WRITING THE ‘OW’ FACTOR
Cate Kennedy discusses the craft of writing fiction with Andrew Macrae
It’s one of those clear, still autumn days and Cate Kennedy has come from her home near Benalla to talk to creative writing students at the University of Melbourne. She has agreed to catch up with me afterwards – I’m told to look for the beat-up red Ford Falcon station wagon in the driveway of the house where she is staying.
Cate has published two collections of poetry and a memoir, as well as Dark Roots, a collection of her award-winning short fiction. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Crime Factory, Meanjin, Island and the Harvard Review. She is currently working on her first novel.
Her stories are quiet and affecting glimpses into the lives of ordinary people dealing with loss and grief and the intricacies of human relationships. She has an eye for those small moments that reveal the things we like to keep hidden.
She is also a creative writing teacher and, in this interview, she talks about the craft and business of being a writer.
In person, Cate is warm and friendly, genuinely interested in finding out about the person asking her questions, and generous with her answers. We sit in the backyard as her two-year-old daughter plays nearby. A cat jumps up on my lap as we talk.
What is a story?
Some people look for the ‘wow’ factor. I look for the ‘ow’ factor. I find myself thinking if a story makes me go ‘ouch’ it must be because it’s got some truth to it.
And truth, or those things that are universal to all of us, I think, are loss and pain. We all collude in them, in hiding.
If a story somehow manages to address those things, to create that visceral response in me as a reader, it stops me in my tracks and makes me think, ‘Yes, that’s my story too’.
So in a way stories are the universal sore spots, the tender spots. And it doesn’t mean to say that humour doesn’t work as well. Some stories are beautifully ironic and beautifully subversive and witty. But we don’t laugh and cry at things that are funny and sad. I think we laugh and cry at things that are true.
Why do you write?
I admire the craft of writing and I want to put my voice in there. Not that I admire my own writing, but I want to see if I can do that thing. It’s like someone listening to music and wanting to learn an instrument.
I remember as a very young person, turning the pages of a picture book and thinking, ‘How did they do that?’ It was always a diagnostic thing for me. My mind seemed to be hard-wired to think about why a story was working for me and how the writing made me feel that way.
So for me it’s trying to put my hat into the ring and exploring just how subtle and beautiful and mysterious that craft is. That’s the pleasure, for me.
It’s such a privilege to be able to sit down all day and think about your inner life and the patterns and the things that are occurring to you. It’s a luxury of time for a start, that we have here in the First World. You’re not having to feed your starving kids. But also whatever you come up with you can write without fear of being imprisoned or ridiculed or your family harassed. So when I feel negative about it, I try to keep that basic perspective, that privilege, in mind.
And it becomes its own reward. I want to share those things I eavesdrop or the little ideas I think could be turned into small insights, turned into a story.
I do think that fiction, narrative, story, gives my life coherence and I know that culturally it gives our society a coherence. I want to spend my time doing something that’s going to make the world more coherent rather than less coherent.
How do you approach writing a story?
I know that I have basic preoccupations that I keep returning to in my writing. Small scenarios occur to me from real life that I think would be really eloquent moments in a small story. And it’s usually a self-revealing action or a Freudian slip or somebody forgetting themselves. Or they’re trapped in some kind of pattern they can’t see clearly, but which seems clear from the listener’s perspective.
But I think the preoccupation I keep reverting to is when I notice people are hiding something, or trying hard to convince themselves of something, particularly when they are under the pump or hard-pressed in some way. I know that when more is at stake people tend to be painted into a corner and therefore you see those truths and things that are usually hidden.
In real life we’re able to keep those things under wraps. When writing a short story you’ve got this amazing opportunity to find the frame, to find the moment where we can look those things in the eye. I want to find the parameters of a small frame that are going to throw light on everything else.
Now I can recognise the potential of those small moments in real life. Sometimes you just see a beautiful, eloquent moment and everything else falls away from it. I write those exchanges down to make sure that somewhere down the track they get woven into something. Now I’ve come to recognise that those small moments are the best things to use, I’m able to just plunge in without actually having a storyline. I just grab the thing that draws my attention and start my story right there. I find the storyline through exploring a character.
Do you work with an outline?
