‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Two years ago the British Centre for Literary Translation invited me to Anhui Province in China to participate as a guest author in their annual translation program. I was asked to facilitate a creative writing workshop with the English-speaking participants in the program which would follow on from a workshop run by Vietnamese-Australian author of The Boat, Nam Le. For two hours I watched patiently and quietly as Nam worked with twenty aspirational writers and translators who had come to China from all over the (Western) world, including Australia, the United States, Ireland, Scotland and England. Nam wrote six random words up on a chalkboard, ‘shoes’, ‘man’, ‘mountain’, ‘love’, ‘fear’ and ‘fingers’, and then he told the participants to each write a short story or poem using these six words. I was disappointed to hear the writers in the group read back the stories they wrote, which all followed the same thread: A man wandered a mountain in a pair of shoes, searching for love and afraid he would find it. It did not occur to even one of them that a mountain could be in love with a man or a shoe could be afraid of a finger, or more importantly, that the mountain, the man, the shoes and the finger could all have a specific identity. After all, we were in view of China’s Sacred Yellow Mountain and with so much diversity in the room, participants had dirt on their shoes and under their fingernails from places no one else in the group could have imagined. It was at this point that I realised the universality of bad writing: the bad writing that this international collective of writers produced was no different from the bad writing I had dealt with as a writer, editor, publisher and teacher in Western Sydney for over fifteen years.
Although this essay deals specifically with the bad writing I have encountered in Western Sydney, my argument is that bad writing can never actually be distinctive of one place. Any distinction writing makes for itself is inherently good, which is why there has always been so much potential for good writing to be from and about Western Sydney. What makes bad writing universal is that it lacks detail, originality, specificity and a sense of character and place, it depends on generalisations and clichés (both in terms of language and story), and it only reproduces common tropes and ideas which are propagated in mainstream literature, film, television, music and radio, making it so unremarkable that it could have been written anywhere by anyone at any time. Therefore, while bad writing in Western Sydney has everything in common with bad writing everywhere else, good writing in Western Sydney, and good writing everywhere else, has nothing in common with good writing anywhere else – it is good as an unhappy family is unhappy, in its own way.
Since 2006 I have been running a literary movement in Western Sydney now called SWEATSHOP which is devoted to empowering people from socio-economically challenged and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through reading, writing, critical thinking, creative expression and creative outcomes. The principles of SWEATSHOP are built on the ideas of African-American feminist, scholar and activist, bell hooks, who in an interview with the Media Education Foundation in 1997, argued that all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture depend on mass-based literacy movements because degrees of literacy determine how we see what we see. I have always found this to be a significant alternative to the usual way that Australian parents, carers, teachers and politicians discuss the importance of literacy to young people – in the romantic sense that it is important simply because it is a good in itself or the capitalist sense that it is important because it will give you access to a good job. For hooks, degrees of literacy define our ability to be critical of social systems (which may be racist, sexist, homophobic and or classist) and to create alternatives to these systems, specifically through critical consciousness, critical discussion and artistic self-representation. Unfortunately, while I’ve used this model over the years to witness the development of many bad writers who want to become good writers, my general experience is that most aspirational writers I’ve had to work with are no good, do not know it, do not want to find out, and are not interested in improving.
But creative writing is subjective! This is the most obvious and common response that bad writers throw at me when I tell them that their work needs revision. Ironically, my issue with bad writing is always the same: it is not subjective. What these people are writing is consumed with clichés, vague images (or no images), no detail and no specificity, no sense of place, no sense of character and no distinction of voice. Take for example Christopher, a 39-year old bad writer from Yagoona who sent me a piece of writing that started like this: The following story is about love, the love between a man and his bitch.
