing she said was that sometimes in her stories she thought ‘what if I give these people another day’. I think she was talking more about the open ended destiny of characters but to me it seemed to reinforce my need to go back in my story and give the characters some more time, in order for the story to go forward in a convincing manner emotionally later. So much for pushing onward, onward, onward. At my most recent meeting with Peter he urged me to sort out the time frame for the inquest sooner rather than later. I know I can plausibly reduce it to three months. He suggested I either need to split Steve and Adele/Ben apart, or draw them together with Steve consciously deciding to withhold his connection to them. Tricky, tricky business, but I’m up for it.
I’m superstitious. Every time I go to the IIML I have to rub Janet Frame’s desk. It’s double duty superstition. On one hand some of her literary genius may have been absorbed into the grain and rub off on me like fairy dust (in time I may wear a section smooth). On the other it is a general ‘touch wood’. I blame my Nan, who passed on a large number of superstitious practices to me.
I’ve become conscious of reading very differently, very consciously, very selfishly. Like, ‘what can I get out of this book, what can this author do for me, what can I learn here’. It’s too terrible to talk about really.
Straight after the workshop I had to rush to the airport to pick up a friend arriving from Singapore. Chris met me there, straight from working in a Miramar garden. As we waited for coffee (in itself a clue that my mental state wasn’t the best, because I don’t often imbibe) he remarked he was the only person in the airport wearing shorts. Anyway, we went down to arrivals. There were a few flights coming in simultaneously. At first we watched the crowd of people waiting for passengers — a young mum with an energetic toddler, a couple of hippies with matching necklaces of golf ball size wooden beads, and a big Maori family. There were two adult women in the Maori group, with eleven children between them. The youngest looked about seven, the oldest eighteen, and they were obviously related.
People started to come out, as if on some fashion runway, and we resisted the urge to applaud. Everyone was so happy; I told Chris that if I ever felt down I would come to arrivals to cheer myself up. (I guess if I was feeling melancholy I could go to departures and wallow). Then, as a Maori guy emerged, three of the cousins jumped up and did an amazing haka. It wasn’t the stock standard Te Rauparaha haka, or the new All Black one. Then they all lined up for a kiss and a hug and a joke. Everyone was smiling and crying, it was obviously a real home-coming. And I had a little cry too. Even Chris, who might usually scoff, was moved. I dried my eyes with the napkin from around my coffee cup, and hoped that not too many people had seen me.
And it was all because of that workshop. Don’t get me wrong — the critique I got was insightful and helpful and not harsh at all. But the intensity of it, of my engagement with it, put me in a weird emotional space — I could have laughed hysterically, or wept, or started a fist fight.
Hanging essay George Orwell
Damien mentioned this piece in class. He was relating how the prisoner isn’t really seen as a human being until he side-steps a puddle on the way to the gallows. The importance of detail. The way he told it gave me shivers. So I looked it up. He didn’t mention the dog! It made me think about our reaction to death, assimilation of it, and our physiological and emotional response to stress. It made me think about the first death I saw in hospital. Not a slow, expected, cancer type death, but a sudden, dramatic, unexpected death which happened despite being in an area of expert care. I remember saying good-bye by to this stranger by holding his feet, and how acutely alive I felt afterward, almost high. I remembered so much about that after reading this.
Mark’s reading programme — point of view
The reading package included a story by Hemingway. I have read and enjoyed Hemingway. He’s more famous for his short stories I think, but sometimes they confuse me, i.e. I don’t get enough ‘telling’ to know what the story is about. I prefer the novels of his I have read. I feel guilty for enjoying his hunting/fishing etc, and I think I might have disliked the man in real life. Reading Hemingway is the closest I get to eating meat.
If you are going to write nothing will stop you and if you are not going to write nothing will make you.
—Alan Garner, interviewed by Sarah Kinson, in The Guardian
True, but some things can slow you down. After the first workshop I wrote nothing for two weeks.
Yesterday we talked about getting curtains for the lounge so we don’t freeze again this winter. We have found a lot of rot in the windows that needs repairing before we can paint them. Our mortgage interest rates have gone up. When we worked out the budget we realised we are screwed. No curtains. As soon as the course finishes I need to get some work. Anyway, what it made me re-realise was the huge sacrifice that Chris is making so I can attend this course. There are only so many hours of daylight a gardener can work in a week. And here I have been for too long, self-indulgently not writing. It made me feel sick with self loathing, like I am really disrespecting him by not working as absolutely hard as I can. I just need to pull my finger out.