I used to be quite an obsessive plotter. I learned to write the best way, which is sit at the desk and make every mistake that’s possible to make. Someone else’s process isn’t necessarily going to work for you. So I learned by always thinking, ‘I’m not happy with that’ or ‘That rings falsely to me’ or ‘That sounds like really poor dialogue, I’ve got to make that better.’ At first I began to try to work from an outline, to think how my characters were going to get from here to there or how things could be expressed in a scene so we can see what’s going on.
All that stuff is good, but I’ve moved away from that and what I do now is find the key image and try to understand why it’s been floating in my mind, to open up the implications of that image into a narrative. Often it’s two things that stick together in my head and I won’t even know entirely why, but I’ll have to go there because my unconscious has said, ‘These things keep occurring to you together, so pay attention’.
I love that emotional hum between reader and writer and I don’t think it’s an intellectual process at all. I’ve learned to trust imagery better and of late I don’t feel like I get steered off course so much. I’ve got a better hit rate doing things that way than I did plotting outlines.
And maybe that’s a process like learning how to dance, or learning how to do anything. You begin to trust that you can do without your notes. You trust that you’ll be able to fix it up later. You’re not going to lose it. And if you do, you can write another story. Pay more attention to the idea, and it might expose itself in some other story.
Do you edit your work as you go?
I try not to edit as I go. I find I have limited time for my writing and there’s no point me looking at what I’ve done the day before and trying to fix it up because I feel I lose my energy for that piece within an hour, so I make a commitment that I will get to the end of the crap draft and then I will edit.
So I get to the end. Even if it feels like I have totally killed the story dead, I want to get to the end. Because I don’t want to start rewriting until at least I’ve seen what I was struggling to communicate, on that subtext level.
But having said that, I do think that the art is in the redrafting. We have to learn to be our own editors. Often I read stories that seem to be just one good edit away from being perfect, but they’re still not quite there.
I think cutting has been the best teacher – apart from rejection, that is! – because you disassociate yourself a bit from the work. If you’re able to look at something and see if it actually pulls its weight, you get a bit more ruthless and a bit less precious about your own writing. You see it as a piece of work, and if it’s not perfect, you can shrug it off and write something else.
There’s nothing special about being able to put a good sentence together – millions of people can write very well. What’s special is having an intention to make it as crafted as possible, for that sentence to have the precise effect that you really, really want. It’s not exactly perseverance and dedication, it’s a desire to make the reader feel exactly how you want them to feel. So I think editing is a fantastic thing, but I always make a resolution with myself to at least finish a draft before I go back and try to fix it.
How do you go about developing character and voice?
I never really worry any more about plotline because I see plot as just the vehicle the character is travelling in. If you create a character with enough dimension, just one thing has to happen to them. Pick the right thing, and you’re there.
Limitation is a fantastic thing in fiction. A limited point of view is wonderful as a device; when, for example, there’s a first-person narrative talking to us and that character lacks self-insight. For a reader, that is a marvellous experience, to be filling in the insight that the character doesn’t have about themselves.
When we use that old adage of showing not telling, what we’re showing is insight into character that the character doesn’t have about themselves, the stuff they’re trying to keep hidden without realising that they are. That creates a beautiful, vivid and evocative space for the reader to immerse themselves in. Lack of self-insight can be used for great comic effect or dramatic effect, or create poignancy or great suspense.
How do you think about setting and place?
Only by doing as little research as possible! I try to create a world that’s a sensory one that I’m familiar with. I don’t think you can help doing it. I think the conversations you surround yourself with and the sorts of landscapes or worlds that you’re surrounded by just leak in somehow.
I find setting is difficult in a way that creating a character who is not like me is not difficult. I have this fear of anachronism and getting things wrong. The last couple of stories I’ve written have been set pretty much in the landscape that I’m living in, so I can tell I’m taking a few short cuts there!
I’m scared of those people who are going to say, ‘No, this flower doesn’t belong there’. It’s funny, because I know that correction can’t happen with the humans we’re writing about. They can’t disappoint us in that way. There’s no right answer. People can be illogical or they can do stupid, irrational, self-sabotaging things, things that are out of the blue, and they still seem plausible. But if you get the time and place thing wrong, your reader immediately thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t want that to happen so I just try to use familiar things.
