Is writing fiction a political act?

“…our stories influence what we see and what we believe is possible or impossible in the world.” – Ethan Miller

My post last week was a response to events in Australian politics that I found exasperating. The political circus continued to get my goat so much I wrote a letter to The Age. unspecifiedMy week of political writing got me thinking about the role of fiction in relation to politics.

When we consider politics and writing we generally think of journalists. If a journalist fabricates content it is a betrayal of public trust, but making stuff up is the very purpose of creative fiction so does it have a role in politics? Is there such a thing as fiction that is not political? Is writing fiction a political act?

Many say they are not political (or not interested in politics), but the sociopolitical environment in which we reside shapes our entire lives. Politics determines the haves and have-nots.  It tells us who’s experience is legitimate. For example governments determine whether IMG_4092medical facilities exist to ensure we survive childbirth, dictates if we get the opportunity to learn to write at all, the price of milk, who we can and cannot love, and the type of death we can have. Our very existence is enmeshed in, and shaped by the political environment(s) we live in and are exposed to.

Work of the creative imagination, be it fiction, poetry, art or drama, is shaped by our own experience and our views of the world – in other words our own sociopolitical lens. The world shapes us, and then as writers we try to shape the world. We question or bend reality, invent new worlds and invite readers to consider a new perspective. To understand the other. We pick out themes and create personalities that we sew together into a plot to show, magnify or transform how a particular set of circumstances can impact on the world now, or in the future.

What reader would not be able to name a book that had a significant influence on their lives? Writers, story tellers and poets have been holding a mirror up to reality for centuries. They often say what would otherwise be considered unsay-able in public.

The threat writers pose is evident when we study the history of censured, banned or IMG_4359burned books. Examples of fiction works that have been subject to some kind of censorship or ban at one time or another include Dr Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catch-22, The Da Vinci Code, Doctor Zhivago, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Satanic Verses, Sophie’s Choice, The Well of Loneliness and Ulysses. The more restrictive a political regime, the more likely it is to see text as a threat. Over 25,000 books were burnt in Munich four months into Hitler’s regime for being ‘unGerman’.

A lesser known but poignant example of how literature can threaten and intersect with politics was a book called New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas) by Muria Isabel Barreno, Muria Teresa Horta and Maria Vento da Costa. The book, published in 1972, was a post-modern collage of fiction, personal letters, poetry, and erotica inspired by the original letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado to her lover, the Chevalier de Chailly, at the time of Portugal’s struggle for independence against Spain. When New Portuguese Letters was written the Portuguese had been living under a dictatorship for almost fifty years and the book exposed the tyrannical relations that existed between the sexes.

The authorities banned New Portuguese Letters soon after its release – though not before a copy was smuggled to French feminists in Paris who arranged for its translation. The three Marias were arrested and allegedly tortured by the regimes secret police. They were charged with ‘abuse of the freedom of the press’ and ‘outrage to public decency’ by a censorship committee. The three women were criticized because they wrote like men. They were sexually explicit, frank about their desires, fantasies, sexuality and bodies.  They critiqued patriarchal structures, family violence and political repression.

The trial dragged on for two years, made worldwide headlines and gave rise to protests IMG_1892outside Portuguese embassies in Europe, the United States and Brazil. On 25 April 1974 a bloodless coup overthrew the regime. It was called the Carnation Revolution because red carnations were put in the ends of soldiers’ gun barrels. Soon after the coup the case against the three Marias was dismissed, the women freed and the book became a literary symbol of women’s liberation, erotic art, and the Portuguese revolution.

At its essence politics is about power and the rules we impose on society as a way of maintaining order. Do all authors strive to effect change in the world through their writing? If we don’t, why do we hope to be published and read?

What about genre fiction? Is romance gender politics at work? The genre is often dismissed as unworthy. Is that not itself political? Is to disregard romance a dismissal of women (the main consumers of romance), their views on relationships and their sexuality?

Is mystery fiction social justice at work? It often explores and gives voice to the fringes of society – drugs, prostitution, the dispossessed, or the underdog taking on the powerful elite. The very essence of a mystery is about who holds power, who abuses power and how the imbalance can be redressed. That is political. Mystery authors often use their writing to bring to light the concerns of minority groups and to provide commentary on a societies moral issues – Val McDermid’s lesbian protagonist, Lindsay Gordon; Emma Viskic’s deaf character, Caleb; Barry Maitland’s Aboriginal protagonist in the Belltree trilogy.