I agreed to meet Christopher to discuss his story at the reading garden of the new Bankstown library, a building with so much glass that you can see right through it to the old library across the road, which is by contrast a concrete slab with no visible windows at all. Christopher sat in front of a statue of the Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran that was erected to celebrate the contributions of the Lebanese community to the Bankstown area, and stared at me with an unsettling blue-eyed gaze as he awaited my response to his work. I told him that he could delete the first line, because the story he wanted to tell hadn’t actually started yet, but that even if he wanted to keep the line, I had heard other writers attempt to produce this exact same effect, with this exact same wording many times before. He raised his eyebrows at me and responded, ‘But how would you know if you’ve heard these words before, English isn’t even your first language.’ Aside from the fact that English is my first language, my concern here is the White belief that bilingual writers and editors from non-English speaking backgrounds are less capable of identifying subjectivity in English writing than White writers. I told Christopher that being multilingual enhances the ability to imagine, create and critically engage in works of literature because it diversifies modes of thinking, which according to Noam Chomsky is the primary purpose of language, but that the problems with his piece were so fundamental, even a literary critic who did not speak a word of English would probably recognise them. As I spoke, Christopher had a smug smile on his shabby Ed Sheeran face as if all he could hear was, Ah durka durka Allahu-akbar.
While some bad writers use ‘subjectivity’ to argue that I am underqualified to assess their work, there are those who use ‘subjectivity’ to argue that I am overqualified to assess their work. I was invited to facilitate a workshop for a multicultural writers’ group who regularly meet on the second level of a kebab shop in Auburn. The room was dim and on one wall there was a picture of Hassan Nasrallah standing in front of a microphone with his mouth wide open and his fingers making the A-OK hand gesture and on the other side was a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini with a deep-set frown and his hands out in front of him as though he were holding a Qur’an. This seemed like the perfect environment to wrest some kind of Auburn-esque literature from a group of twelve ethnic writers who were so mixed they looked like a bag of Skittles. The first person to share her writing with the group was a Maltese woman named Tanika. She wore a beret and, I swear on Allah, was holding a feather pen. In a tight bogan accent she read out a story that started like this: ‘Fuck you!’ the boy roars, spitting venom. A look of disbelief washed over my face, an illusion of compassion that really wasn’t there.
I told Tanika that this sentence was simply a compilation of common images. She was imposing them on us rather than revealing anything through sensory experiences, descriptions of the setting or characters, or anything that is literally or figuratively happening in the scene. Bad writers use this type of exposition after a quotation to elaborate the offensiveness of a comment – but either comments like ‘fuck you’ are sufficiently offensive that a writer/narrator does not need to stress how offensive they are by saying they are ‘roars’ or ‘spits of venom’, or the comments are simply not offensive and the writer is just forcing the idea that they are offensive on us because the comment and reaction to the comment don’t carry their own weight.
As for the look of disbelief that washed over her face, I told Tanika that here she had stepped outside of herself to give us yet another cliché – and even if these words weren’t old and tired, how can a writer know that a look of disbelief had washed over her face if she’s writing from the first-person perspective? On a technical level it is only possible for the first-person narrator to describe how the comment made her feel, and how she imagines her reaction to the comment made her look, example, Tanika’s bad writing made me wish I was wrapped in white sheets and stoned to death. Then I told Tanika that she finished this sentence with a technique I call the anti-image: an illusion of compassion that really wasn’t there. Here the bad writer identifies and describes the absence of a setting, characteristic or emotion because, I presume, she thinks it will make her sound more ‘literary’. ‘But if the feeling or image you are describing is not there, then why waste time, words and space discussing it?’ I asked her. ‘Why aren’t you telling us what is there rather than what isn’t?’
Tanika didn’t give me the smug grin that I spotted on Christopher. Instead she stared at me as if I had smashed the Ten Commandments, completely bewildered and confused. Then she said, ‘It’s like you’re trying to teach me university stuff, but creativity isn’t something you can learn.’ Such bad writers often pigeonhole me as the narrow-minded snob who cannot appreciate the uniqueness of individual voice because I’m so academically educated that I now have a conservative and restricted understanding and expectation of great literature. But rather than insisting that creative writing was her God-given talent, if Tanika was even slightly interested in learning about creative writing as an academic skill and vocation (which Auburn Council was paying me to teach her), she might not have strutted out of the room like the Queen of Sheba before I could show her the following piece, which was written by a student at Lurnea High School and published in a SWEATSHOP anthology called Violence:
We like to bully Mohamed and Yousif
because they are gay and ugly
because they are show off
because they are bitch
because they are ass holes.
When I share this piece with participants in my creative writing workshops, I ask them two questions, for which I usually get the same answers:
‘What is it?’
‘Is it good?’
I then explain that I had published the piece under the assumption that it was in fact a poem, not graffiti (even though I am well aware that graffiti can be poetry), and that it displays many of the features of poetic language that writers are expected to identify and appreciate in the classroom – metaphor, since the author does not literally mean that Mohamed and Yousif are homosexuals or female dogs, and repetition, because because because… The poem is untitled and the writer is anonymous but when I ask participants in my workshops what they can uncover about the writer’s identity from the writing itself, they can often work out that it was written by someone young, male, from a non-English speaking background (migrant or refugee), from Western Sydney and who is influenced by both Australian-English and American-English vernacular and popular culture. That is an impressive amount of detail to be able to extract about an anonymous writer from what they had deemed ‘graffiti’ and ‘rubbish’. Secondly I ask the students what this poem is about and they always interpret it literally. They say, ‘It’s about bullying.’ The ones who see themselves as cleverer and are trying a little harder, like the Chinese and Indian kids in the Gifted and Talented class at Parramatta’s Saint Blah Blah High School say, ‘It’s about two or more people being racist to Mohamed and Yousif.’ Never in five years of teaching this poem has any participant realised the unique sense of irony that is being evoked in the words, that the writer was sitting in the classroom in front of his friends Mohamed and Yousif and was using my writing exercise to make fun of them, who laughed along with him when he read the piece back to me. Analysis of this poem serves two purposes: to identify firstly that good writing is always unconventional, unique and complex (even in its simplicity), and secondly that education and training specific to creative writing enhances any writer’s ability to read and write creatively, rather than diminish or limit a ‘natural’ ability to do so.
Of course for bad writers the idea of learning creative writing through education and training is unheard of. Learn? What do you mean learn? Good writing comes from the heart. This would be a completely unacceptable attitude in any other discipline. Would you try to perform brain surgery or replace a car engine or get into a professional boxing ring because you have heart? Nobody is denying that to be good at one of these professions you need to have a passion for them – but this is not supposed to be a substitute for education and training. Boxing is a particular area where I can draw some useful analogies because I was a fighter before I was a writer. I strode into the Belmore PCYC like every other Lebo in Bankstown, with my chin high and my chest cocked and a cigarette wedged between my left ear and my razored head. I peered over the boxing ring at a Lebanese boxer shorter and skinnier than me – five foot five and 55 kilos max. ‘I can knock you,’ I said to him, and straightaway he stepped over and spread apart the ropes, inviting me into the ring. I proceeded to throw straight jabs at his head and every time he’d roll under them and give me a round-houser into the rib, sucking the air from my lungs and my loins, until finally, not even one minute into the fight, he stung me so hard with a right uppercut in the stomach that I went down on the canvas and began to spew up that night’s dinner (potato and gravy and two pieces of fried chicken from KFC). Then the Leb called everyone in the gym to come over and have a look at me, and he said out loud while I continued to spew, ‘You see, that’s what happens when you act like a hard cunt!’
The Leb taught me quickly and painfully and embarrassingly that to be a great boxer, I needed a qualified trainer, someone to watch me from the outside and advise me on my technique – the speed, power, procession and combinations of my punches, my stance and foot work, my defence, my fitness, my stamina and my endurance. I needed the right diet, to put the right food in my body and to keep drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and hubbly-bubbly out; and I needed fellow boxers around me, who would get in the ring with me and spar regularly, enabling me to apply the theoretical skills I was learning on pads and bags.
Now, as a teacher of creative writing, everyday I have bad writers waltz into my office the way I waltzed into that gym, confidently handing me their work and expecting me to be knocked out by their creative genius, unaware that they are about to hit the canvas. Just like I learned in boxing, I tell them that if they want to be great writers, they need a qualified trainer, what we call in the industry an editor, someone who is watching them from the outside and keeping an eye on their form, technique, development of characters, settings, details, and voice, someone who is providing them with critical feedback on an ongoing basis. It is often difficult for me as an editor to convince bad writers that this is a healthy and normal part of the business, which should be accepted without taking personal offence. Next I tell them they need the right diet, not necessarily what they put into their bodies (though I often think a lot of these bad writers need to cut back on the snacks and alcohol and do some sit-ups and push-ups), but what they are putting into their minds: what are they reading, watching and listening to? Here’s a scale I use to measure the quality of a writer’s diet: Fifty Shades of Grey is KFC and The Swan Book is the vegetables you grow in your backyard.
Then of course there is sparring for a writer. In boxing this requires a fighter to step into the boxing ring with his or her peers and throw hands, not to hurt one another but to learn from one another and refine technique through one another. With the exception of the writers’ collective I have been running at SWEATSHOP, I have not found another group that has been able to achieve a serious culture of sparring. Usually I attend one of these groups as a guest author and witness bad writers who exchange stories, which they read from start to finish, only to be praised by their fellow writers’ group members with perhaps a light tweak or criticism here or there regardless of how unoriginal, unsophisticated and undeveloped the work might be. At SWEATSHOP nobody is allowed to pull their punches, we train the members to listen to each other’s work, find every opening available and strike. Sometimes we will do a stop and start edit, in which we will interrupt the writer as they read to offer suggestions specific to each line or paragraph or scene, sometimes we will listen to an entire piece and give an overview of where the piece could improve (though this is rare), and sometimes we will ask the writer to read the piece a few times over (especially if it is a poem by a good poet) because there are particular details that need clarifying .
On multiple occasions bad writers who have attended the Western Sydney Writers’ Group for the first time find our feedback extremely confronting and offensive and don’t ever return, assured that we simply do not know what we are talking about. To these people I say, Salaam alaikum! I don’t want to work with anyone who cannot take constructive criticism, who cannot re-write, and who cannot separate the personal pain of writing about their dead grandmother from the professional craft of conveying the story about their dead grandmother in an effective and original way (and I have also found that it is extremely difficult to help these kinds of people anyway). Take for example this Palestinian-Australian girl that once attended our writers’ group named Leila, who had an American accent because she learned English at an international school in Abu Dhabi. Of course it was confronting and upsetting to be told that a story about her four-year-old cousin who died in a crossfire on the Gaza Strip is no good, but in all fairness no one had actually questioned the degree to which she loved her dead cousin, we had simply pointed out that it was lacking in detail and characterisation, preventing us from feeling and understanding the experience of her loss, to write: I woke up to the news that my sweet beautiful gorgeous baby cousin was deceased and the rest of the day was a blur. Leila argued that my heartless feedback proved I had Asperger’s Syndrome. She even recommended that I see a doctor called Jamal Rifi about it, who by coincidence has been my family physician since 1996.
On another occasion I made a bad writer cry because I stopped her while she was still reading so our writers’ group could begin discussing her work. This woman told us she had nine children, which I believed because the sleep bags under her eyes looked like onion rings, and that she was Indian, which I did not believe because she was fairer than a snowflake and kept wobbling her head as though she had something to prove. For three minutes my writers’ group listened as she read a five-page poem called ‘Africa’, in which she listed generic and clichéd images about starving Black children in a third-world ‘country’ she’d undoubtedly seen on television, with lines such as: Africa, a country of wonder in my eye. Hunger, to live and die. Then finally, after we had heard more than enough to offer an analysis, I interrupted her and began to explain that if she’d actually been to some countries in Africa, then she should speak specifically about herself in relation to those places, or if she was simply writing about her impression of the continent of Africa based on what she’d seen on television, then this was fine too, but only if she came clean and framed the poem in such a way. Indeed, a fair-skinned wannabe-Indian mother of nine living in Harris Park and making judgements about the third world based on what she sees on the television is more interesting than any of her White saviour fantasies. Straight away her eyes began to swell and her head began to wobble out of control. She said, ‘How can you know if it’s good or bad without having heard all of it?’ Usually at the core of this response is that the bad writer wants an audience rather than a critic – someone to listen to their story and their pain and show them compassion as though we are offering a free group therapy session (which is what most writers’ groups actually become). Nonetheless to answer the question of ‘how do you know’ at face value, the truth is that if a bad writer doesn’t know what good writing is on the first page, it’s impossible that they have worked it out on the fifth page, and a good editor will pick this up straightaway – especially when the title of the piece is Life Happens.
