Hating Hemingway, Loving the Julias

Well, I’m a week into my Masters of Creative Writing, and one thing I can say with absolute conviction is that it is definitely delivering in the challenging and mind-stimulating departments. I have been well and truly pushed out of my comfort zone with the Week 1 readings which, as well as addressing some interesting fundamentals of book editing, have included Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Aristotle’s Potetics and a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Hills Like White Elephants.

Sophocles and Aristotle don’t really make my socks roll up and down, but you have to be impressed by the fact that they hold academic and narrative theory currency more than two millenia after they were written. But Hemingway?

I’m going to make a risky confession here. I hate Hemingway. For many in the literary world this is the rankest aspostasy, though disparaging Heminway isn’t quite the crime it was a couple of decades ago now that more revisionist attention has been paid to his less-than-PC personal behaviours.

Not so cool, Mr Hemingway …

But here’s the thing – I just don’t like his style. Pundits rave about his simplicty and directness, the pared-back beauty of his unadorned prose, the unimpeded dialogue, blah, blah, blah … Happily, I’m not quite alone in my subversive views. Blogger Rich Siegel says it all for me when describing his experience of reading Hemingway.

“All impenetrable. All boring. All overrated, as far as I’m concerned. Call me a lightweight. But if I want a healthy dose of obfuscation that requires tedious reading and re-reading, there are plenty of planning briefs I can get my hands on.” Yep.

I have also been catapaulted into a re-read of a great classic, Madame Bovary, a copy of which I just happened to have on my bookshelves. What were those 60s cover designers thinking?

Classic cover!

My mission is to consider Flaubert’s master work from a realist perspective, presenting my findings to our Theory and Ceative Writing class on Tuesday (and subsequently producing a 3000 word analytical essay). Watch this space to find out how I handle my first tussle with literary theory in several decades …

It’s been wonderful to immerse myself in student world and I’ve had heaps of nerdy fun setting up notebooks, pens (colour coded of course), email files and archive folders for each of my subjects. For me, studying – whether or not the subject matter is my particular cup of tea – is pure, unadulterated pleasure.

Also eminently pleasureable is meeting writers I admire, and currently being in Adelaide, I’ve been able to sneak in a few hours at Adelaide Writers’ Week, Australia’s largest, longest-running and most prestigious literary festival. I’ve been a regular attendee in the past, but this year there has been the added spice of finding several of the authors from my Masters reading list on the programme so I bustled off with signing copies in hand.

Not on the Masters syllabus, but certainly not to be missed was former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, discussing her second book (co-written with newly appointed WTO head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala). Women and Leadership.

Signing groupies – me and Rachel in action

Julia’s pithy retelling of women’s stories from the frontlines of global political leadership was both fascinating and compelling and I can’t wait to find time to dig into this enticing book. My friend Rachel and I were a bit like starry-eyed groupies as we lined up to meet the great woman.

I also had the chance to hear from Maggie O’Farrell, author of a moving reimagining of the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, Pip Williams who has delighted readers with her feminist telling of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who was spruiking his autobiography, A Bigger Picture.

But my favourite session was with broadcaster, adacemic and very cool woman Julia Baird, who’s book Phosphorescence has sold more than 150,000 copies since it launched at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic in March last year. I love, love, LOVE this book! It’s full of the kind of hope and possibility and optimism in the face of darkness in our world that I hope to be able to capture and convey in my own writing.

Luminous …

I’ve chosen Posphoresence for an assignment in my Professional Editing Course where I will be writing a ‘reader’s report’ on the book, assessing it as though it was an unsolicited manuscript just landed in the letterbox of a prospective publisher. Needless to say, I will be strongly recommending publishing! At the signing, I disclosed to Julia that her book was the subject of Masters students’ deliberations and she was both amused and, I think chuffed. Funny, articulate, humble and insightful – what an author! I’d love to add her to the panel session with Kate Mosse in that future writing festival at which I’m hoping to appear …

Fabulous Julia Biard

The Next Adventure Begins …

It’s been nine long months since I put fingers to the keyboard and bashed out my last post on this blog. Along with millions of others around the world I’ve wrestled with pandemic dislocation and upheaval, along with some challenging circumstances on the personal front. I don’t plan to go into those circumstances in this blog – I mention them only becuase they have propelled me into a new life adventure.

After 15 extraordinary years with World Vision, I made the difficult decision to step away and last week I signed-off from my career in international development with enormously mixed feelings. It’s been a great privilege to belong to this organisation that truly changes the lives of vulnerable children, and the crowning glory has been meeting and working with extraordinary colleagues from around the world.