Reading a novel uncouples us from our ordinary lives and transports us to a self-created world through our interaction with a work of fiction. We read fiction to get ‘lost in a book’ or to ‘escape from our own existence’. Reading is an opportunity for some kind of small transformation.

DSC02842Writing is a way to contribute to the development of a liberal and democratic society. We implant meaning and messages in our plots that we hope will influence how our readers think, not only entertain them.

We judge and unpack what we read and ascribe a value to books. That is political – just read any book review or go to a book club meeting and listen to the debate about a novel to see how a single story can take on different contours and unique significance for individual readers.

How do you hope to influence your readers?

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague;

Inset images in order: Letter to The Age; Street Art, San Francisco; Guggenheim museum, New York City; Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; Threat and Sanctuary, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Library Way street name sign, New York

Reading for writing

Do you read for your writing?

I’ve  invested quite a bit of time in the last year into reading books and listening to podcasts about writing to expand my thinking about technique and style and see what I could glean to improve my own skills.

I try to work on my novel every day even if there is only have a small window of time. Writing this blog itself is an experiment in developing my own voice, a way to track my progress and share random ideas about writing and other interests. As I made a promise to myself (and more publicly on this site) that I would post to this blog once a week it has become a great vehicle to make sure I think about writing (and write) every week, even if I don’t feel like it. It was the only writing I did when I was on holidays, but it was writing! I also hope the blog will contribute to firing my motivation to keep working until I complete my book.

There is selection of the reading about writing I have been doing on my Books on Writing page and links to the podcasts I listen to.  There is also a page dedicated to crime fiction related links on my crime page.  I update these resource pages when I find a new reference that inspires me.

What books on writing would you recommend?

I have noticed that how I read fiction changes the more I write and my own creative skills develop. Though not generally a fast reader, I do read as much fiction as possible and try to analyse it to help improve my own practice. When I do read at speed I know I have been gripped by a story and try to understand what it is that I love about it. These days books that do not hold my interest are discarded (often after skipping to the last chapter just to find out what happened).

Most of the books I read are in the genre in which I am writing (mystery) but I do try to read more widely as I think reviewing work outside of your genre also expands your skills, thinking and approach to how you write.

I am currently about 100 pages from the end of Belinda Bauer’s Snap which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and could barely tear myself away from it to write this blog post. Yesterday I caught the bus to the city just so I could sit for an hour each way and read it uninterrupted.

Snap is without a doubt one of the best novels I have read in a while from any genre and reading it has excited me.  I feel there is so much to learn between its pages about writing as well as being a ripping read. The characters all have their own unique, if at times unsavoury, but believable quirks and I cannot  help but be fascinated by what motivates each of them.  The sentence structure and use of words are beautiful and drive me forward as much as the plot, and the short chapters have me simultaneously hungry to read one but disappointed as it feels like the book will end too soon.

I am doing a major structural edit of my own novel at the moment which at times has my mind spinning, but reading Bauer’s book has injected a new enthusiasm to get stuck into my own work with gusto…as soon as I finish reading Snap.

What fiction you have read has inspired your writing?

 

Image: Library Way, New York

Pinnochio floating face down in water at the Guggeheim New York

Post-holiday writing re-boot

I gave myself a leave-pass on holidays and did very little work on my novel.  Time I would spend writing was taken up with lie-ins, reading, surfing, eating, long walks on the beach and lazing about with friends. Now I am back at home and the break from reality is over.  Getting back into writing after time off does require some intentional effort.  After all your imagination was on holidays as well if you weren’t exercising it.

What happens when you try to get back to writing again after time away from it?  Do you stare awkwardly at the computer unable to access your imagination through the fog in your head? When you do manage to put down words are they crap? Do your characters seem distant? Do you wonder what happened to your flow?  Is there is a temptation to give up?

I am almost half way through the twelve months I took off work to focus on writing and all those unfinished projects in the garden. Despite being a disciplined and organized person, I do not feel that I have accomplished as much as I expected to when I started my break.  The main reason is that (as usual) my plans were too ambitious for my timeframes when life and day-to-day responsibilities are factored in. At times there is a temptation to focus on what is not done and abandon all plans. Why not just kick back and enjoy the rest of the time off? It’s a sophisticated form of procrastination. Nothing is stopping me getting started again except myself. So, this week has been dedicated to some writer wrangling. At its core is re-creating a routine, discipline and patience. Here are my five tips to get your writing mojo back after a break.

