Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Writer's Journal

Okay, I know I promised this for earlier this week, and I know it's been about an entire geological age since my last post, and I'm not going to bore you with excuses (mainly because, trust me, they're dull excuses and in no way blog-worthy) but I'm just going to continue blogging away as though I've been here all along.


So, journals. Or diaries. Or notebooks. Call them whatever you like. Doesn't matter.
What sort of diary would I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious holdall, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself… into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life.
-Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary
This week I lectured on the value of keeping a writing journal. As I've mentioned here before, I expected to feel like something of a phony lecturing on this topic, given that the closest I've come to keeping a writing journal in the 'traditional' sense of the word was a really execrable notebook I kept my jottings in during my first year of uni, which I filled with musings and writing that today could only be described as 'emo' (hey, I was listening to a lot of 'The Cure' at the time) and which I distinctly remember burning in about 1992, much to my own cathartic relief. And I haven't kept anything remotely similar since. So the thought of talking about the importance of journalling to my students was a bit of a downer.

My journals, as I'm pretty certain I've said here before, are notebooks which I dedicate to each specific writing project I'm engaged in. I start with the original idea on the first page, and once the final proofs of that book go off to the publisher, I shut that journal and stick it on the shelf. I've always thought of them as dead documents. As utilitarian and workmanlike and strictly functional. Not 'diaries' or journals in the sense that we would generally think of them. Certainly not personal writing.
But here's the thing - putting together my lecture for this week, I realised how utterly stupid this notion is. Sure, my journals might not be the 'deep old desk' or 'capacious holdall' of Virginia Woolf, but somehow along the way, they've become much more than simple skeletons for my books.

Even aside from the contents, there are lives and histories and memories tied up in all of them, which takes them immediately out of the realm of the utilitarian, and makes them something far more.
Let me introduce you...

Here are a couple of pages from the journal for my first two novels - The Darkness and A New Kind of Dreaming. This journal consists of an account book purchased optimistically, well before the signing of my first book contract, in which I intended to start mapping out my financial future. Within a week, I was sticking things in to it about refugee camps, reconciliation, lighthouses and nautical charts. Making notes about all manner of eclectic ideas and historical events. In the pages of this journal, my first two books came to life, while my chequebook remained horribly unbalanced.

Looking back through this journal takes me right back to the start of my writing career - to a time when I was still a full time high school teacher, and to a period of my life where I was fuelled by a heady combination of ideology, ambition, unrestricted creativity and a really solid understanding of the brilliance of my artistic abilities. Somewhere in the course of the last fifteen years or so, all these things have faded and muted, and while I think (hope!) that nowadays I'm a better writer as a result, the ideas and anger and passion I see in the pages of this old account book makes me really think about why I got into the writing game in the first place.

The journal for Fireshadow is contained within the pages of an old TAR site log book that my father had bought home from work at some point in the distant past. I have no idea what a TAR site is, nor why it needs a logbook. I hope it's not important. This journal has numbered pages and when you open the cover, the first thing you notice is that it begins on page 41. What was written upon those first 40 pages is long since lost to us, but from page 41 on are lists of facts about POW internment, the second world war, Hitler's armies, the Australian bush.

In here are timelines and photographs from both the past and the present, chapter outlines and maps. This journal ends on page 130, with the cryptic note: "Easter Sunday. Resurrection / Redemption" After that point, the book remains resolutely empty.

Oddly, the smallest of my writing journals belongs to the largest of my projects: When I started mapping out the idea for a science fiction short story in another old account book, way back in 1999 I had no idea that it would turn into a trilogy of novels which would take me almost an entire decade to complete.

Perhaps it's because of the speculative nature of the Darklands Trilogy, dwelling so much more in my imaginings of the future than in present or past reality that this journal feels less 'useful' than the others. In fact, the most important function of this book was as a sketchpad, a place for me to draw the physical and imagined worlds about which I was trying to write. To get my head around the perspectives that would reveal themselves to the residents of a city in the sky, or a walled off expanse of desert.

Finally, my journal for Into White Silence which consists of two A4 sized visual diaries, and which travelled with me to Antarctica and back, capturing and mapping as many tiny transient details of six weeks that I spent at Casey station during the summer of 2005/6 . Of all my journals, the first book of this one is probably the closest that I have to a 'traditional' diary - pages of longhand accounting my day-to-day movements and activities. Watercolours of the landscape. Rough sketches of seabirds, transcripts of conversations, and occasionally jotted random thoughts and observations. The second of these two notebooks is more businesslike - in this one is the bones of the book; the bringing together of a vast amount of scientific and historical research, the mapping of the spaces of the story, the calculations of winds and tides and ice movement, the character notes, the chapter summaries.

So there you have it - my journals. All of them I used to think of as being strictly utilitarian or 'workmanlike' documents; set down in whatever came to hand most readily at the time, and used as a kind of foundation for my imagination. After the completion of each book - when the final proofs are checked and finalised and off to the printers, then the journal for that work becomes, in effect, a dead document. I haven't written a word in any of these journals since the completion of the final draft of whatever novel they were concerned with. They serve no useful purpose in my current life, and yet, oddly, when I was recently asked if I'd be willing to donate them to a library archive, I found myself strangely reluctant. Even though they're no longer useful to me, and though there's nothing at all in them that I'd want kept from the public eye, the thought of surrendering them and of no longer having them there - filling a comforting chunk of space on my bookshelves - is an uncomfortable one for me.

And in that, I believe, lies the value of the journal for the writer - even the most practical and functional journal cannot help but provide its author with that 'space to be free' and in providing that service a utilitarian document quickly transmogrifies into a personal one. A quick leaf through any of these notebooks here will reveal a wide range of ideas which, despite having been flung onto the page in the heat of creative passion, never make it past that first enthusiastic jotting to see the light of day in the pages of one of my books. But that doesn't matter, does it.

