I’ve had this idea about writing lately that just won’t be stilled. Not wholly my idea (as if they exist) and it’s not limited to, though this review focuses on, writing.
The idea goes like this: perhaps there is something unhealthy about the state of writing today in Melbourne, in Australia, around the world.
Too often it seems our writers, our institutions, our courses and our practices are steeped in introspection, at times, to the neglect of the external world. We are transfixed by the personal, by our own experiences of what it’s like to move through and inhabit this world. Write what you know, we are told. And the only things we know are our experiences and our inner world. Alternatively, we write what no-one knows, as in genre fiction, where the world is imagined.
There seems to be an expectation that readers will be captivated by our experiences and interpretations of life in the world because we, as authors, are ‘creative and special and inspired’.
If we dare to write outside experience, the writing risks becoming artifice or functional writing; absent of mystery, this writing loses the idea that it is art.
I confess, I’m currently a student enrolled in a Melbourne creative writing course. Repeatedly in classes we are told to reflect on our life as a child, on a time we felt happy or wronged, on how we feel about death, on how we felt about death as a child. We are told to explore that feeling and work out in our writing what we’re trying to say, what the world means to us. This is where authenticity in writing comes from, we are told, from an audience seeing the ‘truth’ in the author’s experiences, and appreciating the writerly skill with which they conveyed their joy/ennui/unease.
Where is the writing about ideas? Where are those artists engaging in the enormous world around us? Where are the exercises that say, here are four articles taken from today’s paper, all about Afghanistan – because, yes, there is that much happening there right now – read them, then write? As Ted Genoways said in his oft-quoted article, ‘Young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers’.
This isn’t a call for a return to works of social realism, or for writing to be devoid of experimentation in content or form. It’s about pausing to read the world around us, and then writing what we think when we think about Afghanistan. Strive for the art, but let this be the starting point.
Which is what the following artists did:
1. Van Thanh Rudd’s, ‘Good Morning Afghanistan’.
2. Tom Cho’s Look who’s morphing. One of my favourites of Cho’s stories, ‘Chinese whispers’, isn’t available online so go to your shelf and read it, or go out and purchase a copy. In the meantime, a ‘responsive’ interview with Tom Cho.
3. Any of the stories from Nam Le’s The Boat, especially the title story.
4. Kalinda Ashton’s The danger game.
5. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Where the streets had a name.