Hello! I am delighted to be the guest blogger for Margaret River Press during the month of November, and during a time of a pandemic. For a while I was an earnest blogger with my own blogspot page, but then something happened, writing got in the way. Yes, I only occasionally blog these days because I am too busy writing. That is a very good thing, of course, leading me to admit that one or two of these blogs come from my blogsite. I also want to warn you that I will not again mention the “p” word or talk about the current situation. Call me an ostrich if you like. I will not be offended. I do, after all, hail from the land of the ostriches.
I came to creative writing courses and literary theory late. I had written as a teenager—the usual angst-filled poetry—but my adult life was mostly about working and paying bills, with little time for writing. Then I had children, became a stay-at-home-mum, and suddenly I had some freedom again. I went to writing courses, which gave me both confidence and inspiration, and after that I bumbled along independently—but with no success. I was producing work, but I did not know where to send it, and when I did it was always rejected. Something is missing, I thought. Could it be a creative writing degree? Is this something I should be considering?
At the end of my first undergraduate year, I won my first short story competition. Two years later, I won the university’s undergraduate writing prize. Since then I have been short-listed in numerous competitions and published in numerous literary journals. Whether I can attribute all this to one creative writing degree is debatable, but what I can say with conviction is that university taught me many things, including to be disciplined. I studied how other writers worked. I listened in class. I learned, and I read, and read. I read stuff that I would never ever have read on my own, including things I did not even like, and I am a better writer for it. Later, when I had my degree, and friends phoned to ask me for morning coffee, I declined. I said I was working, and quickly learned not to take offence when they said, “Working? What are you doing?” “Writing,” I said. “Oh, that,” they said.
I will be the first to agree that literary theory can be as dull and tedious as a writer stuck indoors on a rainy day without a computer … But it need not be. With the right teacher, literary theory can speak to you. It did to me. The piece of writing was “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I read it twice before the lecture and did not get it. (I am sometimes slow on the uptake.) So what, I thought, a woman and some wallpaper. The lecturer went into it in depth. She started with Freud and psychoanalysis. Then she moved on to how the narrator discerns a ghostly woman in the sub-pattern of the wallpaper, how the narrator’s quietly going mad, trapped by her domestic life and her marriage, and so forth. I was awe-struck. Oh, I remember thinking, Oh. Hooley-Dooley. Look what you can do with words! It wasn’t the proverbial penny dropping. It was a radiant light shining where before there had been gloom and murk. It had never occurred to me that you could say one thing–in a text—but mean another. That you could hide secret messages within your writing. That, in quoting another literary work within your own, you could reveal the ending. Ian McEwan does several spectacular things in Atonement, and this is one of them. He mentions W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”—about life going on in the face of suffering, and Icarus, the boy who fell from the sky—signalling to the reader that there will be no happy ending to this narrative. Literary devices such as intertextuality, stream of consciousness, the unreliable narrator, and theories such as psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, eco-criticism, all should be learned to appreciate how good writing works. As an aside, I will concede it’s possible that Barthes, Foucault, Woolf et al aren’t relevant to all writers. Commercial writers, for instance. I know at least two who have achieved publishing deals without any background in creative writing courses and, whoo hoo! I say, because they are my friends. But I will still argue that writers are all the better for knowing the nuts and bolts of writing.
Why assume you do not need a degree to be a writer? Why should being a writer be any different from any other career? In today’s writing world, where publication is on knife-edge, book sales are wildly unpredictable, and even publishers can be surprised by what readers want, you need every iota of help you can get. I think it also comes down to this: how badly do you want to be a writer? And not just any writer, but a good writer? If you really want to be that writer, surely you will make it your business to find out everything there is to know about your craft?
Kathy George is a Brisbane-based writer. She has a Master of Fine Arts (Research) from the Queensland University of Technology, and has been published in numerous Australian literary journals, including four times in Margaret River Press short story anthologies. Her Gothic novel Sargasso was shortlisted for the 2020 ASA/Harlequin Commercial Fiction Prize and will be published by Harlequin in 2021.