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Why do you write? – The power of negative motivation

So, dear writer, what is your answer to this question?

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Sketch by Anna de Polnay

I expect many people will say ‘Because I have to’ or ‘Because I’ve always done it/wanted to write’ or even ‘I feel I have something to say’. Some might actually confess they enjoy writing. (Weird, but possible.) Some non fiction writers are probably motivated by a passionate interest in a subject, a place, or maybe even themselves and their own story.

My answer to the question is a rather negative one: ‘To fill the void’. Or to put it another way, because I had nothing better to do.

I’m not being entirely disingenuous. If you’ve ever felt the need or the urge to express yourself in a creative way then nothing else will give you the proper fix. Writing books is one of the most purely creative ways of expression – it’s just you and the page, or the screen, with no one telling you what to do or, to put it another way, trying to curb your creativity. If this is indulgence so be it, but it’s not an easy option to say the least.

I once earned a living writing scripts for television. I really wanted to be a playwright but having spent many years reading and commenting on other writers’ plays I couldn’t find any ideas that I could make work on a stage. I never saw myself as a writer of books partly because it is an impossible way to make a living and partly because, yes, I confess it, I’m not much of a reader. I’d rather watch a play or a film, no question.

But when I hit my sixties and I gave in my part-time job I didn’t know what to do with myself. Too old to be employed, all I had to keep wolf from door was bits and pieces of teaching and theatre tour organising and a small state pension. So I decided to do two complementary things: let my flat and go off to the far side of the world to write a book about my ancestors, the former paying for the latter.

And it worked. It took me several years, and a lot of hard work and learning. In my first effort at writing a scene set in late 18th century Dorset I had one character crossing his legs four times without ever having uncrossed them, ending up therefore as a corkscrew. As an (ex) actor and would-be playwright I could handle the dialogue, within reason, but had terrible trouble with the bits in between; where in a play you can simply write ‘pause’ or even ‘silence’ or at a pinch ‘beat’, in a book you’ve got to have your character do something, and I still find that tricky (hence the corkscrew legs). Not to mention the ‘she saids’ and ‘he saids’.

George Matcham (Illustrated London News 10 October 1931, p573) bl newspaper archives-page-001
George Matcham, family member, the man who crossed his legs

But along the way I discovered a passion, which simply put is – for finding things out and writing about them in (what I hope is) an entertaining way. The topic in my case was early Australian colonial history, as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, about which and whom I knew nothing and cared less. The first is not a disadvantage because part of the process of writing about what you don’t know is discovering things you find interesting and then finding a way to convey your interest to other people. The caring naturally follows. Or if it doesn’t, then look for another topic.

So what was once a void has now been filled to bursting point with what has become a passion and an addiction. Twelve years later I am halfway through book two of my Australian ancestors, still struggling with the bits between the dialogue and the he saids and she saids, but still engrossed in the business of learning about, in this case, Australian agricultural practices in the 19th century and trying to make it interesting.

It hasn’t earned me a living, needless to say. I’m not even sure that I’ve broken even. Truthfully speaking when asked my profession I should say ‘landlady’. But hard work though it is it gives me a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction, not least to know that in my seventies I am still learning things; and that, who knows, one or two people out there may also discover something as a result of my efforts.

So there’s my answer to my own question. I’d be interested to hear yours.

The Secret River

Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.

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Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.

Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.

The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.

The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.

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Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.

The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia

Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.

*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.

Who was Claudia Faraday?

 

twitter-countrysideI’ve been asked this question a lot recently.

Was she Mrs Dalloway? (a fictional character)

Was she the Duchess of Hertfordshire? (is there such a person?)

Was she the Queen’s long-lost second cousin thrice removed? (No)

She was not aristocracy, that’s all I’m saying.

I also promised to guard her identity with my life. (more or less)

 

 

 

 

Pitching your story

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Yesterday evening ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) organised a very enlightening meeting with film director and writer Charles Harris on the thorny topic of how to sell your story.

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(charles-harris.co.uk)

He was referring specifically to the film industry of course, where busy producers expect writers looking for a commission to grab their attention in one sentence, or preferably one phrase, as in ‘Jaws in Space’, which is apparently how the writers sold the idea of the film that turned into Alien, and the title of Harris’ latest book.

Of course if you are an author, and specifically an indie, you will not necessarily be verbally pitching a story in order to get a commission. But what you will be doing is trying to grab readers’ attentions on online retail sites like Amazon, so the same principle applies to your blurb.

In my family history workshops I encourage participants to write a blurb for their book there and then, and then to read them out to the rest of us for our comments: did those few sentences make you want to read the book?

It’s fiendishly hard as we all know. But there’s another thing: if like me you get some way into your story and think to yourself why did I start to write this book in the first place? it helps if at some point you have already written down the answer, in other words what it was that fired you up in the first place, which is to say, the blurb. The blurb can change, it undoubtedly will, and that doesn’t matter. But as Charles mentioned last night for all writers when it comes to pitching an idea, the most important person you should be targetting is yourself.

It can also be a useful unblocker, when you feel yourself grinding to a halt, to take a break and write down, in no more than three sentences, the essence of the story you found so exciting all that time ago.

Thanks to Charles Harris for the talk, to Helena Halme for organising it, and to Waterstone’s Piccadilly for providing the premises (and a few bottles of wine).

If you are interesting in attending meetings like this then it’s worth joining ALLi (click on the logo on the right).

Patsy Trench, London
November 2016

 

Writing about what you don’t know (2)

Writing about droving and farming in 19th century Australia from a flat in north London?

… is quite a challenge, believe me, especially when the writer barely knows a heifer from a ewe.

