Thursday 23 May 2013

Becoming a writer by Dorothea Brande

Can you teach creative writing? In the words of Dorothea Brande: "There is a sort of writer's magic... which can, in part, be taught."

Is that true?

I've heard of this book before (published in 1934) but didn't realise until recently that you can now read it online here.

What I really liked about Becoming a writer is that it isn't full of writing exercises (there are a few), but instead it talks about the writing "temperament" - the difference between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and which does what in your writing life, and how you keep them in check or foster them or help them to work together. "Becoming a writer," she declares, "is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer's temperament."

Her solution is that "you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two" - in other words, the conscious and the unconscious mind. I love her reasons for why you should never talk about what you're writing. And here she describes the genesis of a story:

"...the story arises in the unconscious. It then appears, sometimes only vaguely prefigured, at other times astonishingly definite, in the consciousness. There it is scrutinized, pruned, altered, strengthened, made more spectacular or less melodramatic; and is returned into the unconscious for the final synthesis of its elements. After a period of intense activity—which, however, goes on at so deep a level that the author himself occasionally feels he has "forgotten" or "lost" his idea—it once again signals to the conscious that the work of synthesis has been done; and the actual writing of the story begins."

So who was Dorothea Brande? According to Wikipedia, she was a well-respected writer and editor in New York (1893 – 1948.) She also wrote Wake up and live which was made into a musical. Some parts of Becoming a writer, and the overall tone, come across as surprisingly modern. Other parts betray its age ("Now that everyone has his portable typewriter...") But overall it is so readable and full of elegant little gems like this: "the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm."

Friday 17 May 2013

Thank you, Ruth and Bob

Last Wednesday, the Wellington Children's Book Association held an Illustrators' Panel Discussion  featuring Ruth Paul and Bob Kerr. I am in awe of anyone who can write picture books, and doubly in awe of anyone who can both write and illustrate them (like Ruth and Bob).

Ruth gave a talk about the talent myth ("there's hope for all of us!") and her own path towards being a children book illustrator, peppered with wonderful quotes such as "talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There's plenty of movement, but you never know if it's going to be forward, backwards, or sideways" (H. Jackson Brown.) We all learnt more than we knew before about myelin and its role in helping us develop new skills, based on plenty of practice. Ruth also showed us some amazing photographs taken at the week-long illustrators' masterclass she recently attended at Amherst, Boston, where she worked on the drawings for the wee dog in Bad Dog Flash.

Then Bob took us through three of his favourite time-lapse titles, to show how well picture books can capture and express the passing of time. He described these books as "the best app for moving through time - you just turn the page, and there's another decade."

First: Steve Noon's A street through time, that covers 12,000 years, from the Stone Age to modern times:

Next, Virginia Lee Burton's classic The little house

And lastly, Jeannie Baker's Window.

Under Bob's guidance, I'm sure we all noticed things about these three books that we'd never appreciated before. Bob also generously shared with us some of his thoughts and ideas about the project he is currently working on.

Lots of questions afterwards: What was your motivation for becoming a children's book illustrator? How do you keep learning? Do you draw for fun? Do you think all ideas are good ones? (Bob: "some ideas just float away; others won't go away"; Ruth: "your eyes gets better, so you can tell a better idea from a worse one more quickly.")

And Ann Mallinson summed up the general feeling at the end: "Children's picture book writers and illustrators are heroes!" So special thanks to these two local heroes for sharing so much of their knowledge and expertise with us.




Wednesday 1 May 2013

Strange fruit

I've already mentioned this installation by Donna Sarten, currently on display at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts on Queen's Wharf.But now I've been to see it as well, and I loved it.

It consists of 3890 military "dog tags", most of them individually stamped with a soldier's name and ID number, although some are blank because of missing information or to represent those men who, for various reasons, might not want to be identified. Some are cut in half, to show the men who died.

On the other side of the silver dog tags are pictures of red pomegranates. One of the things I liked about this exhibition was learning that the word for pomegranate in French is "pomme grenade", which gives us our word "grenade", perhaps because the two objects - fruit and weapon - are similar shaped. But whereas one contains seeds, the other holds tiny balls of shrapnel. The comparison is even more ironic given that the pomegranate is an ancient symbol of fertility, whereas the grenade is a symbol of suffering and death.

The dog tags are suspended - at approximately but not exactly the same height - by red threads from a meshwork grid near the ceiling.One side is a silver shimmer as it catches the light. On the other side, the red of the pomegranates and the hanging threads remind you of dripping blood, or the tint of a sunset sky, but of rich fruitfulness as well.

Each dog tag stands for an individual (the NZ soldiers who served in Vietnam), but together they make up one big group that nudges you to think of the wider groups beyond these names: the families that sent them and waited for them to return. They also make you ponder on how often disasters and wars are summarised in lists of casualties and combatants, but how people are more than just numbers.

And although I saw it indoors, it has also been shown outdoors, as here at the NZ Sculpture OnShore 2010 exhibition: