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Writers and Readers

kerouac-burroughs

A good writing group can be crucial to a writer. We might prefer the more heroic image of the writer building an empire with his/her own hands. But the act of writing is one of the most fundamentally communal processes a person can involve themselves in.

If you’ve ever read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol or Chekhov, you’ll know there’s a constant reference to what it means to be Russian, and that there’s a dialogue between all of these writers regarding that idea. If they were looking to understand what a modern national character might mean for them in their day, they were also asking each other for better ways to understand the human experience. All of these men were of that empire building heroic tradition, but from Pushkin onwards, this communal sense of a greater literary project fuelled them. It’s amazing how little was accomplished before Pushkin and this sense of a literary community.

The Beats are another example of a group of writers who took upon themselves a set of literary/social values and crafted a new literary movement. It’s easy to get caught up in the mythology that arose afterwards, but I love the early black & whites of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg, captured in the midst of talking about what they were doing. Workshopping their ideas before they turned into social artefacts like Junkie, On the Road, and Howl.

I can’t say I see any comparable movements in Australian literature, but as much as what we do is composed of singular acts, there is a communal environment within which they are collected and shared. These communal spheres open up in various ways throughout the literary landscape. Much of it will find connections on the internet through blogs and blogging forums, and will continue to stretch out, in any and all available directions. Connecting and disconnecting, generating communal clusters ceaselessly.

I was recently a part of the reviewing team for the Overload festival and it was interesting to see how the poets of Melbourne had created their own connections. Well respected poets, who’d headlined the night before, climbed the stage on another night, among the many unknown poets of the open section. Poetry found its final drafts on stage before peers. A slam might encourage heckling. Feedback could come over glasses of wine later, or as a response on a stage, a week afterwards. The purest example of communication and response you’re likely to come across, and the most dynamic community I’ve ever seen.

The most basic communal unit is the writing group. You might not be able to find a Chekhov or Ginsberg to share your work with, but there’s still this crucial aspect of communication we need to be involved with. Of course it need not be formalised as an official group, but then there’s something to be said for presenting your writing to readers who aren’t your friends. Who will only know you in the way a reader will.

That might sound basic, but how often do you read a convoluted piece of prose that seems to have no justification for its existence outside of proving the author can string together a few lovely images? How often does the message get presented as a lifeless specimen of logic, functioning to inform us that the required research has been done? Even with established writers, you might feel a gradual disconnect, as their work becomes less aware of the reader; more and more self involved and self referential. There are so many ways for writing to drift away from its target, there’s a need for constant calibration that comes only through getting a variety of responses to your writing.

Robert Giroux wrote of Flannery O’Connor, that when he first met her, he couldn’t understand her Georgian accent, so he got her to write down what she’d just said. It read, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s workshop?” Giroux described this giant of American short story writers in those early days: ‘Flannery always had a flexible and objective view of her own writing, constantly revising, and in every case improving. The will to be a writer was adamant; nothing could resist it, not even her own sensibility about her own work. Cut, alter, try it again…’

Not all writing groups are the same of course. In their most basic form, they are support groups for people who don’t really have the time or energy to rigorously practise the craft at a high level. Whatever their ambitions, sharing words can be rewarding, even if it doesn’t lead to publication. Other writing groups can form vanity gatherings in which writers primp and preen each other’s delicate word embroidered egos. Solid working groups of writers do exist of course, and sometimes bring unbelievable commitment and care to each other’s work. It’s about as difficult to find one of those as a great band if you’re a musician, but it’s worth the search.

I attended the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards on Thursday night, and was a little surprised to find that among the shortlisted writers, there were two other writers of a writing group I was a part of a little while ago. I began thinking that perhaps it was something about the group we had formed, but actually, I think that the most important factor in the development of writers is simply this willingness to commit your work to the thoughts and feelings of other writers. This innate understanding of the communal nature of literature and the responsiveness that comes from genuinely listening to our readers.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

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Comments

  1. Interesting post Alec. I’d like to make a few points:
    Developing that tough skin to accept critique takes practice. But at the same time there is a fine line between listening to feedback and taking that feedback on board. Sometimes I find I listen to people TOO much and make too many changes based on the feedback. This skill – to know what needs changing – is really hard..

    Also, I find it really hard to workshop my novel. I prefer to give my book to someone to read and having a discussion about it(I’ve done this a few times). It can help a little to workshop small sections, but if you want feedback on plot, structure, pace, you can’t get it workshopping bits and pieces.

    Finally, if you find a writer that you work well with you should hold onto them tight – they are hard to come by.

  2. Melbourne is actually pretty good in Australian terms for writers groups/working communities of artists. I’m not only pretty familiar with the poetry community now, but I’ve also been fairly involved in the blogging scene for some time. Although things are pretty quiet, blogging wise, at the moment, there are generally a few meet ups every year.

    In world terms Australian writing communities are often smaller, owing to obvious demographic reasons – distances, lower population, etc. Being one of Australia’s largest urban communities Melbourne manages to overcome these problems pretty easily. I’m not quite sure why Melbourne should be more successful in these terms over other capital cities or even large non-capital cities (like Newcastle), but at a guess I’d say it’s because Melbourne has one of the oldest and therefore most established cultures in Australia, and people here generally seem to be more open minded about such things.

    Money seems to help! Most of the poets and bloggers I’ve met are full-time employed or self-employed and just like toddling along to the pub or cafe once a week to get their writing fix. (I’m in that category myself.) For some reason the open and friendly environment of bars and pubs seem much more congenial to writing than public libraries and the like.

  3. Hi Alec,

    I agree wholeheartedly that community is essential to the development of all writers and all forms of writing. Without community the art and artists wither. I was there for a small part of Overload and the place was buzzing. Artist and audience coming together as one, the dialogue, poetry in all its heady forms. Festivals are indeed an important part of community building, providing a gathering point for many of the smaller communities to come together. To unite.

    With regards to not seeing any comparable groups to The Beats, well a comparison like that has its immediate flaws. Socially it was a very different time, and let’s face it that revolution has been and gone and for mine has left us richer. But as my wife often reminds me, it’s no use looking back and trying to recreate what has alreday gone before us. The future is waiting to be created and all over the world there are people meeting, discussing social/literary values, critiquing poems & prose, turning each other on to new works and generating new literature. It may not be gathering the mass media that The Beats drew, but it is happening with the same passion and force. Brisbane is alive with it, and I am happy to be circling in the midst of it all.

    Graham

  4. Are there any writing groups or ways of getting in touch with writing groups in Melbourne that anyone could recommend?

  5. - It’s one of the hardest things to do, Korally. No question. Putting your work before someone else’s judgment feels catastrophic. But it’s a bit like wanting to be a pilot and saying you’re afraid of heights. I reckon your own judgment has to be paramount when it comes to assessing feedback. The main thing is the feedback comes from sincerity. You know when people are bullshitting you.

    It’s almost impossible to get someone to read a whole novel and give you feedback for it. Yet it’s the work that needs it most. There are manuscript appraisal services that are valuable; though costly. Some writers are fortunate enough to have been able to find people that will read their work, even whole novels. Most of the time it’ll be another writer who’s got a novel they’d like you to read in return.

    – Enigmatic as always Paul. I wish you’d enlighten me.

    – Melbourne does seem a pretty awesome city Tim. Some say Sydney is the financial capital, Canberra the political, so it leaves it to us to be some kind of cultural big top. I haven’t travelled enough to talk about the rest of the country, but I reckon all kinds of communities are formed around words, though the ones we’re going to hear about here, are those of a particular literary/poetic fashion. There might very well be another Banjo out there, but would we still publish The Man From Snowy River, if it just turned up today?

    – It’s great to hear about Brisbane, Graham. Seems like there’s a strong sense of community developing over there, and I know you’re an important part of that. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing in that regard.

    I can’t say I read the Beats any more either. I still love the ‘idea’ of them though, and those Russian writers as well. Compare books like, Breath, Ransom, The Slap, Parrot and Olivier, and The Lieutenant. It speaks to the diversity, and virtuosity, of Australian literature certainly, but what era are these guys writing in? Clearly Tsiolkas is grappling with current Aussie culture, but wouldn’t it be inspirational if the heavy hitters of Australian literature got into the same ring.

    When our authors write for agents, publishers and the reading public, they can produce ‘masterpieces of enduring value.’ But when they write for other writers they create new culture and change the way we conceive of ourselves. Of course, that might not be necessary. Especially if you think the world can keep going on in the same direction indefinitely.

    The Beats were a response to a hardwired capitalist corporate empire building mentality. They ushered in a counterculture, not because it was hip, but because the world was moving towards a meltdown.

    The Russians were embarked on a project of social evolution which was desperately trying to determine how humanity might free itself from the nightmare of its own history. In one literary magazine, Dostoyevsky published the first part of Crime and Punishment, and in the next issue, Tolstoy published the first part of War and Peace. They went on like that until those two epic novels were finished.

    Both looked at Napoleon and the intrusion of the monumental Ego, the complications of freedom and the force of history. They reached vastly different conclusions, but it’s the readers of that literary magazine that benefitted most from their engagement with each other. And, I guess, those of us that continue to read them and still find these questions pertinent.

    I suppose what it comes down to, is being a bit of an idealist and thinking that writing can also have a social mission. Not in terms of preaching or dreaming up a utopia, but being culturally engaged and having a stake in the future. And the only way we can really do that is through the spirit of literary community, that I know you also believe in Graham. So it’s great to talk with you in forums like this one.

    – Check out the Victorian Writers Centre, Scott. Indispensable in so many ways. They have great newsletters, but you can also call them. That’s how I found that great writing group I was a part of a little while ago.

  6. The Beats are just one example of the beauty of Modernism, inspiring distinct poetic movements – before the chaos of the current day screwed everything up (in my humble opinion). I have to agree with Graham, you can’t compare movements like the Imagists, Vorticism, New York School poets, etc. with even the most dedicated local writers group of the current day. The manifestos and subsequent publications that came out of these important movements changed everything about the way poetry was written. They delivered free verse to us after centuries of scattered experimentation.

    I do agree, though, that it’s important to get comfortable with sharing drafts with peers as early as possible in a writing career. Yes, you fall into the trap of taking on the wrong feedback, and then you work out how to avoid that. It’s a worthwhile process, and much less stressful than if the first person to see the work is a potential publisher.

  7. I think ‘movements’ are on their way up in Australian poetry. The ‘slam’ is a movement in itself, rapidly gathering as it rolls. I don’t see such collaboration and collegiacy (not a word but you know what I mean) amongst novelists or journalists so much.

    Just recently I read a poem which quite clearly imitates my style of delivery, aggression and punctuation. It so evidently borrows from my work that several people brought it to my attention before I read the poem. We shouldn’t forget either that there’s a fine line between the mutual movement of likeminded and like abilitied people (like the Beats) and odd appropriation.

    In my time writing there’ve been maybe five writers (& editors) I’ve been able to get useful feedback from. I’ve clung to them for dear life.

  8. The argument about movements is a really interesting one and crucial to the development of the magazine scene in Australia. If you look at the modernist little magazines in their heyday, each one has its own manifesto, outlining what it stands for both politically and aesthetically. Blast, for instance, used to run a column listing the people it wanted to ‘bless’ and those it wanted to ‘blast’.
    Today, by contrast, it’s actually quite difficult to know what particular projects the journals are committed to.

  9. Exactly right, Jeff. The major journals in Australia have been around for long enough that they adapt to current day standards – rather than being driven by one set of strong creative-writing edicts. That’s the price of longevity. By contrast, Blast lasted all of 2 (yes??) editions, but it had such a strong, unique voice it’s a modernism icon.

  10. It’s partly about longevity but it’s not solely about it.
    Overland has a clear political agenda but its aesthetic project is much less easily articulated. For several decades, however, it was explicitly associated with social realism — a slightly watered down version of the aesthetic project developed by the communist movement in the mid-thirties. Thus OL was, for a long time, explicitly hostile to modernism.
    Social realism collapsed because of a number of factors. Firstly, experience itself showed how problematic it was, since, by the early seventies, so much of the most interesting writing was non or anti realist. Secondly, the Old Left itself went into decline and so could no longer enforce its aesthetics.
    Since then, it’s been much harder to point to a particular political project for left-wing writers in Australia. Ian Syson made an interesting attempt to revive some elements of social realism around the grunge writers in the nineties and, while I think it was kinda flawed, it did give you a flavour of how powerful the articulation of some kind of shared project could be, since the discussions around grunge and its politics were incredibly impassioned and lively.
    But that fell away as grunge itself fell apart.
    Today, I think it’s really hard to identify any shared aesthetic between Australian writers who identify with the Left. And that’s a problem.

  11. Jeff, this is sadly true. I would say that I align myself with the left and it was comforting when Overland held their master class that I got to meet other writers with similar themes through their writing. While the connections with those writers still remain, the “movement” of the class has frizzled out. A project where writers can meet on an ongoing basis to discuss political ideas in their writing would be a great place to start. I also see this blog and the journal as a sort of “movement” but agree that it could almost be ramped up to a new level.

  12. The masterclass wasn’t any kind of movement though – nor do I think it was intended to be, was it? It was an interesting idea, great fun, and hopefully a seed for the future, but nothing which requires a submission process and a pre-selected group could be anywhere near an organic movement.

    I think the key issue in Jeff’s comment is that of a ‘shared aesthetic’. What is a ‘left wing writer’? I’ve met many ‘self-declared’ left-wing writers who, on taking a closer look, don’t appear to be writing from any kind of political, or social commentary standpoint or with any progressive aims or visions at all. They are writers, who happen to have left wing political leanings. This does not make their writing ‘left wing’.

    Re the literary journal thing: my F-I-L has been a subscriber to Overland since way, way back…I think maybe even since the beginning. His study contains old hardback volumes of Overland. There isn’t a copy missing. Interestingly, while he thinks Overland lost it’s footing for a good decade, he says the last three issues look more like there is a more solid political alignment. Except for the poetry section.

  13. No, sorry it wasn’t, but it was trying to at least inspire some sort of change, or collaboration with progressive writers, a space for them to come together. We need more of this, I think.

  14. It’s still interesting to think about that Overland Master Class for Progressive Writers. Months have passed since we spent a weekend at Trades Hall. But us three, Koraly and Maxine, talking here is a testament to at least some kind of connection made. I wouldn’t be blogging at all, let alone making comments here, if it wasn’t for meeting people like Simonne Michelle-Wells, Angela Meyer and Ms Clarke. That Master Class was a brilliant initiative and what it’s generated is still yet to be seen.

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