Literary adventures in the female perspective: four books worth reading

FullSizeRenderFor anyone interested in exploring the female point of view, I can recommend four excellent books I read recently.

They’re all written by women. Two are novels by post-apartheid South African writers being Marita Van Der Vyer’s  ‘Entertaining Angels’ and Pamela Jooste’s  ‘Frieda and Min’. The third is ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by English writer Jeanette Winterson  and the fourth is a collection of three autobiographies by the late New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame called ‘An Angel at My Table’.

All are prize-winning writers, all broke new ground and while each tell very different stories set in different places and times, there is a common thread running through each: they tell stories about women that go on painful journeys of self-discovery and emerge stronger, more complete and with a defining sense of who they are.

While all four novelists would, I am sure, happily where the tag of “feminist” they are really “humanist” writers, telling stories about the female human condition.

For me, it was an un-expected journey into the female psyche that began by accident when I picked up the two South African novels in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in Norwood, Johannesburg, run by two elderly African ladies, while on holiday last year. Later, back in Melbourne, I found the two other books on a shelf of ex-library books for sale outside our local library.

entertaining angelsEntertaining Angels (translated from Afrikaans) was the first book I read. Set in 1989, just before the collapse of apartheid, it tells the story of Griet whose life is in a downward spiral: her husband has thrown her out, she lost her baby and her attempt to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven – a la one of her literary heroes, Sylvia Plath – failed (rather comically) because a dead cockroach inside put her off. Griet starts to see a therapist and begins writing fairy tales as a path to healing.

It was a ground breaking South African novel when first published in 1992 in the early days of the ‘new South Africa’. Van Der Vyver broke free from her conservative Afrikaans culture with the story of a young, well-read, enlightened Afrikaans woman writing about grief, sex, Mandela and ‘The Struggle’ and literary heroes like Germain Greer, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin.

Van Der Vyver’s writing has a magic realism to it as it flits between Griet’s contemplation of her real life journey – alone and barren living in an unfurnished flat with cockroaches – and her fairy tales adventures and travels back in time to Grandma Hannie and Grandpa Petrus’s old farm-house in the stillness of the Karoo.

Written from the perspective of an intense, questioning, deeply thoughtful young Afrikaans woman trying to heal herself in the days before the end of Apartheid, Entertaining Angels is deeply nostalgic, quirky, tender and wryly funny.

But everyone knows it’ easier for a man to live out of a suitcase. What do you do if you begin menstruating in the middle of the night and you discover you didn’t pack your Lil-lets? Or if you forgot your imported night cream….

frieda and minFrieda and Min is a ‘coming of age’ novel spanning three decades of friendship between Frieda Woolf, a Jewish girl growing up in a traditional, poor family in a South African mining town near Johannesburg and Min, a fiercely principled young girl of the same age who dreams of becoming a rural doctor to black South Africans, defying the orders of the Apartheid regime and its puppets. Being Jewish and having grown up in the same mining town as the novel is partially set (Germiston is Frieda’s home town) gave it a deeply personal resonance, but for anyone else, it’s a classic story of two friends from different backgrounds and beliefs and how their lives unfold and diverge, and eventually come back together amidst personal and political upheaval. Despite having many stereotypical characters – the idealistic white girl taking on the evils of apartheid, the Jewish girl looking for a husband and marrying the wrong (rich) man – and plotlines, the writing is superb and fresh. Each girl tells their story in their own words and in the first person as they lose their innocence and come of age. In parts it reminded me of Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs‘ but with the Jewish family in South Africa and the apartheid themes of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the ‘Beloved Country’ with a dash of JM Coetzee‘s stoic fatalism.

Frieda: My mother loves shul. She’s there twice a week. You have to take either a train or two buses to get there and everything costs money, but you couldn’t keep her away if you tried. Where we live in Germiston she may be the Jewish woman, but when she gets to Waverley, she is the Queen of the Waverley shul.

orangesOranges are Not the Only Fruit, is written from the perspective of Jeanette, a young gay girl growing up under the thumb of her religious, adoptive mother in an ultra-conservative English Pentacostal Community in a Northern industrial town. Jeanette has been indoctrinated into her evangelical beliefs, but as she grows older, she questions them. Then one day she falls in love with and has an affair with Melanie. There follows an attempt at exorcism, she returns to the fold, but later after another affair with a woman she runs away, discovering her independence and identity. Drifting into allegorical fairy tales, it has a dark humour (chiefly Jeanette’s at times terrifying mother) and provides a ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess (exorcism and fiery sermons) and obsession.

