Thursday, 28 August 2014

Reading and the Writing Process

I went to hear the winners of the New Zealand Book Awards speak at Wellington’s Central Library today. I probably should have stayed at home and kept plugging away at the critical portion of my PhD but the sun was shining and I needed a walk, plus the discussion and celebration of the writers seemed a justifiable study break, I could even chalk my excursion up as PhD related.   Information about the winners can be found here: 

But I don’t want to discuss who got what, but what the winners on the panel - Vincent O’Sullivan, Eleanor Catton, Jill Trevelyan, Jane Ussher and Bruce Ansley - had to say about reading and the writing process.
I recently read Breton Dukes’s short story collection called Empty Bones and Other Stories (VUP 2014) which is a great collection of stories by a very assured writer but my blog post didn’t reflect this.  My writing was lacking enthusiasm, which I knew but I just wanted to get rid of it, and then my blog editor/flatmate/friend/potential My Kitchen Rules cooking partner Denise said it wasn’t my best work and that I shouldn’t post it the way it was.  I sighed heavily, agreed, but couldn’t be bothered changing anything, so the Word file has stayed on my computer for nearly three weeks.  But then I went to the talk today and it got me thinking about the reading you do while you’re in the middle of a writing project.
Vincent O’Sullivan said that every good book you read becomes an influence on your work.  I recently read A. M. Homes’s memoir The Mistress’s Daughter for fun, meaning not PhD related, to discover that Homes’s discussion about identity and family history is relevant to my project.  I first came to know of Homes by watching the podcast of her interview with Paula Morris at the Auckland Writers Festival via Twitter, and thought Homes was so entertaining that I must read her work.  I work at a library, so it’s easy for me to get books on the fly because I’m so often at the library that I can act on my reading impulses before they dwindle.  With watching Homes’s interview and reading her book, I didn’t make a conscious effort to research and find information about family history, but I came to it organically, as if my study/reading instincts are so honed to my project that any whiff of relevance I sniff out, though I’m not really conscious of that at the time, I just think it looks interesting and is worth a dabble.  On a conscious level Homes’s memoir has been added to my annotated bibliography, but for the creative portion of my work I may find her influence in a sentence of paragraph that describes the importance of family history.

Bruce Ansley and Jane Ussher mentioned that for their non-fiction project they didn’t plan who to visit on each coast, but just rocked up and stumbled upon people.  Gathering information for their book was an organic process rather than meticulously planned, which brings me to a comment that Eleanor Catton said about applications for scholarships and/or residencies.   The forms for these applications want so much detail about a project before a writer has any notion where their germ of an idea is going.  The same can be said for PhD applications for Creative Writing that don’t make allowances for the fact that writing is a process  - the idea that you start out with may not be the one you end up with – which may be true of other disciplines too, but more so, I think, for writing.  I had to answer this question for my PhD application:

What do we already know about the topic?  And, what are the key landmark studies or theoretical positions in the topic area and what findings and theories have they generated?

I was researching my family history, I knew very little, but enough to know there was more to know.  PhD panels want a bit more than that, so I ended up talking about literary theory, talking around the project hoping that it would sound academic enough, credible enough, to tick the box and to not dilute the creative ideas that were percolating organically in my head.  While I still think there should be forms, the forms should better reflect the unfolding process of creative writing.
Catton also said that booksellers and libraries have an important role in sharing and transmitting knowledge about books in person (as opposed to via technology).  As someone who works in a library I agree with Catton’s statement, and add that this transferal of information is serendipitous.  I could be processing returns when I see a patron put something on the bench that catches my eye and discuss it with them, and then issue it to myself, and recommend books to patrons that I have enjoyed, or notice are popular.  This organic process has exposed me to a greater range of writers than I had previously read, and enables me to share my knowledge about books.
I read Breton Dukes’s collection because I needed to read a New Zealand book for my blog.  It is a good collection, a very good collection (well, I’m a bit iffy about the novella but the short stories are great).  I would recommend anyone interested in short stories to read the collection, I would suggest it to a library patron, but this enthusiasm didn’t show in my blog post.  I wonder whether this is because I was going against the organic process by ‘having’ to read the book, or maybe it’s a case that its influence will be felt at a later stage when I’m not obsessed with my PhD project.  While I struggled with the self-imposed obligation to read Dukes’s book, I have been reading other things.  Marty Smith’s poetry collection (which won the NZSA First Book: Poetry) is excellent, as is Maria McMillan’s.  I came to their collections by chance, I saw they were talking at Te Papa and I thought it would be interesting.