While some bad writers are not interested in any education and training, there are those who conduct what I call pseudo education and training. These bad writers respond to criticism of their work by claiming that they are emulating or drawing from the techniques and style of a good writer they have been reading. For example, we had a bad Croatian writer named Victor (after a lawnmower) who attended our writers’ group for over eight years. This was a middle-aged father of four who only ever wore bland-coloured trousers and checked shirts from Lowes and had a monotonous reading voice that sounded like Stephen Hawking’s speech synthesizer (which is rare because most writers in Western Sydney, even the bad writers, come from cultural backgrounds with developed oral storytelling systems and can perform their writing pretty well). At every workshop Victor attended, instead of taking any notes about his writing, which were always based on the fact that he was not being specific enough about who his characters were and where they were from, he argued that we were burdening him with cultural representation and that he simply wanted to write ‘the universal man’ and ‘the universal place’.
‘There is no universal man and place in literature,’ I told Victor week after week and year after year, even though I was well-aware from his conventional family-life, computer voice and plain outfits that he saw himself as the universal man.
‘But that’s how James Joyce writes,’ he responded.
Only a clumsy illiterate halfwit might think there is something universal about Leopold Bloom and Dublin on 16 June 1904 – and the problem is that such responses are predicated on the assumption that reading your favourite writer means you can now write like your favourite writer. I have no doubt that bad writers think they are writing the way James Joyce was writing but this is as absurd as a bad fighter thinking they can now fight like Muhammad Ali because they watched a video of him floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. Imagine this bad fighter then went to a boxing gym and displayed his Muhammad Ali fighting style to a trainer, only to be told that his footwork is a fumbling mess, his defence has major holes in it, and his punches are slow, sloppy and weak. ‘But that’s how Muhammad Ali fights!’ the bad fighter responds.
To adopt the style of a favourite boxer, bad fighters need to start from the ground up, learn how to stand before they learn how to float, learn how to jab before they learn how to sting. Similarly, to adopt the style of a favourite writer, bad writers need to start from the word up, learn how to manage a three line sentence before learning how to manage a four page sentence, learn how to write a short story before trying to write a novel – it’s unbelievable the number of bad writers who decide one day that they are going to write a novel and turn over 100,000 words before having had any confirmation from an editor, critic, publisher or accomplished writer that they can even write 1000 words.
A more embarrassing response than, ‘But that’s how James Joyce writes,’ is what I call the Milhouse defence – which draws reference to a moment in The Simpsons where Milhouse is criticised by Mr Burns and responds, ‘But my mom says I’m cool.’ Bad writers use this rhetoric to rebut criticism offered by an editor or literary critic or creative writing teacher; they claim that some well-known writer, who was clearly patronising them like a blind mother, said their writing is good. For example, during a writers’ workshop I was facilitating at the Blacktown Arts Centre, I met a young woman named Belle, the daughter of a plastic surgeon who adventured all the way over from North Sydney to show me a personal essay about how she envied the poverty-stricken kids she encountered in Mumbai: It didn’t matter that I was staying at a five-star hotel, brown kids just seemed to know how to laugh on the streets. I told her that this piece lacked a certain humour and irony about herself which was needed to distance it from yet another case of Poor White Girl syndrome. ‘Well I did a workshop in Bangalore with Arundhati Roy and she said my work was pretty damn great,’ Belle shot back. This is a pathetic and a disrespectful approach to the maternal and paternal figures we adopt in our writing lives. Firstly, Arundhati Roy wasn’t at the workshop in Blacktown to defend such a claim so I guess we just had to take Belle’s word for it; secondly, even if Arundhati Roy thought Belle’s essay was good, that did not mean she would have disagreed with my criticisms and discouraged Belle from any revisions; and thirdly, even if Arundhati Roy once told Belle that she was God’s gift to literature, how does that change the fact that I spotted a serious flaw in her work?