I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie but she was beautiful and good and had loved me.

an-angel-at-my-tableAn Angel at My Table is the title of three autobiographies that trace the life of New Zealand’s most famous literary hero, Janet Frame, from her birth in Dunedin to her impoverished childhood in the coastal town of Oamaru and later her great journey to live in London and the island of Ibiza, returning seven years later as a famous novelist. The first volume deals primarily with her family – her sacrificial mother, her early attempts at poetry, the musing of a bright, highly sensitive, creative mind and the death of her sister Myrtle, who had dreamed of a life in showbiz. The most famous part of her life – Frame’s lengthy stay in a mental institute where she was wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic and narrowly avoided a lobotomy. Part three follows her journey to the North island of New Zealand, where she meets the short story writer Frank Sargeson, who invites the intensely shy Frame to live at his guest house and encourages her talent and is the impetus for her seven-year overseas odyssey.  Perhaps no one has written as intimately about the inner workings of a fragile, doubting, creative mind as Janet Frame. Reading all three intricate autobiographies is an extraordinary adventure that requires a devoted reader, but the pay-off – sharing the monumental journey with Janet Frame – is well worth it.

(Back in London from Europe)…my own past continued to loom. How could I regain my confidence when I had never been able to tell ‘my side of the story. I knew it was time for me to find out ‘the truth [about my schizophrenia]’…In the meantime I found a job, a literary agent, and I bought an encyclopaedia of sex.

Writing well really does pay according to a new survey

slide_272894_1944735_freeAs a journalist, there’s nothing more annoying than finding spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in your own work.

I confess that I always read my own stories first in the Australian Financial Review – the newspaper I write for – and feel gutted if there is a glaring error – spelling, punctation or grammar. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen to often.

Writers hold their own written work in high esteem, as they should, as it represents their personal brand.

Errors make you look stupid and can be downright embarrassing – or very funny if it’s not your own work.

A while back, a bestseller called “Eats, shoots and leaves” by British radio journalist Lynne Truss attempted to, very humouresly, highlight common punctuation mistakes and how they often change the meaning of a sentence. Her aim was to lift writing standards which have arguably gotten worse since publication of the book given the popularity of Twitter, Facebook and text messaging.(Embarrassingly, Truss made mistakes of her own, in her book).

You may scoff as you type out a garbled text message on your phone or dash off an unreadable tweet, but new research has found that there is a high correlation between how accurately you write and how well you do your job – and very importantly – the level of pay you earn.

Regardless of whether you are a salesman, lawyer, engineer or accountant – those who make fewer mistakes in their emails, reports and presentations are better regarded by those that employ them, and, they earn more money.

This came out of a study of  448 profiles on freelance jobs website Elance by Grammarly, a start-up proofreading web application that finds and explains in-depth grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes online.

Grammarly found that an engineer who made 10 or fewer errors per 100 words written in their online profile earned on average $521 per project while an engineer who made 30 or more errors earned less than half that.

Similarly, lawyers who made less than 10 errors per 100 words earned $372 per job, while those that made three times as many errors earned only $198.

Overall, it found that freelancers who made the fewest mistakes received the highest reviews from their employers – those who made the most mistakes were rated much lower.

In short, accurate writing increases credibility, hireability and pay.

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Grammarley survey: writing well pays better

Journalists and others that write for a living will be pleased to know that – according to the study – writers make the fewest mistakes, followed closely by those in admin and  legal roles.

While it was perhaps not surprising to find that IT professionals make more mistakes on average than any other professional – almost one in every five words – it was alarming to learn that those in leadership positions (in finance and management roles) are almost as bad.

Perhaps it explains why big companies all hire expensive public relations executives – to find and correct all those top management mistakes, before they become public relations disasters.

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Freshlyworded.com is also giving away one free premium access account to Grammarly. Just send your name and email to freshlyworded@gmail.com – The first email received will win the premium pass.

In memorium: the suburban video store

The joy of browsing for a movie...fading fast

The joy of browsing for a movie…fading fast

We watched a lot of DVDs on our recent family holiday on Phillip Island, courtesy of the local video store. We found Phillip Island Video Hire by chance, on the second evening of our holiday, while taking a stroll after dinner. Behind the counter, the spectacled, purple-haired proprietress, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt saved us from a twentieth viewing of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (in video format!) and the ultimate horror, enduring Jar-Jar Binks again and ‘The Phantom Menace’. Our holiday home was a cozy little cottage with a wood-burning fireplace, a TV the size of a postage stamp, one of those technological relics – a combination video and DVD player – and a small pile of reject videos and dust-covered DVDs. Thank god for the local video store! In the evenings, once our little girl was sound asleep, we’d brew tea, bring out the Tim Tams and stretch out in the darkened lounge, illuminated by the flickering orange fire, and watch a movie. (Our selections included the excellent ‘Kill the Messenger‘, the very watchable ‘November Man‘ and Australian-made crime drama, Son of a Gun) While it’s perhaps not that surprising to find a video store still in operation in a coastal holiday town like  Phillip Island (alongside second-hand bookstores and surf shops) in the suburbs of Melbourne and around the world, video stores are dying out in their droves, losing customers to a plethora of cheap video streaming services (Stan, Presto, Netflix, iTunes to name a few) that deliver movies instantly to your home TV, illegal downloading and DVD piracy. Rising rents have also hurt. In the past six months, two local stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy  – have closed in Niddrie, leaving our northern suburb without a video store. (For more stories on video store closures read here, here and here). In place of our local Blockbuster, there is now a giant Pet Warehouse (with DIY dog wash) while a little further down the main road, Video Ezy has been consumed by the neighbouring medical centre. Like the demise of newspapers, the internet or ‘technological progress’ has killed the suburban video store – what was once a fixture of every retail strip, high street and shopping complex alongside Chinese takeaways, bottle shops and pizza joints. More than that, it’s killed a tradition that I, as a child growing up in South Africa in the late seventies, eighties and nineties, remember fondly. In those day, a trip to the local corner video store in Germiston – a mining town about 20 minutes from Johannesburg –  was something to get excited about. It was a family outing!