It's writing them down in the first place that's important. That's what gives journals life.

And which, in turn, gives life to the final book.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's not that you don't all have my utmost respect...

It's just that I seem to have somehow trapped myself in a time vortex, wherein Previously long days are now significantly shorter. There is, however, a good chance of an actual blog post tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

And the Rain Came Tumbling Down...

It's not that I don't love you all, I'm just having a seriously busy couple of weeks at the moment.

Here's a photo from the weekend, though, when I took Toby for a walk. It rained for the best part of 72 hours last weekend, and so when the clouds finally lifted late sunday afternoon, Toby and I hit out for a short stroll. Didn't get very far, though - the waterway in that photo is Gininderra creek, a small trickle which is generally dry at this time of the year, and almost never reaches out much further than the central support of the bridge. When I cycle in to work, I usually go through that underpass. Not at the moment, though.

All in all, it was pretty impressive.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

An introduction to Creative Writing

Over a week between posts. Aaargh. That pretty much sums it up. I'm told there was a weekend some time during the last few days. Can't say that I noticed it.

The reason I've been so utterly neglectful of my blogging responsibilities is largely due to the fact that Uni started this week. Once again our happy little campus is buzzing to the tune of several thousand new uni students all merrily going about their business.

Actually, I like it when the uni comes back to life - somehow it doesn't really feel like a uni during those quiet summer months. Some places are meant to be filled with crowds. And, of course, with the arrival of the students from their summer migration comes the necessity for those of us with offices to start preparing to (gasp! shock! horror!) Teach!

Which is why I've been neglecting my four readers here at Musings... (Sorry Mum, Dad, Imogen and Toby)

I've been writing lectures. Specifically one lecture. Specifically the first lecture in my Introduction to Creative Writing unit. And it's proven a lot more difficult than I'd thought it would. I discussed this briefly last year and the situation hasn't improved since then. I spent a good chunk of my Christmas break pondering the notion of just how you 'introduce' someone to creative writing.

"John, I'd like you to meet creative writing. Creative writing, meet John."

Clearly not.

But still, it's been harder than I thought. Largely because the act of writing is such a difficult idea to pin down to any one motivation or approach. In the end, I opted to just wuss out on the whole thing and took the fifth, metaphorically speaking. Here's a few paragraphs from the introduction to my lecture (which I'm happy to post here, because neither mum, dad, Imogen or Toby is, so far as I know, enrolled in my unit):

Before we get into this too far, a disclaimer:

This unit will not teach you how to be a creative writer.

It will encourage you to take the first steps along the road to developing your own creative writing abilities, and it will hopefully provide you with a few useful skills and tools to help in that regard. It will, with a bit of luck, open the door to some different perspectives and ideas about writing, the act and the art of it, but the one thing it most definitely won't do is turn you from being a 'non-creative writer' into a 'creative writer'. That part of the equation is entirely up to you.

And why won't it? Isn't that what you're paying your HECS for? I'd like to begin by thinking for a few minutes about what precisely we mean by the term 'creative writing' - at first glance, this question seems like a no-brainer. Creative writing is writing stuff down, creatively.

If only it were that simple. But, of course, it isn't. The fact is that for different people, the act of writing is one that will take on different significances. For some, writing is a political act, for some it's therapeutic, for some writing is the driving passion that makes their life worthwhile and for others it’s a demon they'd rather be without.

Since the earliest development of the written word, the act of writing words upon a page (or slate, or wall, or parchment) has been used for the expression of power, of despair, of passion, of rage, of faith, of scepticism, of hatred and of peace.

Your approach to the entire concept of 'creative writing' will depend upon a vast plethora of factors. Within this unit, for example, sitting in this lecture theatre, it should be immediately apparent that we have here a wide range of people: different ages, genders, political persuasions and - naturally - different courses of study. Some of you are enrolled in your bachelor of writing degree, some of you are doing education. There are very possibly journalists, linguists, lawyers, computer programmers, engineers or scholars among our numbers. There will be people for whom this unit is their first taste of university, and some of you who might be returning to university for the fourth or fifth time. Some of you will have already spent years in the workforce, some of you are hoping this degree will be the first step in a long career. Some of you are parents, some of you can't think of anything worse.

And for each of you, the idea of 'creative writing' will doubtless hold different implications;

For some of you, the idea of having to write something down and put it 'out there' is terrifying.
For some of you, it's as natural as breathing.
Some of you want to one day see your name on the front cover of a novel.
Some of you want to write the perfect poem.
Some of you want to write speeches for politicians.
Some of you want to write screenplays.
Some of you will write every spare moment you have.
Some of you will have to lock yourselves in a small room with a non-internet computer and a time delay lock, just to get started.
Some of you are here because you really want to be.
Some of you are here because you really have to be.
It goes on (and on... and on...) but I'm going to leave it there, for the moment. And yes, I know it's a cop out, but it's also, I suspect, the most honest way to approach the subject. Unless you're Monty Python, which I'll leave you with...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Abstract Web-Based Creativity

This is my self portrait, entitled Self Portrait in Orange with Horse, done on the very enjoyable Mr Picasso Head website...

I came across this site while browsing through this excellent website here, to which one of my colleagues referred me. For anyone working in any sort of creative field, it's a veritable treasure trove of what lots of other people have done using the interwebs to express themselves in various forms. I've already found a whole lot of stuff I intend to use during the course of the year, both in my teaching, and for keeping myself switched on and motivated.

Of course, the downside of this site is that I've been here in my office for an hour now, and haven't actually achieved anything from my 'to-do' list.

So I'm going to get to work now.



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