So now that I have detailed some bad attitudes towards writing, what are good attitudes towards writing? Unfortunately, there are some aspects of creative writing, like in all creative arts, that simply cannot be learned. No one can just give you the identity or experiences to tell an interesting, new, important or worthwhile story (which explains why so many writers steal them) and no one can just give you a unique voice or a unique method of evoking, manipulating and evolving the English language, or any other language for that matter. This is why I have always believed that Western Sydney writers have a particular advantage for creating new Australian literature. It is a region where culture is an orgy of Leb, Fob, Nip, Skip, Wog and Curry-muncher; where gender is a lawyer in a burka living next door to a Thai masseuse who gives Muslim boys hand jobs; where class is the great grandchild of Ataturk who is stalking his second-cousin on welfare at Auburn Japanese Gardens; and where sexuality is a clash between the Suzuki-driving hausfrau suburban gays of the South-West and the herds of transgender sex workers soliciting truckers in Mt. Druitt.
Fortunately however, for everyone there are some aspects of creative writing that can and must be learned. This involves research. To produce a great piece of literature a writer needs to engage in creative writing with the same degree of study, investigation and examination that one would need to engage in academic writing, or any other discipline for that matter. And while there are plenty of methods of research for creative writing, in this essay I will summarise them within four distinct categories:
1. Technique. Writers need to develop an understanding of the linguistics of the English language, including a practical knowledge of all the language tools, such as commas, full stops, quotation marks, ellipsis, italics, section breaks, colons and semi-colons, in order to effectively convey what they are trying to communicate. We can learn about spelling and grammar in texts like Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words (1984). For example, Bryson explains that the comma is the most abused and overused of punctuation marks in the English language, which is why, as a copy editor, and proof reader, I have spent, half my career, just, deleting, them. Another example Bryson discusses is the ellipsis, which in spite of the fact that it can indicate any given length of time is only ever supposed to be three stops. (Some do argue that it is four stops if you use it at the end of a sentence because you also need to include the full stop.) The fact that so many bad writers think the number of stops that form an ellipsis are determined by the length of time that has passed is the reason editors always have to deal with one of these ………………………………………………………
Furthermore, technique refers to how a writer might handle literary systems in creative writing such as tense, perspective, voice, pace, time, and if a writer is multilingual, how to negotiate the use of two or more languages in Australian English. One time I tried to explain this to the mono-toned universalist, Victor, whose latest story was constantly moving in and out of the past and present tense by accident. By this point Victor was a self-proclaimed Joycean scholar and quickly spat back, ‘James Joyce doesn’t follow any of these rules in Finnegans Wake.’ This was a total and typical misreading of what Joyce was doing – he was not misusing the language because he didn’t understand it, he was manipulating language to his will because he understood it so well. Indeed, the stronger one’s grasp of a language, the more one can bend the language, transform it, and reintroduce it as new language. To Victor I said, ‘Please don’t mix up your ignorance with Joyce’s genius.’ And that was the last time I saw him, a way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun…
2. Subject matter. If a writer is producing a work of fiction which concerns horse racing or mountain climbing or in my case boxing, it stands that the writer needs to do some research into the subject. This kind of research might involve practical application, as in you actually do some horse racing or mountain climbing or boxing, as well as some theoretical research into the field, for example investigating what mountaineers have said about mountain climbing or sports historians have said about boxing. If you are writing about people, then of course you need to do some research about these people. Now you’ve already done half the research if you’re writing about your own people, which is why writers are always encouraged to write what they know, not to mention that this is steeped in the politics of decolonisation, self-determination and empowerment, so hands off our stories, Whitie! But even if you are writing about an identity that is your own, you could investigate some of the creative and academic texts on your identity that are already out there. In Tamar Chnorhokian’s case it was certainly to her advantage that her story, The Diet Starts On Monday (SWEATSHOP, 2014), was about a physically and mentally challenged Armenian-Australian Apostolic girl from Fairfield and that she was a physically and mentally challenged Armenian-Australian Apostolic girl from Fairfield. However, after I read the original manuscript I said to Tamar, ‘What is your malfunction numb-nuts?’ Then I deleted two thirds of the book in one reading, 40,000 words in total, and as she started over on an Apple computer so old it still had ‘Macintosh’ in the logo, I stood over her right shoulder and screamed into her ear: ‘Research food groups and how they each impact and shape our bodies, you worm! Research dieting programs that actually work and the technical processes involved in undertaking them, you slob! Research socio-economic and cultural factors that directly impact people’s health in Western Sydney, you loser!’ And while Tamar sobbed and read and typed, I continued shouting until I could feel the veins in my neck throbbing and my voice straining, ‘Read some literary criticism about Armenian literature, you sad case! Read creative fiction about fat people, you maggot!’ Finally, the manuscript was ready and Tamar was standing upright outside my office. Her eyes tipped back into her skull, her teeth bared, she held the new draft to her chest and said, ‘This manuscript is mine, there are many just like it, but this one is mine.’
Even if a writer’s subject matter is based on fantasy or science fiction it still requires a serious degree of research in order to create a convincing fictional realm. Stories about space travel need some understanding of orbital mechanics, which were developed and written with detailed scientific accuracy and language in texts such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Stories about aliens or monsters need some understanding of the laws of nature, biology and anatomy, which were stitched together with disturbing consequences in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). (It is worth noting that Mary Shelley also drew from the most advanced scientific understanding of electricity and chemistry available in the early nineteenth century in order for Victor Frankenstein to bring his monster to life.) And stories about robots need some technical understanding of electronics, mechanics and robotics, which became a standard in the prolific number of short stories and novels written by science fiction writer and scientist Isaac Asimov throughout the last century, including most famously his collection of nine short stories called I, Robot (1950) (though claiming Asimov conducted research into robotics is an oxymoron since he was the one that invented the term ‘robotics’ while thinking it already existed).
3. Genre. This is the category of writing a writer chooses to work in, be it autobiography or autobiographical fiction or magic realism or romance or satire, or even a new, experimental or hybrid category. In addition to reading extensively within the genre you would like to write in, this also requires researching the academic and literary tradition of that genre – for example understanding the history of the gothic plays just as an important role in how a writer deals with the subject of vampires as does reading vampire novels, even if it is only to subvert the tradition. Vampires are a particularly relevant topic for me because every time I have taught creative writing in a girls’ high school since the Twilight series entered our global consciousness, I have been swamped with stories about some misogynist named Edward Cullen. My tolerance for this fad notwithstanding, I’ve often argued to these teenage girls that if they are in fact interested in producing creative writing about vampires they ought to do some research about the history of the vampire in literature: what does the vampire represent, what are the rules of the world in which the vampire exists and why. During my last workshop at Auburn Girls High School I said, ‘You need to know these rules even if it’s just to break them.’ One girl in a pink hijab responded, ‘Sir, do you mean like how Stephenie Meyer decided in Twilight that her vampires can go out into the sunlight?’
‘Exactly,’ I responded, ‘exactly.’
4. Form. What kind of text does a writer want to produce – is it a novel, novella or novelette? Is it a vignette or a short story? Is it a hybrid form, a short story written in limericks perhaps? Is it a poem, a prose poem, a slam poem? If for example you are interested in writing poetry, then before you start rhyming and rambling on about the moon and the stars, love and hate, life and death – the gospels of bad poetry – ask yourself, ‘What is a poem?’ Investigate the history of the poem from the root of the word to the day the word was rooted by hip hop and rap music. I was a teenager when I discovered that the ancient philosophers and the contemporary gangsta rappers on each end of this spectrum had come together to create the poetry of Punchbowl Boys High School. Etched into my English desk like rust and stardust were the words: Jesus and Tupac are Muslim.
