Wrestling with cold turkey – a book addict at Writers’ Week

IMG_3666 (1)I’ve been pretty blog-lax lately and while the list of books I need to write about is lengthening, I’ve realized that I’ve yet to post about how I’m coping with breaking my book-buying addiction.

To be blunt – it hasn’t been a walk in the park. Buying books (new or second-hand) used to be an intrinsic part of my week. It’s taken time and effort to counteract the reflex to buy whatever titles spark my interest. Books are so easily justified. They’re good for you. Only a die-hard anti-intellectual could possibly mount an argument against reading (and they’d be ill-advised to test their theories near me or any of my friends).

Which brings me to Adelaide Writers’ Week. I love it. It’s a highlight of my year. Seeing authors I admire in the flesh. Discovering new writers and their books. Listening to them talk about their art, ideas and process. Sometimes getting to meet them (but mostly avoiding this knowing that my default conversational setting when faced with someone I admire is gush – ugh, it’s making me cringe just thinking about it).

Anyway, as much as I love Writers’ Week, there’s a downside. I find it socially exhausting and financially draining.  It’s hard to go anywhere in Adelaide without tripping over someone you know.  At Writers’ Week, you can amplify this phenomenon by an order of magnitude. Local writers at Writers’ Week are like fleas on dogs. Lovely, friendly fleas but the point is the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is infested, so you can guarantee that every moment not spent listening to a session will be spent chatting, nodding, waving or having lunch, drinks or dinner with other writers, poets or literary folk. Social exhaustion generally hits by Day Three and by the end of the week I can be found rocking on the couch in the foetal position.

Then there’s dealing with the vortex of the book tent. Or not dealing with it. Normally, I just let myself fall prey to its magnetism.  I listen to a writer. They peak my interest. I buy their book. Simple. Each night I stagger home laden like a mule with bags of books.

Not this year. This year I had a commitment not to buy any books. What was I to do? Not buying books at Writers’ Week was like promising myself not to breathe.

Clearly, I needed a plan. The answer presented itself the moment I called the problem by its true name –  addiction. How do you change your behaviour to avoid the temptation of addiction? Just like drugs, smoking or alcohol – avoid the triggers.IMG_3660

Well, crap. That’s very easily said but how to do it without depriving myself of the whole festival? I still wanted to attend the sessions and glean as much inspiration and motivation from the speakers as possible. One of my closest friends was chairing two sessions, so just staying home was out of the question.

Trigger avoidance coupled with strict time and energy management. That’s what it boiled down to in the end.

Before the week kicked off, I got out my program and highlighter pen and set to work.

Ojectives? Avoid the book tent and social exhaustion. In past years, I’ve often given myself social down time by enjoying periods of extended browsing in the book tent.  So, limiting social exhaustion would be a key element in avoiding the book tent. Drinking with friends also had a secondary consequence in that it eroded my resolve, so avoiding the bar would also be a primary goal.

The plan?

  1. Attend only 3-4 sessions a day (a morning or an afternoon).
  2. Bring my own food and drink.
  3. Ride my bike (to make sure I didn’t stay out at night or drink too much with friends – I’m an extremely wobbly rider when drunk).
  4. DO NOT ENTER THE BOOK TENT.

The result?

Success. Every day of Writers’ Week attended and not one book purchased. (However, I did add a considerable number of entries to my list of “books resisted”.)

Ok. Complete honesty.  I did enter the book tent at one point on the first day – but I did it with a friend and we went in with the sole purpose of finding and admiring her beautiful book (Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson) as it sat proudly in two stacks on the table among all the Adelaide Writers’ Week titles. I can only hope that sometime in the future I see my own book/books sitting there. One day.

Time management and trigger avoidance, people. That’s how you get through Writers’ Week with money in your pocket, no hangovers and enough energy to function as an adequate human for the rest of Mad March in Adelaide. It is possible. A little sad, but possible all the same.

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How to write

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I’m not a big fan of self-help books. My in-laws used to sell Amway and had a shelf groaning under the weight of books touting every conceivable method self-improvement, from how to make people like you to the swiftest ways to make millions. (Unsurprisingly, they still seem like the same very likeable people they were prior to reading and not noticeably any wealthier.)  IMG_3640

This is where I out myself as a hypocrite since I have a similar shelf in my writing studio packed with books on how to write. How to write fiction, how to write poetry, guides to narrative style and how to read like a writer. There’s even the quite hilariously titled How to make a living as a poet.