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Sheep droving, after a fashion. (Yes, I have been on an Aussie farm)

I first blogged on this topic a year ago; I was about to embark on my latest oeuvre about my great great grandfather, who was a pioneer farmer and stock and station agent in remote 19th cenury New South Wales. I’d been putting it off thinking this is completely beyond me, but then I was reminded that that is precisely what I said about my first book The Worst Country in the World, about my original Australian ancestress.

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George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather

I am not saying I have cracked it, but there are positive advantages to writing about unfamiliar topics, and the most obvious one is:

If you can take an unfamiliar subject about which you know nothing and find it interesting, then it should be possible to make it interesting to your readers.

We’ve all picked up a newspaper or maybe glanced at someone’s blog and found ourselves drawn in to a topic we didn’t think we had any interest in. It’s called good writing of course.

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These are cows

There’s another advantage: whatever I’m writing about there is no pretence. I am looking at things like cattle droving for instance with the fascinated and sometimes bemused eye of the outsider. Do cattle really behave like that? What do you mean all sheep are not the same?

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Rabbit fence

To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover. I’d be interested in your comments.

Patsy Trench
London, 2016

patsytrench@gmail.com

Keeping a diary

If Shakespeare had kept a diary there would arguably be far fewer books written about him.

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If we knew for instance

  • What he got up to during the ‘missing years’
  • How he got to leave his home in Stratford and fetch up as an actor/playwright in London
  • How much of the 37 plays he actually wrote
  • Whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or someone else
  • Who the Dark Lady of the sonnets was
  • Whether or not he got on with his wife
  • Etc etc etc

We wouldn’t need to endlessly speculate. And it would not be half as much fun.

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What will people say about you when you’re gone? 

Diary-less ancestors tend to be remembered for what they did rather than what they might have said. Or rather for what they did that made the public records. So we are likely to know more about men than women, especially if they played a prominent part in society. We may also know more about the ones who got into trouble, and the ones with police records, especially if they ended up in Australia.

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Who was Mary Pitt?

As a family historian I’d have given anything for my ancestors to have kept diaries so I knew exactly why my four times great grandmother decided to emigrate to a penal colony. 

On the other hand lacking the facts gives one scope for one’s imagination; so what would have been a case of simple transcribing becomes something rather more creative. The challenge of filling in the gaps while remaining as true as possible to the character you think your four times great grandmother was, for instance, is a fascinating one. 

A certain amount of mystery is no bad thing.

If you want to read the story of my pioneering Australian ancestress please click here: The Worst Country in the World.

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 Who was Claudia Faraday?

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Claudia Faraday?

Claudia kept a detailed diary of a crucial period in her life when she made a discovery that altered her entire outlook on life and on the people in it. The fact that she kept this diary in her loft, to be discovered by generations to come, suggests to me she wanted them to be found, and to be published.

Nonetheless such was the intimate nature of the diary I went to great lengths to protect her reputation by not just changing her name but the names, and some details, of her daughters and her friends, and a few other bits and pieces beside.

So I defy anyone to identify her.

If you’d like to read her story click here: The Unlikely Adventures of Claudia Faraday.

Have you kept a diary?

I have, from time to time. It makes for hilarious and sometimes embarrassing reading. It is also a handy reminder of the person you once used to be, and if you think – as I often have  – you are still an eighteen-year-old wrapped up in a middle-aged woman’s body, it is good to be reminded that, actually, you aren’t.

But I wouldn’t want anyone to read them, no way. Unlike Claudia I will make a point of destroying them before I pop my clogs.

 

Chasing Asylum

A few years ago while refugees were risking their lives on the Mediterranean Australia’s then Prime Minister Tony Abbott swept in to put us to rights and tell us Europeans the problem could be solved with three words: Stop the boats.

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Australian government poster

After all that’s exactly what he had done, and his predecessor Kevin Rudd, and look how successful they’d been. By telling the refugees in no uncertain terms that no one trying to reach Australia illegally would be allowed to settle there, they were saving the lives of untold hundreds from drowning, he said. Then just to make it quite clear, those who still tried to make the journey were to be intercepted and transferred to detention centres in remote islands in the Pacific – Nauru and Manus Island – in such terrible conditions that they’d be sure to return home, and to spread the word there that trying to seek asylum in Australia was a waste of time.

Abbott’s response to being told he was breaching United Nations law was ‘I’m sick of the United Nations telling me what to do.’ The only sign that the Australian government are not 100% proud of their policy is that the detention centres are a dark secret. Not only are journalists prohibited from visiting them, anyone caught whistleblowing could face two years in gaol.

Despite this, filmmaker Eva Orner managed to smuggle cameras in to expose the degradation, deprivation and despair of the men, women and children in these detention centres. She also managed to get social workers and others who’ve worked there, most of them young, to tell their story and risk being detained themselves. To date, unsurprisingly, nobody has yet been imprisoned for spilling the beans. Her film Chasing Asylum was screened this morning in London as part of the London Film Festival. It presents its story without comment – other than from past Prime Ministers and Ministers of Immigration. It sings the praises of the late Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser, who was responsible for welcoming Vietnamese boat people back in the ’70s and who right up until the day he died still campaigned for a more humanitarian attitude towards the less lucky in the world. After all what is Australia but a country of immigration?

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theguardian.com

It doesn’t pay to be too complacent however, not if you live in Britain. By accident of geography the refugee crisis doesn’t hit us like it does the rest of Europe and North Africa. Perhaps the brave and talented (and Oscar-winning) Ms Orner could turn her attention next to Calais.