Tonight, when I was writing there was thunder and lightning. I pulled the plug from my laptop quicker than you could say ‘power surge’! Also, you know how people say, ‘what would you save in a fire?’ I always have to think — records, photos I guess — but now I know! My memory stick or lap-top with the latest draft on board.
Lavinia Greenlaw at the City Gallery
I was sitting toward the back, but this woman appears almost ageless. I guess it’s the low UV exposure, we Kiwis are so desiccated, or perhaps she has had a particularly tranquil life, the memoir will tell. I loved her embarrassment when Bill Manhire read excerpts from her school reports. Interesting how she said a poem must not be written just because it relates an interesting anecdote. Reminds me of Dora talking about not writing a poem only because it sounds good, it has to mean something. That old moral fiction debate rearing its head. I really enjoyed the discussion about the Arctic and light, how she described her experience of the endless summer as being forcefully pumped full of euphoria, and not conducive to writing. I’m watching the ‘Ice’ series on TV, normally our black and white set doesn’t bother me, but strangely I feel like I’m missing something with this programme (although snow and ice is mostly white — go figure).
Larree’s reading programme — structure
For the last week I’ve had an awful cold. The first time I’ve been really sick for ages (years?). I woke up this morning feeling a bit better, not great, but improved, and amazed at how the body can heal itself, and grateful for general good health. Working in the hospital I used to count that blessing daily, was often inspired by the patients. Anyway I couldn’t help compare myself to Katherine Mansfield (Ha!) who, racked with TB and hacking her lungs up, tapped away, creating lasting masterpieces. What did I do? Lay on the couch chain-sucking lozenges feeling sorry for myself mostly. I dragged myself into class on Wednesday, and actually it was well worth it. Damien was talking about how there is no ‘outsider literature’, that with writing, you really do need to learn all the rules to know how to break them successfully. The package was great, lots of different forms of writing which really got me thinking, maybe not on the level of a novel, but for some short stories. He also talked about how some authors use science, patterns and maths to generate text, and about looking at our existing short stories for a kind of machine to generate others. I like this idea of a story generating machine. I can imagine the infomercial.
Peter’s reading programme — ‘confessional’ writing
After this class I feel reluctant to ever use the terms ‘real’ or ‘truth’ without making those air quotation marks.
We talked a lot about what a text is labelled and how this changes our expectations as a reader when we come to it. Some people felt the reader had more responsibility for deciding what was ‘real’ and what wasn’t, even if it was labelled a memoir or autobiography.
I can buy that memory is slippery, and that different people remember events differently. But I don’t buy that someone can’t remember if they’ve never been to jail versus been to jail for a month, and if the terms of the book are grounded in realism until that point, and it is labelled a memoir I would take it as having happened. Whereas Michael Ondaatje in Running in the Family engages with me on the terms that it has a magical, ‘tall story’ quality, which means I take what is ‘real’ with a large grain of salt, and because I have been set up like that as a reader I do not begrudge it.
We’ve got a two week break, and at the end Peter wants me to email him the first draft of my story. I think I am about ten to fifteen thousand words away from an ending, but what worries me are the copious ‘go back and fix-up’ notes I have made. So I won’t be reading anything except for my own work — over and over — trying to regain perspective, trying to be aware of the reader’s experience in the book. And then it will be time to hand this journal in. So that leads nicely into…
Wrapping it up
A few years ago I went on Outward Bound. Toward the end of the course we wrote a letter to ourselves which was posted to us six months later. It was strange to receive a letter to me, from me — almost like time travel. I plan to revisit this journal in six months, so to any external reader, I apologise for all the personal content.
One of the many interesting things at Outward Bound was noting when each person broke. I broke early — if I could have hitchhiked out of there the first two days I would have. But I think I was lucky because from that point I grew stronger and stronger and happier, whereas some people cracked toward the end. It was good when I cracked on this course, (not so long ago), to be able to think to myself that it was just part of it, and not to give up.
When we sat down to say our final goodbyes at Outward Bound our instructors told us that we had been misinformed, that the course didn’t really end on that day, but began. Corny it may sound, but the experience of that course sustained me when I returned to the ‘real world’ again, and I hope that this, my literary Outward Bound, will have the same effect.
Thank you everyone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Bainbridge lives in Paekakariki. She spent her teenage years hiding her journals only to publish this excerpt on the internet as an adult.