Set aside some uninterrupted time to write on as many days as possible each week IMG_0992(even 15 minutes): During your writing time remove distractions like social media. Do not allow yourself to indulge in your favorite procrastination activities like attending to the washing or the weeds that need to be pulled in the garden – whatever it is that draws you away from your computer (or pen).  I am at my best in the morning so I set the alarm for 6am, get up, make coffee and stand at my computer until at least 8am. When I was doing my day job my uninterrupted time was the hour on the bus on the way to work. I would put ear buds in to discourage others from interacting with me and write on my iPad. During that time read over some completed material, reacquaint yourself with your characters and give yourself permission to write crap.  Expect it to take some time for your writing to return to your expectations.

Schedule in space for procrastination and life commitments: There are things that you have to do and things other than writing that you want to do.  Attend to them when you are not at your best for writing.  For me this is toward the end of the day. I try to book appointments, check social media, read or weed in the afternoon.

IMG_0980(1)Exercise: In my view this is one of the most effective activities to jolt you back into a routine.  Aerobic exercise facilitates information processing, thinking and memory functions, stimulates the growth of new connections and is protective against getting down on yourself or anxious if you are finding getting back into a routine difficult. If you exercise out in nature there is the added benefit of the environment providing stimulation for your imagination and you can use your movement time to think about writing.  You’d be surprised how often activity will provide inspiration and boost your flow.  Destructo dog is now six months old so I’ve started to teach her to come running with me which is great fun for both of us and afterward she makes an excellent writing companion.

IMG_0978Immerse yourself in some writing related activities: Go to a literary event or a writer’s group, and read. In the evenings I am reading The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid, a fiction work in the genre I am writing my own novel in, and How Fiction Works by James Wood a book about the main elements of fiction. I managed to catch a couple of events at the tail end of the Melbourne Writers Festival and have planned with a fellow writer friend to organize our own writing retreat for a week in November.

Be patient: It takes a bit of time to get back into the flow after a break.  Expect that, and don’t give yourself a hard time about it.  When you get distracted, keep returning to your routine, until it becomes your routine.  Just like it was before you took a break.

 

Main image: The Guggenheim Museum, New York

Inset images in order: Writing Supervisors; Destructo dog after a run; A Toast: Judith Lucy’s Dream Dinner Party, Melbourne Writers Festival.

Books on shelf at Guggenheim, New York

Getting started

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a book about the two years I spent living in Portugal riding horses in my early twenties. I was lucky to become a working pupil of Maesto Nuno Oliveira, considered to be one of the last great masters of classical dressage (think Spanish Riding School if that term leaves you wondering). I started writing and developed quite a bit of material, but soon realised I didn’t really know what I was doing. How do I structure my ideas to craft them into an engaging story on the page?

I am practical and pragmatic about what I don’t know and love learning, so I sought out some help. I looked into a range of courses. I didn’t really want to do another university degree and soon found myself at the virtual door of The Writers Studio signing up for their introductory online course. It was great fun and I learnt a lot. That was in January 2016.

The second problem was that I kept experiencing an overwhelming urge to kill off characters. One of the questions the tutor asked was what type of books we liked to read. I like to read widely, but in reality mystery and crime fiction dominate my bookshelves. Start by writing what you like to read was the best piece of advice to really kick start my writing. My Portugal book went into a virtual drawer and I commenced a journey to write a crime fiction novel under the tutelage of The Writers Studio.

The first draft commenced in March 2016. I work full time in a fairly demanding job and commute for three hours each day, usually one way on a bus, one way on a bicycle. That meant about an hour and a half in transit each day on a bus with my iPad working through course notes and writing. I’d also snatch a few hours over the weekends in between other commitments.

I discovered Scrivener early on, which I love, I’m a bit of a tech geek and it allows me to work on the iPad or the laptop and sync between the two. I rarely write with a pen as my handwriting is almost illegible and I can type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. When I do hand write it’s because I’ve become stuck and the switch to a pen can get the creative brain flowing again.

I started my third draft in February 2018. Reflecting on the last two years, the key things I have learnt:

• it takes more than a good imagination to produce a good story. It has to be harnessed by a sound, well planned structure to make it really engaging

• develop a writing habit, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day, it adds up

• grammar matters a lot, if you missed out go and learn it

• seek outside objective feedback, it makes a world of difference

• practice patience – it’s a journey, settle in, enjoy the process and don’t worry about the destination

This is to be the year of writing for me. I will start long service leave from my job in April and take the rest of the year off to work on my novel and my craft. I have set up this website as part of my writing project and plan to post a blog post each Friday.  It’s a place to share some of my work and pondering about life – initially the blog will alternate between writing topics and garden/food topics (one of my other passions). What are you working on?

Image: Guggenheim, New York