Do you have any favourite writing tools?
Making a scrapbook or a notebook is always good. Working from images. I always write down quotes that inspire me, or bits of dialogue that inspire me. It is a bower-birding thing with words, but I’ve also found photos are incredibly evocative or even things I’ve clipped from the newspaper.
And it’s like those things pursue you. I use them when they occur to me again, and I’ll think about it and I’ll wonder why that picture is stuck in my mind. So I definitely use the notebook technique.
The other thing is just keeping your life quiet and not over-stimulated so you get better at paying attention to small things. If you have a huge rush of white noise coming all the time, and it can be anything from your music playing to the white noise of your own inner critic, it’s actually taking away your attention from those small moments.
You need a quiet life, to have the silence to be able to process the stuff you’ve already taken in. We often think we need to research more, but we don’t, because practically everything we need to know is actually already there. It’s the blank page that’s the scary thing, starting is the hard part. So I’d suggest trying to have a bit more quiet space, absorb less, be less stimulated by things, switch off the distractions.
And don’t talk about your work. Just shut up about it and do it. Because talking about it actually takes over from writing it, I think. Like Hemingway says, don’t even think about it too much. Just write it as your primary impetus.
How do you deal with rejection?
Well, it’s a good thing. It teaches you. Rejection is so essential to stop being a writing student and start being a writer because it gives you humility and resilience, which is not the same as ego. Resilience burns away the ego because it makes you question why you are going back to the desk. It makes you question your work better.
As well as resilience and humility, rejection gives you the right kind of diligence, so you’re not going to be too lazy and arrogant about your own work. Because rejection is only about the work, it’s not you. It teaches you to separate yourself from the work.
I think you’ve also got to work out your reasons early for why you’re writing. If you’re doing it to get praise and adulation, your first rejection will make you cry in your room, and give up. And if writing brings you nothing but angst and disappointment and bitterness, go and do lead-lighting or something that’s going to give you gratification.
Rejection says, ‘Okay, you’re not quite there yet, but try this.’ And if you want to be better at writing, you will. So I think it’s great. It’s very good for burning away all those false, ego-driven motivations.
But I’m not going to romanticise rejection too much. Some people say, ‘Stephen King got rejected, J.K. Rowling got rejected, it’s part of my journey towards celebrity and stardom.’ It’s not. Maybe you’re just not as good as you think you are. Maybe that’s the lesson of rejection. You’re just okay at the moment. So I don’t like making it into an illusory thing, I just want to see it for what it is, and work on making the writing better.
What’s the most important piece of advice you were given as a writer?
It was from Ron Pretty. I’d written a book of poetry and I had a big crisis of confidence about my ability. He had chosen five of us for the Five Islands Press New Poets program, and I went to Wollongong for the writing workshop. I read the other four manuscripts, and I thought, ‘Oh fuck, I’m at the wrong workshop.’ I felt like a fraud. My work just seemed to stick out like a sore thumb; it felt like a really amateurish and try-hard attempt, while the others seemed so polished and distilled.
So I went to see him to say I was having real doubts about the book and it was okay by me if he wanted to withdraw it. And he laughed and said, ‘You’ve all come along and told me exactly the same thing!’
His advice was that you’ve just got to find what kind of voice you have and put your feet down on that spot and get on with it. Don’t bother wasting any more time being derivative or trying to sound like Raymond Carver or wondering if you could be more like someone else, because all that is postponing finding the thing you’re good at, which is your own original voice.
He said, ‘Don’t try to curb your voice.’ I’ve never forgotten that advice. Forget about everything else, and concentrate on learning what your voice is. It goes beyond the facility for words, and becomes the stamp which is you, and it tells the story only you can tell.
That takes a lifetime of practising. Not dreaming about yourself as a published writer, but actually sitting there practising.
Andrew Macrae is a speculative fiction writer and editor. He is currently enrolled in a PhD in creative writing at Victoria University. He is as an editorial assistant for Overland.
Cate Kennedy is an award-winning writer who has twice won the Age short-story competition. Her collection Dark Roots (Scribe, 2006) was short-listed in 2007 for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. Cate is also the author of the travel memoir Sing and Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal and the poetry collections Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires.