Top Five: Books for Creative Writing

We all approach writing differently.

Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. James Joyce wrote in a white coat while lying on his stomach in bed. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or complete a piece on a Friday.

Lucky for any Capoteans out there, it’s not Friday. In celebration (the first celebration of ‘it not being Friday’ that I have partaken in), i’ve created the first episode of ‘Scribe Life’ to put some ideas out there about my top books to help with creative writing.

In short, the process is not as simple as being a creative genius who spits out Shakespearean prose daily (or maybe it is for some, but definitely not for me!) It requires brainstorming, editing, revising, and possibly the occasional ripping and throwing of drafts. So why not have some guides handy for when you need help along the way? Whatever I have difficulty with, the five books I have included in the video below offer much needed help when I need it.

 

Credit where credit is due- I’ve listed the books included below:

Image attribution: Old books by David Flores, CC. 2.0

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The Modern Relevance of ‘Kafkaesque’

I recently read a blog about the overuse of the term ‘Kafkaesque’. Before I go into what I believe the pros and cons are of the potential for haphazardly throwing this word around, I’ll offer up the definition;

‘Of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especiallyhaving a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality’- Merriam Webster

‘Marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity’- Dictionary.com

Some things to note:

  1. Dictionary.com also lists the meaning for ‘fortuitous‘ to mean ‘fortunate’- so no confidence there, given that ‘fortuitous’ only implies chance and NOT luck. Merriam Webster also defines this word by ‘luck’ (side note: I almost lost a bet as to the meaning for ‘fortuitous’ due to these definitions- thus, the apparent rage)
  2. There is no definition offered for Kafkaesque (or Orwellian, for that matter) in either the Macquarie or in the Oxford English Dictionary (both of which correctly define ‘fortuitous’, by the way)

Therefore, I believe we have touched on the first con: just because a word is defined on an internet dictionary, doesn’t make it a reliable source.

Merriam Webster also shows that there was a spike in the search for this term in 2016 and 2013. The latter being for Kafka’s 130th birthday and the former due to the reviews of the recent Man Booker prize winning The Vegetarian being frequently described as ‘Kafkaesque’.

Although usage of the word doesn’t generally seem to come from a place of understanding of Kafka (how can it when there’s no reliable definition anyway?) I do believe it gives Kafka a relevance he might not otherwise have had to modern readers. Just as the Stella Prize prompts reviewers and readers to lend greater acknowledgement to female authors, the more a reader likens a popular book to Kafka via review, the more likely they are to turn to him.

Now, full disclosure: I am, to put it lightly, partial to Kafka (my featured photo is my own framed picture of him). So perhaps I simply want him to have the credit he is due? But I also believe that he holds relevance for readers.

Consider A Hunger Artistthe story of a man who’s profession is starving himself, ostensibly for entertainment. Revellers seem to believe that he is secretly seeking food and watch him intently. He ultimately makes his home in a cage in the circus and his former admirers loose interest and choose instead to view the spectacle of the stables nearby. Eventually he is forgotten entirely, starves in his cage and is (spoiler alert) consumed by a panther. At this point, in his final act, spectators finally take notice.

This strikes me as a prevailing theme in popular entertainment. Judy Garland was forced to steal candy bars as a result of being starved so that she could be an acceptable spectacle in the 1930s and 40s, only to eventually be consumed by the same spectacle that had made her famous (most viewers had lost interest as she grew older). Now, in a similar fashion, reality television is a dominant mode of entertainment. Those involved are spectacles of humiliation until they are no longer of interest and, in a final act of humiliation, are discarded for the next star vehicle. This is not to mention that fact that his theme of the alienation of the artist from society has been a recurring theme in literature and film that continues today.

Whatever Kafkaesque might actually be, Kafka is an author who continues to hold relevance today because his metaphors can be carried to the present. I’ve mentioned his relevance without taking into account the spectacle of Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis or the bureaucratic hell that Josef K finds himself in The Trial (which, when it was written was already starkly before its time in the similarities to fascist Germany).

Image attribution: Taken by Jade Thrupp on 5 June 2016 

Bringing Girls to the Front: Trends and Notable Absences

Because we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings’- Riot GRRL manifesto

I have always been interested in music and literature produced by women.

On a side note: something I want to remark early on about absence is the omission of film from that first line. While I’m a verified cinema fangirl, the presence of women in this medium is so disproportionate that I couldn’t really include it. I’m sure any book about films produced by women would be its own sub-genre akin to ‘female serial killers’ (not that I want females to step up to this latter challenge- but you get my point).

Anyway, when I was young, my own predilection for female authors and (i’m going to be honest here) pop stars, included Emily Rodda, J.K Rowling and The Spice Girls.  As I mentioned previously in my blog ‘Creatives and Creative Nonfiction’, I have now graduated (thankfully, with the exception of J.K Rowling- Harry Potter will always have a place on my bookshelf) to Carrie Brownstein and Patti Smith, who currently double as authors and musicians.

This is not to say that I read authors specifically because of their gender but there is something to be said for gravitating towards a recognisable place- even if that place may be remote. As a young, aspiring author/pop star, it was useful for me to know that there was a place for me in this medium, even if it didn’t exactly favour me in a serious way.

So, when I read the essay We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (I’ve also included a link to the related speech), I was inspired to read another feminist essay from 1924 in order to compare the state of female authors 80 years apart. This essay was A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolfe.

There are several noticeable recurring themes between these essays. One such theme, the deflation of women, is expressed by both:

‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller’ (Adiche 2014, p. 27).

‘Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’ (Wolfe 1924, p. 37)

Wolfe also makes a point about the absence of female poets- her argument resounds almost a century on. Almost everywhere I searched for female poets, I found the results disproportionate.

A general google search under ‘great poets‘ will reveal 50 ‘great poets’.

1 in 5 of these were women.

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Great Writers and Poets: Keats, Byron, Donne, Burns, Emily Dickinson, Longfellow, Shelley, Whitman, Wordsworth, Poe  (Photograph taken by Jade Thrupp 5 June 2016)

I understand that the top Google result is not always equivalent to finite truth, so I had a look in some of anthologies in my collection. The anthology in the above photograph exhibits Emily Dickinson, sitting lonely amongst 9 male poets. Another titled The Great Modern Poets (shown in the photograph below), features a photo of a lonely Sylvia Plath among Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot and Robert Frost, and again only 7 of the 50 poets were female.

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The Great Modern Poets (Photograph taken by Jade Thrupp on 5 June 2016)

Google seems to appear generous, given the later statistics.

One of the more recent attempts to combat this is the Stella Prize. With its inception in 2011, it was created to help combat the lack of recognition that female authors receive. The Stella Prize awards women for their contribution to Australian literature in an industry that disproportionately awards and recognises male authors. The Stella Count (a much more sophisticated version of my ‘poet count’ above) compiles data on yearly percentages of the reviews of both male and female authors. The count shows a higher percentage of male reviewers who are more inclined to review male authors and that, when published, these reviews are granted greater prominence.

‘These patterns in Australian reviewing combine to reinforce the perception that books by men are for everyone, while books by women are of interest only to women, and that men’s writing is more deserving of reflection, recognition and review than that of women’. Fay Helfenbaum and Veronica Sullivan- The Stella Count

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Namesake of the Stella Prize: Stella Maria Miles Franklin (Image attribution: Miles Franklin, PD as taken before 1 Jan 1955)

The Stella Count has shown great improvement over the last few years with increase in recognition and review of female authors.  As shown below, my own collection of poetry, also reflects an unfortunate unbalance- and Sylvia is alone, yet again. Hopefully, this trend of absence will find balance over time.

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Lonely Sylvia amongst her male counterparts (Photograph taken by Jade Thrupp on 5 June 2016)

 

Image attribution: ‘Virginia Wolfe in 1902’- attributed to George Charles Beresford on Wikipedia- Public domain mark 1.0

The Unlikely Influence

‘A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper’E.B. White

‘Shut up and Write’, blared a timely and curiously aggressive poster from where I sat eating my lunch. Staring at the angry poster as I sat in my bemused state, it became obscured by a keen photographer intent on absorbing the message. Apparently, I was not the only one for whom the advice seemed pertinent.

