Masterclass with Charlotte Wood
This was a wonderfully stimulating and practical day; I’m going to type up all the pages and pages of notes I took, as a way of fixing it all in my mind more firmly, and reflecting on how it connects with what I’ve been learning this year.
As in the workshop with Stella Duffy, the reality of how difficult it is to make any kind of living from fiction was a problem that Charlotte addressed. Hard as it is to hear, it is liberating to know that many great writers have no guarantee of commercial success. Since, short of schooling oneself to write to the lucrative formulae of romance or crime, there is no clear path to fame and fortune, we might as well write whatever we like best, as beautifully as we can manage. She also reminded us that rejection is part of the writing life, even after you’ve been published previously, and we need to be prepared for it.
I think all the writers who have come to talk with us have discussed the importance of a solid work ethic, and Charlotte emphasised this too. I found her advice down to earth– stop talking about it, head down, and start working. This ‘getting started’ thing is a huge hurdle for me. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about creative projects before I get started, and I think it would be better to find ways into doing the work and letting it unfold in the process.
Someone asked: how do you write a novel when you have no plot and nothing to say? and Charlotte’s reply was brilliant: you can just start with nothing and go from there. She wasn’t being facetious, rather saying that sometimes you might not have the path mapped out in your head before you start, and you do better to write your way into it instead of staring at a blank page. This rings true for me. I have had some stories that I have started writing with quite a lot of the ideas and events sketched out in my head (e.g. Kill Switch, Nostalgia). They might change and evolve a great deal on the way, but I had a concept to write to. Yet other stories have grown out of something small and fleeting, on the page. Cypresses started with the scene in the first paragraph, written as an exercise, and I had no idea who the characters were until I started writing beyond that. ‘Invasion’ began with a few phrases about the weather in Wellington Harbour. Having spent some time staring at a blank page today, I need to remind myself how to just begin, to start with a few words and trust the process to throw up a few more to go on with.
The first stage of the writing process is about getting words poured onto the page, in quantity (aim for 1000 words/day). Then, throw out lots, even half of it. Charlotte had some helpful questions to bring to draft material. Is the writing dead or alive? Whose story is it? You might have to throw out stuff that belongs to the other characters. Remember that throwing out stuff looks hard at first, but it can give your work energy and oxygen.
Charlotte talked about how a place and a premise can be very useful initial things to work from (as she did with The Natural Way of Things). Start with a problem or question – something you don’t understand – and try to figure it out by writing through it. I think this is useful advice to keep in mind, particularly for the scifi genre pieces I have been working on, which need to be more than just making up cool tech. Attempting to grapple with a premise that I find intriguing and unresolved has been very helpful for me in developing the Kill Switch story. I think this will be useful for developing Nostalgia as well; I want to keep grappling with ideas about what it is to be human/synthetic, and human choices and their consequences.
We talked about how losing confidence is a common part of the writing life – I can relate to that even on my micro scale, that each time I come to write a story I can’t write a story, and have no words to write. Charlotte said that with each book, you realise you can’t do the book, and in fact it needs to be the thing you can’t do (if you could already do it then it’s all over). Again, her advice was practical and encouraging. Lower the bar for the early draft – you don’t get anywhere worth going if you can do it in the first draft.
She had some marvellous suggestions about how to access that creative state of flow that is so great when it happens and so elusive some days. According to meta-analysis of creativity research, the most creative state of mind has some simple components:
– positive affect
– slightly elevated energy/excitability
– promotion focus – seeking gain rather than avoiding pain
The converse is that fear and anxiety generate the least creative state for writing. But as science tells us, you can actually change your mental state by acting as if you were in the desired frame of mind; you can fake it! Even though this wasn’t an idea that was new to me, it was so energising to hear it brought into the conversation about the writing process. I find it all too easy to fall into negative habits of pressure and stress, and I need to keep reminding myself that I get to spend my days making shit up – I’m so lucky! I can turn up at my desk acting positive and excited, asking, what’s going to happen today? Curiosity and optimism will get me much further than fear and anxiety. Because, science!
The discussion of working with dark and difficult material was also helpful. Charlotte discussed how writing about violence and misogyny in The Natural Way of Things was hard at times, and in order to make the darkness bearable she had to find some beauty, which in that novel came out of nature. She talked about how women in particular can feel pressure to be nice and not angry. This is certainly an issue for my writing I think.