Next we need to get specific about the kind of poetry and poems a writer wants to produce. Let us say for example you are going to write a collection of sonnets. Obviously you need to read a variety of sonnets, but it would also help to examine the context of the sonnet, where it came from and what purposes it serves. You need to learn about the technical guidelines for writing a sonnet – and whether these rules have ever been broken and why and how and by whom. Finally, you can begin experimenting with your own sonnets and find someone who has expertise in the form that can revise them with you. Hopefully this will result in the kind of exchange I had with the skinniest Pacific Islander kid I ever met at Belmore Boys High School. I read out loud, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ and he responded, ‘Shall I compare your pussy to my dick bro?’ Behold the Bard of Belmore.
Perhaps the most complicated literary form is also the one that most bad writers attempt to produce – the novel. Some scholars argue that the novel is a relatively new form invented by English writers sometime in the eighteenth century, while others argue that it is an ancient form, starting with Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, which was written in 1010. The novel has always tended to frighten people, from prohibitions because of controversial sexual content, such as Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), to fatwas because the novel has smeared the Prophet Muhammad, such as Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988). What’s most intriguing about the novel to me is that it really has no parameters. A novel can be 127 pages and have no chapters like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) or it can be 1488 pages like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993). A novel can be written as a collection of sonnets, in iambic pentameter, like another of Vikram Seth’s works, The Gold Gate (1986) or it can be told as a collection of vignettes like Sandra Cisneros’ The House On Mango Street (2009). It can constantly jump first-person perspective like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) or it can be divided into three parts, such as ‘heat’ and ‘water’ and ‘light’ in Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light (2014). A bad writer in Year 7, who weighed a hundred kilos and whose voice had not broken yet, demonstrated to me why so many young people in Australia are given the entirely wrong impression about the novel from a very young age. He said, ‘I am a novelist – I’ve written 300 pages and it has chapters.’ I told him that this was not the criteria that determines what is a novel and that it was the responsibility of his English teachers to explore the history and diversity of a form with him which has radically changed lives and shaped societies and cultures for as long as it has existed.
Last year I was facilitating a writers’ group for Penrith City Council, which in spite of the council’s attempt to attract young people, drew only four participants, each of whom was old enough to be one of my grandparents. Of the four, only one had claimed to have any formal education in creative writing, but I’m certain she was lying because she came into the workshop barefoot from across the street and said that her stories were so advanced and radical that the professors at Western Sydney University had kicked her out of the course. And of the four, none of them had ever been published anywhere but in community arts anthologies, the kind that includes every participant with no edits or revisions. I spent hours listening to these seniors read what can only be described as ‘roses are red’ poems, filled with lines such as, I saturate my heart and soul in your love. I also spent hours trying to offer them some helpful advice to improve their writing, to write something honest, specific, tangible, to use original metaphors and symbols that I could see in my mind’s eye, and to write something that was not a rehash of what they had been conditioned to believe a poem should be. One of the participants, who was named Harry and carried a walking stick, got so agitated by the idea that some educated Lebanese boy had tips for him, that he began to shout at me, ‘You’re just another shifty Ayrab!’ Then while he swung his walking stick in my face, missing me by an inch, he said, ‘Go on, if you’re so clever give us a poem, go on give us a poem!’
This essay has not been about offending bad writers, though I’m well aware that the truth is often offensive and hard to hear. This essay seeks to inspire bad writers, to encourage them to take creative writing more seriously and not to think of it as a God-given talent which just comes naturally. Creative writing is not a skill or profession bad writers can simply work out for themselves as they sit up late at night typing at their computers with dim lighting and the theme from Titanic playing in the background, reading back lines they wrote and telling themselves, that’s some good shit right there. This essay demands more from bad writers, because whilst I am certainly critical of bad writers, I also believe that bad writers who are interested in learning can become good writers. To those who are not interested in learning however, I’ll say to you what I said to Harry: ‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. I’m not a poet. And neither are you.’