I took the advice and began to write for a rapidly approaching deadline. Always a fan of creative writing prompts, I intended to take inspiration from a trailer for the Francis Ford Coppola movie, The Conversation. It’s the kind of seventies trailer where a resonant narrator tells you all about the protagonist and their impending troubles.

At the same time I was also immersed in research of the work of Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser. This turned out to be an unlikely prompt that led to me to write an unconsciously Marxist draft. I won’t go into the piece here (though I will post it when I’m done) but it did highlight some interesting points for me about writers and how they form ideas.

The person I most associate with unconscious ‘ideas’ is David Lynch. If you’ve ever read an interview with David Lynch, you’ll realise that this is somewhat of a buzzword for him (I’ve included a link to one if you want to see for yourself). When discussing how he came up with the idea for the ‘red room’ scene in Twin Peaks, he said that it occurred to him when he touched the roof of a hot car . This would probably sound strange to anyone who hasn’t seen Twin Peaks, far less so for those who have. Here’s a link to the scene if you want to align it with the formulation of his idea.

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Image attribution: ‘David Lynch at the Russian tea room’ by Lauren, CC 2.0

Lynch is in the business of ideas; he has a book called Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity about using transcendental meditation to form ideas and ‘nurture creativity’. While it might seem difficult to get quite so wholeheartedly on board as David Lynch in the notion that ‘Ideas are like fish’ (Lynch 2007, p. 1), it certainly says something about the variety of ways that writers and artists search for inspiration.

I found a more modest response from Neil Gaiman. In an essay on his website, he details the frustration he feels by constantly being asked this question of where his ideas come from, to which he responds ‘out of my head’. While I possibly wouldn’t appreciate this answer if I were someone sincerely looking for an inspirational response, I did appreciate it for the purpose of this exercise and what it said about my unlikely Marxist prompt.

I hated the Louis Althusser readings. They were convoluted and I knew nobody was going to take to his concept like they did to feminism or video games (two extremely popular topics in my class). But somehow this was where my draft ended up- with the alienation of the worker.

There are lots of links/books/articles out there that offer ideas about what to write or how to write. Brain Pickings have excellent articles detailing advice from writers to writers ranging from Zadie Smith (my personal favourite) to Kurt Vonnegut. Ultimately, nothing is going to tell you where to get ideas if they’re not coming- so perhaps we should take the poster’s advice after all, and just ‘shut up and write’.

(Or taking David Lynch’s advice and metaphorically go fishing. Whatever works for you)

 

Photograph by Jade Thrupp, taken 1 June 2016

Creatives and Creative Nonfiction

“I would rather be well-versed about myself than about Cicero” Michel de Montaigne- ‘Of Experience’, 1588

Throughout my time studying creative writing, I have sensed a general undertone of distrust regarding the merits of creative nonfiction. Given the opportunity to write a creative piece, when the offer to present a work of nonfiction is presented, I dubiously look the other way.

My reading habits enforce the same unspoken ideal. Recently, I have been plagued by internal pressure to return to fiction after having read the memoirs Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein and Just Kids by Patti Smith. (‘Fiction!’ my brain insists, ‘Enough dabbling in memoirs’.)

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this industry hasn’t garnered the same prestige with prose writers as fiction. Perhaps because it’s considered easier to write about experience than to conjure whole worlds? But to recount an experience in the way that compels a reader to commit to 200 or more pages of well-crafted prose is a substantial and noble task. Think about the last time you sat across from a droll colleague who insisted on telling a long-winded story about their weekend… need I say more?

Another pervasive attitude may be in the consideration of influence: how can I write great prose unless I am inspired by the likes of Joyce or Kafka?

If Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, is the state of current nonfiction, I can only conclude that this is a genre worth fighting for. I choose to hold her up as an example of what is, in my opinion, inspired creative nonfiction. I do so in the knowledge that, in the process, I fail to address the works of such great nonfiction writers as Primo Levi, Susan Sontag and Michel de Montaigne.

Great prose should influence our reading habits, not genre.

 

 

Photograph by Jade Thrupp, taken 10 April 2016