On learning to write, and how to love it

Pip SmithPip Smith, 2015 scholarship winner for our Faber Writing Academy Writing a Novel course in Sydney shares what she learned during the course:

Sometimes it feels as if my novel-writing process grinds forward with the speed of shifting tectonic plates. In the same amount of time it took my dog’s ancient ancestors to grow a tail, I have learned what scenes are, and how I have not been writing them. This is probably because I have an alternating suspicion of, and craving for, learning ‘the rules’.

I believe the writing process needs to be mysterious in order to stay thrilling, but I am also hamstrung by ‘not knowing’ during achingly long dry spells. My best writing happens in an urgent fit, and ends the moment I become self-aware. If I’m lucky, it takes about three minutes for my critic to kick in, and then that’s it, that’s my new material written for the day. At this rate, dogs’ tails will evolve into propellers before I finish one paragraph I like.

I have heard writers I admire declare writing can’t be taught. They say the key to writing well is reading well, and that’s that. Full stop, end of story, give up now. This belief seems arrogant to me, not to mention deluded. It borrows from the same antiquated belief in ‘natural genius’ that lead others to believe in the purity of bloodlines, or the divine right of kings. It ignores the privilege of class, gender, or race. It is a belief that protects mystique over technique. It is pessimistic, because it refuses to acknowledge that people can change. And it is lazy, because it denies there is any benefit to hard work.

Even though some of my novel arrived in three mysterious minutes of unselfconscious urgency, the vast majority of it came via a slow process of construction, one which has become increasingly enjoyable. I’ve spent my dedicated writing time over the past six months going to the Faber Writing Academy to hear Kathryn Heyman generously share the rules she has found work for her; or hear classmates talk about discoveries that have helped them move forward with their particular novels. I have spent this time writing, but more time editing, or reading for rules in the novels I love. Gradually the mystery dissolves to reveal technique, but then a new mystery is discovered, and so the process begins again.

At the Faber Writing Academy we did not learn ‘the rules’ and how to triumph over all writing mysteries. We learned to pay attention to what can make successful fiction work. We learned about three act structure. We learned that a novel needs around five turning points. We learned the difference between narrative summary and scene. We learned about secondary characters, and how to make them earn their presence in a novel. We learned how to flash back and forward, how to use white space on the page, how to resolve a scene without letting it dribble away, how to ground memory or flights of fancy in the concrete world of the senses. We learned that our protagonist needs a wound and a weakness, and that these will drive her forward. If a rule ever seemed too neat, too convenient, it was given with a caveat: only use what feels right.

I am a glutton for rules, but absorb them with my inner brat in full force – I am always testing rules for structural integrity, and seeing if I can get away with breaking one or two (or ten). I read for the moments when something that feels true and fresh bubbles up through the cracks in a novel’s tired genre, and so I write for these moments, too. I live in the hope that one day a dog will be born with a propeller instead of a tail. I believe good writing can be taught, but that the rules are always changing, and the learning process is a mad scramble.

When it works, it is because of a rare confluence of events: a lesson’s applicability to a project, a student’s willingness to listen, and their readiness to apply what they have heard. But learning to write is also learning how to pay attention: to what works in a successful piece of fiction, and what, in the world around and beyond you, is worth writing about. There is no better place to make these discoveries than in a room full of people baffled by the same mysteries, illuminated by similar discoveries, all of us sitting on the edge of our seats, thrilled by the wide unknown of a blank page.

Pip Smith’s first poetry collection, Too Close for Comfort (SUP) won the Helen Bell Award in 2013. She is a Faber Writing Academy 2015 Writing a Novel scholarship recipient, has been a co-director of the National Young Writers’ Festival, and is currently a doctoral candidate at UWS.

Applications for our 2016 Writing A Novel courses in Melbourne and Sydney are open, as our scholarship applications, with one place in each city available. We also have a range of other Faber Writing Academy courses in Sydney and Melbourne, from one day up to 3 months, find out more on the Faber Writing Academy website.Faber Writing Academy - do you have a story to tell?

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