On the 1st of November, in what is becoming an annual tradition, Westerly welcomed the participants in our Writers’ Development Program 2018 to the University of Western Australia for a three-hour workshop with respected local author Susan Midalia. The WDP 2018 participants include Nicole David, Kyle Orton, Andrew Sutherland and Michelle Symes.
Here, Susan introduces some of the writing from that day, which is a credit to her skilful guidance and her passion for beautiful writing. We know readers will be impressed with what these lively and intelligent emerging writers produced. And we eagerly look forward to publishing their work in print and online in 2019!
It was such a pleasure to work on this day with young writers who are committed to their craft, read widely and often, are open to different ways of thinking, and supportive of one another’s endeavours. At the outset of the workshop, I stressed the fact that although the writers were working in different genres, what united them, and what the workshop would focus on, was the pleasure of using evocative, incisive and engaging language. I also stressed that the language didn’t need to be embellished or ‘poetic’; that sometimes plain or spare language, artfully deployed, could create interesting and pleasing effects. This focus on language made for an intense but joyful experience in using the imagination, and writing free from inhibition and fear of judgement.
I gave the writers a series of writing prompts—you’ll see from the sample exercises below that they involved different aspects of creative writing—and then asked them to read their work aloud to the group if they were ‘reasonably’ happy with their efforts. They understood that creative writing usually doesn’t happen instantaneously, but takes time, and is the product of hard thinking about one’s creative choices. Nevertheless, and graciously, they were keen to share their writing-on-the-spot with the group, and were always receptive to feedback from me and the other writers.
Some of the spontaneous responses from Nicole, Kyle and Andrew are printed below. You’ll see that they are uniformly deft and inventive, and take pleasure in the capacity of language to variously confront, enthral and surprise, to nudge us into different ways of seeing and being in the world. I was—to use that adolescent but exhilarating word—gobsmacked by the quality of their writing. We’ve chosen to publish their unedited versions so that you too can share the pleasure of what they were able to produce in a short space of time. Watch out for these wonderful writers: they’ll be coming your way soon!
Susan Midalia, December 2018
This exercise used an extract of stream-of-consciousness writing, from Janet Frame’s novel Faces in the Water. Making extensive use of metaphor and imagery, and drawing on the musical properties of language, Frame writes about her harrowing experience of being confined in a mental institution. It begins: ‘I will write about the season of peril’. The writers in the workshop were asked to use Frame’s writing as a model, beginning with ‘I will write about the season of’, to evoke a particular experience and state of mind.
I will write about the season of constant return. Scandinavian winters in equatorial tropics, where each night takes three days or more: dim with the brightest clouds, and I was more sweat than body, but I learnt to win at daidee to surprise the couples (always the ace up my sleeve); fucked my way through at-home Cantopop karaoke and promised the morning never again while knowing I could lie my way into ceramic shape, like the chipped old statue of Guanyin on the bookcase whose face I turned away while I thought about never coming back. Still the season that sprinkles me in pollen every year when I remind myself of the day the Peter Pan fetishists had the nerve to say I’d gotten old. I’ve started to forget the rules of daidee but I remember that the state of constant return bears no resemblance to anything that is meant to feel like an addiction.
I will write about the season of freedom. Of running for trains in too-thin clothes, fraternising with strangers, changing my name in each city, and stowing croissants from the breakfast buffet into my backpack. I rolled my sleeping bag to the size of a small domestic cat and shoved unfolded summer dresses into plastic bags worn to crinkled silk. Nobody noticed. Nobody demanded. Nobody cared. I walked barefoot on glass and did no laundry for six weeks. I trekked kilometres through museums and sat in front of a Cezanne for three hours, thinking of the orange trees in my grandmother’s garden, but only for a moment. I ate snails and tiramisu and paella all on the same day and I slept five nights on a beach under a constellation I couldn’t name.
I will write about the season of our joy, the spring in which we married and quickly condemned the witnesses to the tombs of our devotion. Your first oyster was to become mine, eaten half chewed and wine soaked from your bread knife, another of the things you gave that I made mine and would hide inside my coat and give you back in trades of the this and that fruit of my more experienced ideas of love.
We would sleep when sleep was needed, then and never otherwise, afraid to close our eyes at all but for blinking ourselves into bed. Now afraid I put my fingers in my mouth before bedtime searching for ulcers or loose teeth while you brag about the succulents and the garden we have brought upon ourselves. A quarter acre to plant and grow love and be damned if any deflect of the flesh will take this from me. I stand at our parapet, I will load the guns for us tonight.
The following was an exercise in metaphor, in which the writers were asked to write a short poem using a series of random words. The only requirement was that none of those words should be used literally. They were encouraged to be playful, to feel free to be as weird and whacky as they liked.
The words to be used were:
mustard, piano, elastic, moat, notorious
Or, if that didn’t spark the imagination:
dimple, horseradish, blue, slow, moonlight
a moat of silence, elastic
far edges flaking like dried mustard
notoriously slow burning
like the Moonlight Sonata
dimpling a blue piano
you & I into the bed clothes
we cast our horseradish
limbs at the drapes
let’s whisper our slow blue truths
into the bathwater
This exercise entailed writing a four-line poem that used the template of one of the following. It entailed using language that was at once concise and resonant, suggesting much more than the relatively few words on the page. It was also an exercise in using line breaks and spaces.
‘I am… / I am not’
‘I used to be… / But now I’m’
‘I know a lot about… / I know nothing about’
‘If you… / Then I’ll’
If you pet me like a kitten, then
I’ll hump you like a dog—and
if you finally learn to bark
I’ll stop. — Sorry.
The writers were asked to choose a colour, and using the following template, to suggest the reason(s) for their choice. Another exercise in using metaphor.
I am violet
with the kind of rage that makes men say,
‘you are so cute’, before the colour snaps.
This exercise involved the creation of a character in three sentences. This was another exercise in the art of suggestion; the only instruction I gave was not to tell the reader what to think about the character. (I should make it clear, however, that I don’t subscribe to the mantra that a writer must always ‘show’, not ‘tell’. ‘Telling’ is perfectly permissible, as long as the writer doesn’t preach or condescend to the reader, and that what she/he has to say is worth the telling.)
The first sentence in this exercise describes what the character sees in her/his reflection as she/he stood in front of a mirror.
The second sentence: the character’s spoken response to her/his reflection.
Third sentence: a gesture or action from the character, in response to the above.
The cut was too short and the colour too brassy.
‘He’s going to hate it,’ she said.
She poked out her tongue and raised a middle finger to her reflection, then sashayed off down the hall to put the chicken on.
Westerly is very grateful for the support of the Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency and the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, which makes it possible for us to offer this program on a ongoing basis.