Learning the art of story during #AcWriMo

 As part of #AcWriMo I scheduled myself in to attend a writing workshop held at work today with Arnold Zable. If you haven’t read any of his works you might want to check out his website and learn more about him at http://www.arnoldzable.com/

 Beginning in academia, he moved into full-time fiction writing and now finds himself back as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He tells us about his early days working with Margaret Mead in America and he rollicks through anecdotes, books, highlighted quotes from articles, all the time drawing us in to the story of him as a writer. With three hours ahead of us and a group of  9 of us, we set out to explore the art of writing with Zable telling us that he faces the same challenges as us, he ‘faces the blank screen or page every day’. He began by asking us about what drew us to the session and when I said that I use narrative in my academic writing, but was also drawn to the session as I like to do creative writing ‘on the side’, he fixed me with a steely gaze and said ‘it should be in the centre’. I was suddenly cast back to watching episodes of The Voice where Seal and fellow coaches argue that if you want to be a singer then there is no alternative, you have no back up plan. I thought again of Pat Goodson’s book where she questions if we describe ourselves as writers or not. Claiming a voice is something that will reoccur as a thought throughout the day.

 Zable begins by talking about the art of storytelling and he reminds us of the quote from Jung ‘We all have a story to tell and the denial of that story leads to despair’. He argues that the heart and soul of storytelling is the art of scene construction, contending that no matter if we write creative fiction, creative non-fiction or academic writing we can apply some of these principles to the construction of our work.  His eyes flicker with intensity as he tells us that storytelling is a sensual art, driven by the imagination and he unpacks the word, focusing on the notion of the image, the building of the sentences through the painting of images with words. He moves on to unpack the word fiction, from the Latin, ficto, meaning to make and to shape. As he says this I wonder why it is that I have not ever thought of the Latin origin of the word before. His passion for story leeches out through every pore, he is at heart a storyteller, peppering his talk about writing with examples from both his and other people’s stories. He reminds us of striking beginnings to stories, picking out Anna Funder’s All that I am as an example “When Hitler came to power, I was in the bath’. He chortles with delight at both the simplicity and genius of that phrasing.

 I’m lost in his soliloquy about writing, soaking in his words and in my brain neurons are zapping and colliding as he speaks. I’m captured by his description of text versus texture, as he talks about the fact that is in writing the specifics that we see the richness of the tale, the specificity of the naming of things makes them live, makes them ‘vibrate’ more. He holds up his writer’s journal, a black journal with red corners, each page written in longhand and illustrates the mix between planning and inspiration. On the left hand side the page is blank, save for a line or two which is planning, on the right hand side is the pure inspiration of writing. In setting out to write a story, he argues that he knows it’s working when the story is leading him, saying ‘All I can do is begin, enter in the journey and in the course of the journey I discover the story’. Every sentence is littered with adjectives, each word is portent with meaning and I am once again reminded about how striking his vocabulary is in evoking images and concepts.

 He prepares us for the first writing exercise by leading us through 4 devices, referring to Tom Wolfe and the new journalism drawing from social realism. The first of these devices is: 1) scene by scene construction; 2) dialogue; 3) point of view; 4) the least understood – the recording of everyday details/ gestures/ styles etc.  Then he sets us our writing task for the day – 20 minutes to create a scene that VIBRATES. As a lead in he regales us with a tale of a year 10 boy who didn’t like writing but liked surfing and the way he encouraged the boy to ‘get inside the wave’. Our mission, should we choose to accept it is to get inside the wave, to have the courage to begin with the narrative.

 The time passes quickly and inky black words sketch across the page. At times, it feels like my hand is moving independently of my brain and as I write a piece that is associated with many emotions, I feel my heart pounding as if I am reliving the moment, transported back I can feel the moment I’m writing about thrumming through my veins. The 20 minutes is up and he looks at as all inviting us to share what we’ve written. Others begin and I sit quietly, my pulse quickening each time his eyes glance my way as he asks for a new volunteer. Soon I read mine. Voice quavering somewhat, I move through the piece I’ve written, feeling stripped back and bare in ways that I haven’t experienced for quite some time. The academic writing process can remove you from some of this immediacy. You write, you refine, you send off. You wait. You get an email with a response, with feedback, with suggestions, with a rejection. The immediacy is lost. Here in this room, with Arnold Zable sitting before me, there is immediate feedback and he begins to unpick and unpack what I’ve written. My breath catches in my throat and I am frozen, waiting for his reading of the work. He asks me to re-read words and expressions, he talks about my shifting of narrative viewpoint and the impact that has on the work. He asks me questions about the characters and I begin to breathe, reassured that he doesn’t think it is a complete disaster. He is both a patient storyteller and a patient teacher, drawing each of us out he encourages us to follow our stories, he mutters words of encouragement, picking out the phrases that are striking, the devices we have incorporated into our work. In this moment, he sweeps us all along with him, and all at once, we all feel like writers.

 Others read their work, and at times, I’m fiercely jealous, wishing I could have used that turn of phrase, or noticed that piece of detail. I think I rush to conclusions, not building the tension, not reveling in the specifics enough and I wonder if my academic writing suffers from the same shortcomings. I leave the workshop, my head spinning with ideas, plotting ways I can take today’s learning and build it into my work, about the ways I can capture the truth of the stories I tell in my research. I am reminded of the need to work at the craft of writing, Zable’s notebooks, bound collections of works about writing, his knowledge of other writers and their style all reinforce the work of good writers, the dedication and the focus. Here in #AcWriMo, I’m seeing the benefits of this message, of the setting aside to practice my craft and to continue the work of being a writer.

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