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September 04, 2008


Paul Lamb

Well observed post. I think any serious writing program must begin with reading. And I agree that reading aloud is one of the best things a writer can do for his/her own work.


I know what got taught in my creative writing class. There's only two kinds of stories (my professor told me); a stranger comes to town, and a man goes on a long journey. Which are really both the same story.

Richard Grayson

John Gardner told us that when I took a class with him at Bread Loaf over 30 years ago.

Richard Grayson

John Gardner told us that when I took a class with him at Bread Loaf over 30 years ago.



Some good information was picked up during my recent foray into the world of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Tutor and first time novelist, Mark Sarvas, was particularly good value. This author of 'Harry, Revised' ran a workshop about getting started for would-be writers. It was a very practical class which I think is crucial when you’ve shelled out AUS$200 and are not just there to hear someone’s life story. If you want that you go to a panel discussion or a reading but sometimes people don’t really seem to ‘get’ that.

Although he did work in LA as a scriptwriter in the past I think novels were Mark's real passion and he’s attended a lot of workshops and classes himself, making it easier for him to distil what’s required to actually make them useful.

A newcomer to the festival scene, I think he also enjoyed meeting other authors and slipping into that world. I took it as a sign of how social and engaging he is that he was able to tempt a few other authors to drop by our 10am to 4pm session to share a few pearls of their wisdom with us too.

Nam Le (www.namleonline.com), from Melbourne, stopped by and his is a name on a lot of lips currently. The hosts were raving about him and his short story collection – The Boat – on 3RRR’s Aural Text programme (Wednesdays 12pm - 2pm) this week. By the sounds of things this Vietnam born Australian chap has an international career ahead of him. Funny to hear the 3RRR gals mention that he was good looking too. I am thinking launching a new magazine – don’t tell anyone – called Literary Hotties.

Hannah Tinti from the USA also visited us. Her new (first) novel is called The Good Thief. She was on The Book Show on Radio National this week. I purchased her book at the Festival bookstore at Fed Square (I also picked up Harry, Revised which is burning a hole next to the bed but, unfortunately, the library emailed to say Fay Weldon’s Spa Decameron had arrived so I just HAD to swoop on that first. Eeeek and I still haven’t finished Salman’s Enchantress of Florence. Ah the reading joy of it all!). She’s particularly interesting because she’s one of the founders of the US literary magazine called One-Story. Every three weeks one short story is published in this tiny, lovely publication. I won’t go into details. Check out www.one-story.com if you’re interested. Suffice to say a) I think they have around 8000 submissions a year and can publish only 18 stories and b) the mag is getting some serious attention from editors around the world looking for new writers.

Anyway, I digress in a monumental way … great advice picked up from Mr Sarvas included reading like a writer. This involves being aware, as one reads novels day in day out, of the mechanics being employed by the author … the construction of the book and the way the story is being moved along and so forth. Part of me always thinks such examination or analysis takes the fun out of activities such as this but, committed to a home made Masters of Creative Writing for the remainder of this year, I am going to knuckle down and give this a bash.

And, in the spirit of “thinking like a writer” as was also discussed in class, I am going to buy a specific tiny notebook to record all manner of intriguing dialogue I hear between airports and luggage carousels between my hometown of Melbourne and Nashville, New Orleans and Austin where I will be in October. I will probably end up using it to write lists of perfumes and booze that I want to purchase but, hell, it’ll come in handy either way. Maybe when Mr Underhill’s not looking I can get down a few cowboy’s phone numbers too.

Rick Rofihe

I've taught at the MFA program at Columbia, along with The Writer's Voice of the West Side Y, and Gotham Writers' Workshop: all in New York City, all right -- but does the plague that is workshopping really have to be inflicted on Australians?

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."