If I’ve learned anything from this shelf of literature on how to write, it’s that if you want to learn the craft there are various ways you can approach it.  These methods are not mutually exclusive, in fact I would recommend all of them both individually and in concert. Lucky for you, lovely reader, my recent reading has included examples of all these various approaches. (Whether or not I successfully apply what I’ve learned from these books to my work is another question.)IMG_3647

Dear Writer… revisited by Carmel Bird

This is a brilliant example of a nuts and bolts “how to write” guide by one of Australia’s most gifted and experienced writers. Structured as a series of letters from a mentor to an inexperienced writer, this book is packed with sage and shrewd advice on both the art and craft of literary fiction.

Bird takes on the fictional persona of writing mentor Virginia O’Day and each chapter is a letter to her student, offering advice on the writing and rewriting of a short story.  In each letter a new aspect of craft is addressed, such as point of view, narration, beginnings and endings, use of adverbs and adjectives, the role of imagination and attuning your ear to the rhythm of prose.  As the relationship between the mentor and student progresses and the student’s writing improves, the advice expands to encompass the writing life –  how to deal with writer’s block, keeping notebooks, dedication and time management and, finally, how to seek publication.

This book is a beautiful distillation of all Bird has learned from a life dedicated to writing.  It is a beginner’s guide but has much to offer those already well down the path. It is affirming and encouraging while simultaneously insisting on excellence.

This is a brilliant example of the most recognisable variety of “how to write” literature. The next kind is a little less obvious.IMG_3646

The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood

I’m a huge fan of The Paris Review, which is a literary journal published in New York. One of the things I love most about this publication is the series of interviews with writers. Each issue has an extended interview with a writer (poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, you name it) and they talk at length and great depth about art, craft and the writing life.

The Writer’s Room is everything I love about The Paris Review interview series but instead of interviewing internationally recognisable literary names, this book focusses on the big names of Australia’s literary scene.  Charlotte Wood, who is a brilliant novelist (please, please read The Natural Way of Things) has interviewed Tegan Bennet Daylight, Joan London, Malcom Knox, Christos Tsiolkas, Kim Scott and Margo Lanagan – just to name a few – and the result is completely addictive. I got to the end of this book and it left me ravenous for more and seriously wanting to plead with Charlotte to launch a serial Paris Review (Australian edition).

If you are a reader, these conversations are fascinating, insightful and engaging. If you are a writer, they are gold.  Everything you’ve ever wanted to ask a writer is here and the answers are both generous and frank.  Wood is an exceptional interviewer. It’s clear that she puts the writers completely at ease and the fact that she is one of them means that these are conversations between equals. To read this book is to eavesdrop on professionals talking about everything from putting words into sentences to navigating publishing and the literary life. It’s like a private literary festival happening in your lounge room while you sit on your couch with a dog and a gin and tonic.  Bliss.IMG_3645

Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson

We’ve covered orthodox guides on “how to write” and books that give insight into the lives and processes of successful writers but the third kind of book that I would recommend if you want to learn how to write is the kind that contains superb content and technique.

It’s no secret that I am one of those opinionated folks who thinks it’s impossible to become a writer if you don’t read. I just don’t understand it. Flat out do not get it. If you don’t read books then why on earth would you want to write one?  And how would you know the first thing about how to do it successfully? Readers know.

Readers are intimately acquainted with what makes a good book, what makes a sentence sing and keeps people turning pages, still awake at three in the morning because sleep is impossible without knowing what happens next. They might not be able to replicate it at first if they sat down and tried to write a vampire romance or a police procedural – every skill takes practice – but they do know good writing when they encounter it.

This is why I’m including Barking Dogs on this list of “how to write” books – because I passionately believe reading excellent books to be an essential part of being a writer. If you read books with a writer’s eye you learn just as much, if not more, than you would reading a straight up and down “how to write” text-book.

Barking Dogs is a novel in stories by one of Australia’s most gifted and accomplished short story writers. Each of the stories in this book stands alone as a short story and works as a chapter in a compelling novel about a regional town being slowly and painfully transformed into suburbia.  The novel is set in the town of Mount Barker in South Australia and the stories are slow burners – you’ll be turning them over and over in your mind for days afterward.

The stories are captivating but how they are written – the language, the rhythm and the space and weight given to each sentence – is just as significant. Read “Here we lie” for the dark, slow burn, “The five truths of manhood” for breath-taking use of language and ingenious structure and “Something special, something rare” for a textbook-worthy example of how a great writer uses insight and empathy to create totally convincing characters.DSC_2757

This is the kind of book that is much, much more than just a pleasure to read. In the right hands, Barking Dogs is also a primer on writing technique and the art of the short story.

So there you have it – my two cent’s worth on how to learn to be a better writer. Try some “how to write” books.  Find inspiration by reading about the lives and processes of other writers. And finally, read great books and while you are doing this, try to keep an eye on technique. It’s hard. Good books sweep you away. But if you try to read with the secondary objective of analysing the writer’s method you’ll hopefully glean some ideas on how to apply their techniques to your own practice.