Anatomy of a Creative Writing MA, Part 3

The third and last core subject promised to be onerous, if not in the same way as the theory component.* I didn’t expect ‘Nonfiction Writing’ to tax my mind with abstruse abstractions. But the two main assignments terrified me: a biographical sketch of a person (living or dead) with a public profile, requiring not just rigorous research but personal interviews; and a piece of travel writing requiring a trip and more interviews. Forgetting my preference for fiction, or financial or physical restrictions, I dreaded the latter more. As an introverted recluse, I’m wary of (1) seeming invasive, and (2) compulsive talkers. To pass the subject, I’d have to deny my own nature.

In the first Nonfiction class we began by practising interview skills. I panicked, not because I’m shy or have something to hide (though I am and I do), but because we had to take notes. I’d broken a finger, so my writing hand was splinted. Then I wound up with the tutor for my impromptu interview subject and learned that they’d ‘got bored with reading fiction’. Really? Had they been consuming too many PC local award-winners? (Yawn!) Not enough cutting-edge lit. from overseas? Isn’t rejecting fiction per se a bit like scorning one’s dreams?†

Our tutor had in fact published a bio of a famous local dead author (could duty-bound study of obsolete novels have killed the pleasures of fiction for them?) and spent much of one class recalling the process – a reality check for aspiring biographers if not much fun for confirmed novelists. Yet, when our turn came to present seminars (worth 20% of our final assessment), the tutor set a timer to limit us to seven minutes each. ‘Wow,’ I said, having been allowed ten minutes in the other classes, ‘this is like a twelve-step meeting.’ The tutor retorted, ‘No, that’s next door.’ I could have pointed out that twelve-step meetings are free (donations optional), you don’t pay $1560 (less 10%) to attend just thirteen of them, or that we were training to be professional writers, not newsreaders. But I didn’t want my seven minutes to be further reduced.

The required texts for this subject were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner, and The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm – three masterpieces dealing in three different ways with killers. And we got to choose a fourth text for a seminar. Garner’s The First Stone, formerly a set text for the course, was my pick. Whether due to Garner’s fame as a novelist, her first-person point of view, or her having changed all names (for legal reasons) except for ‘Helen’, some readers originally mistook the book for fiction. She also split one actor in her drama into six or so different characters. Might The First Stone really be a fiction–nonfiction hybrid?

A precursor to Joe Cinque’s Consolation (though not about murder), TFS reads like a rehearsal for it, test-driving the same basic plot: a man’s life is destroyed by two young, female uni students, neither of whom will talk to Garner to help her write an objective account, so she’s forced to resort to novelistic techniques (and unchallenged personal projections) to develop her characters and thesis. Twice, Garner sits in judgement on the morality and actions of young women. What we get is her passionate opinion. Can I then infer that creative nonfiction should sway readers’ emotions and blur the line between objectivity and subjectivity? Is it uncool to query this? Six months’ exposure to an academic milieu had given me the idea that HG is revered as a national treasure, in much the same sense as is Margaret Atwood in Canada. Among writing students, at least in Sydney and Melbourne, HG may even be the most imitated author (due to high levels of female enrolment?) and, at least superficially, her diaristic style might seem within reach, relying on keen observation of setting and character more than on plot (though her imitators, who seem to get lots of encouragement, can’t hope to rival Garner in the editing, incisiveness and empathy departments). My seven-minute critique of TFS – too short to do its flaws justice – went over about as well as a heresy. I was warming up for the first main assignment.

Luckily the only person I know with a suitably public profile – whose own hilarious, heretical memoirs offer proof that truth is stranger than fiction – was generous enough to open up about deeply personal issues: the subject matter with which I feel most at home. Predictably, my approach left some students unmoved when the class workshopped my first draft – they’d rather have read about my subject’s jamming with Jimi Hendrix and performing poetry with William Burroughs in Paris and Robert Graves in Spain. But that’s old news. I had the scoop on one devastating relationship.

Then, to research the travel piece, I visited a secluded community. Already knowing a few of the residents, I felt less like an intruder. My story focused on group procedure for territorial conflict resolution. The tutor seemed more into this piece than the other, suggesting I extend and seek to publish it, possibly because it raises the issue of environmental sustainability. Yet, unlike my bio subject, whose psychedelically colourful career has long exposed him to misrepresentation and judgement, my key contact in the community seemed uptight re his and its image and privacy. Though maybe that’s wise if you live in a version of paradise…

‘We wander past gardens where pineapples sprout, past trees that bear mangoes, pawpaws, bananas, avocadoes so huge they look like mutants, black sapotes, tamarillos, custard apples, pepinos, cherries, pecans, macadamias, fejoas, mulberries, olives, guavas, dragon fruit, lemons, oranges, limes, cumquats, grapefruits, mandarins, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, bunya nuts, and others whose names I can’t spell, let alone pronounce. One tree is laden with big green fruits shaped like breasts. Though its name eludes X, he says its flesh is yellow with a nutty texture.’

I don’t blame X for my failure to follow through (even if his manner was an unwitting deterrent, perhaps due to a failure to grasp the smallness of the piece’s potential audience?); simply, I saw Nonfiction as a hoop I had to jump through before I could win support for my true love, the whole point of my studies, Fiction.

* In fact, Nonfiction provided a kind of antidote to Theory, a leading agenda of which seemed to be the demotion of realism (if realism = an effect achieved by specific techniques, not a guarantee of factuality).

† One dream that semester summed up my feelings re the nonfiction detour: ‘I’m looking after an animal, a “stray”, but it’s like a cross between a platypus & a dog so it’s some kind of wild animal. And it lives underwater in its natural state so I’ve got it in a bucket in the bathtub. It’s more like [a] platypus to look at but its [sic] got hooves so it must have legs more like a dog…’ All interpretations (Freudian, Jungian or beyond) are welcome. Meanwhile, it’ll do for an analogy. A platypus already looks like a hybrid before you think about crossing it. And ‘the truth’ is already elusive before you begin to novelise it.

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