Global family

I’ve represented the organisation at the UN in New York, delivered training to staff and leaders in more than 40 countries, led local advocacy community consultations, planned campaigns and advocated for child rights in dozens of fora. But it was getting to meet with, learn from and be inspired by the children and communities we served that always really made my socks roll up and down.

Along the way I also had opportunities for flitting mini-adventures and take with me so many incredible memories – hangin’ with the Maasai, whitewater rafting the source of the Nile in Uganda, getting up close and personal with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, making buuz in a yurt in Mongolia, and soaking in the wonders of the immortal Taj Mahal and the truly glorious Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar to name only a few.

Incredible adventures …

My work mates gave me a stupendous send-off with many kind words about the impact that I have made and the legacy I have left. It touches me deeply to feel that I really have achieved, in some small way, what I set out to do – to make a difference. It’s been an incredible journey and I’m filled with gratitude.

So, what’s next?

Of couse it’s writing. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and no matter where my career vicissitudes have taken me my heart keeps on leading me back to pen and paper (OK, or keyboard). So now that life has opened this door of change I’m seizing the moment once and for all and throwing myself at this authorship caper with everything I’ve got.

To kick things off I’ve enrolled in a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. Why study, I hear you ask? I’m fully aware that there is a whole world of debate out there about the merit of studying writing. One school of thought says that either you’ve got writing talent or you haven’t – no amount of studious navel-gazing and can generate genius. These proponents argue that a writing degree is just a very expensive piece of paper and wanna-be writers would simply be better off sitting down at their desks and getting on with it.

Others, obviously including the universities that offer such courses, claim differently. Graduates speak of the benefits of exploring their writing style in a supportive environment, the saluatory nature of structured feedback and the opportunity to learn about the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry.

Since I’ve signed up it’s pretty clear that I’m placing myself in the second camp. Yes, I could just plonk myself at my keyboard and start writing. But I’m looking for ideas and inspiration, for challenges and stretch tasks that will push me out of my comfort zone, and for the mental stimulation and sheer, unadulterated pleasure of studying and learning. I’m also pretty keen on addressing the gaps that I know I have around editing and publishing. Hence the UTS Masters. It’s got a great combination of academic interrogation, flexible creative writing subjects (including novel writing), and those pragmatic topics focused on getting your book into print.

Course enrollment!

So, I retun to this blog with a new purpose. Another year, another writing story. This time my plan is to document my Masters experience and see what conclusions I come to about the merits or otherwise of studying writing. I also intend to have a jolly good crack at bashing out manuscript number two before I’m done. I still haven’t completely given up hope on Under New Management (for new readers, see earlier posts on my literary adventures in France), but I’m deeply cognisant of the fact that authors’ first efforts are rarely the ones that launch their careers. My motto may be a cliché but I’m sticking with it: if at first you dont succeed, try, try again!

To fire up my synapses I’ve just read Stephen’s King’s excellent On Writing, which my dear friend Rachel gave me for my last birthday. I’m ashamed to say it had been gathering dust at the bottom of my ‘to read’ pile, but I guess it was just waiting for the right moment. As you can see from the number of sticky tabs I’ve used as markers there are heaps of writing wisdom nuggets that I plan on applying in this new phase of my work.

Here’s what Stephen has to say on writing courses: “I’m often asked if I think the beginning writer of fiction can benefit from writing classes or seminars. The people who ask are, all too often, looking for a magic bullet or a secret ingredient, neither of which can be found in classrooms or at writing retreats, no matter how enticing the brochures may be. As for myself, I’m doubtful about writing classes, but not entirely against them … Writing seminars and courses do offer at least one undeniable benefit: in them desire to write fiction or poetry is taken seriously. For aspiring writers who have been looked upon with pitying condescension by their friends and relatives this is a wonderful thing … You might not learn the Magic Secrets of Writing (there aren’t any – bummer huh?), but you’ll certainly have a grand time, and grand times are something I’m always in favour of.” Me too!

Stephen also states emphatically that writers learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot. I intend to heed this advice to the full! To this end I’ve been busy this weekend converting my World Vision home office into a writer’s study. Perched in front of me now are my collected works on writing and some other selected inspiration sources. I’ve also made a raid on the local library and am relishing working my way through a fascinating and eclictic pile of reading goodies. Finally, my World Vision colleauges farewelled me with a voucher for Dymocks Books (thanks heaps guys!) and I’m poring over the catalogue and licking my lips in anticipation of uni book purchases.

I hope you, readers old and new, will enjoy this new writing adventure and blogging journey as much as I know I am going to 🙂