betamax

We had a Betamax player, similar to this

Our store, Cachet Video, rented out not just movies, but video players as well, firstly Betamax and later VHS players, decades before the arrival of DVDs. I remember, fondly, our top-loading bulky brown Betamax player with a remote control that connected to the machine by cord and which was at one point, the envy of our street. There was the fun of browsing and choosing and I loved turning over the age-restricted movies – when no one was looking – to see what scenes from the movie were on the back. The video store proprietor stood behind a counter in the corner, like the lord of home cinema (also the owner of the attached convenience store South Africans call a ‘cafe’), who would pull out a hand written card bearing our account information when the time came to exchange our empty boxes for actual movies. Having checked we still had credit, he would then disappear into a cavernous back room and return with the precious movies.

Where Cachet Video once stood, an iconic childhood memory

At one time ,the premises of Cachet Video, Germiston, South Africa

A rental transaction always concluding with my mother or father asking: “How many moves do we have left on our account?” Being a conservatively-minded family, my parents only allowed age appropriate selections, but I confess, that on holidays, when my parents were at work and my siblings were elsewhere, I’d race down to the video store on my maroon-coloured 24 speed bike, rent a movie like Police Academy or Revenge of the Nerds, where there was a guaranteed fabled topless scene. The proprietor looked me up and down – shaking his head, or so I imagined – but never said anything when I sheepishly handed over the video box. Then I’d race back to watch the film, fast forwarding to the ‘important scenes’ and then furiously cycle back to return the movie, before my parents returned home. Later in life, when slightly more mature (and having a car), I made many trips to Johannesburg video establishments like Video Spot on Jan Smuts Avenue, Hyde Park, with its vast collection of art house films and foreign movies to choose from.I remember what I thought at the time were ingenious arrangements of films by actor (Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino etc), director (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Allen etc) and franchise (The Godfather, James Bond etc).

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

Later, living in London, there were numerous trips to the Blockbuster video store on Golders Green High Street  (now also closed). In the afternoon, we’d wonder down in a group to choose a weekend movie or two, stopping on the way back home at the local Turkish Shop for cheap wine, pita, dolmades, dips and snacks. On one occasion, we forgot to return a movie before going on holiday for three weeks – the Blockbuster bill was about 60 quid. Living in Sydney, my wife and I and often the dog walked up William Street, past the drunks and prostitutes to the video store in Darlinghurst to rent episodes of The Office and The Sopranos. In Melbourne, it was Blockbuster of Video Ezy (or Video Sleazy as some called it) where browsing the aisles for a movie became a regular weekend fixture, invariably accompanied by a Thai curry. Even in the comparatively boring Niddrie Blockbuster, there was always the $2 section of classics, where you could find an old Woody Allen or re-acquaint yourself with a Clint Eastwood early Western. And there were the familiar faces – the small Asian man who ran the shop (and dished out the fines) who was close to tears when it closed down, the geeky guy with the half-formed goatee often on the phone reminding customers their movie was due back three days ago and the nerdy film buff – plus the huge selection of American candy, merchandise and figurines. Now all that’s left are a couple of self-service kiosks where there’s invariably someone standing behind you sighing heavily, while you try to choose something from a pathetically inadequate collection. So, I shed a tear for the video stores of my youth, my adolescence, my adulthood and my fatherhood and raise a glass to the nerds, geeks, rude bastards and eccentrics who worked in those stores. In fitting tribute, the classic video shop scene from Clerks:

Andre Agassi’s odyssey and the death of flamboyant tennis

agassiReading Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, you realise how boring men’s tennis has become.

No wonder they are trying to re-invent the game with a new idiotic format, Fast 4 tennis.

Tennis players these days by and large remind me of Ivan Lendl, the gaunt Czech number one who dominated the game in the late 1980s winning eight grand slams. Lendl had the charisma of a can of tuna (the no name supermarket brand). Expressionless, machine-like, Lendl wore opponents down with relentless accuracy. (Jim Courier was another mind-numbingly boring player to watch and even worse, to hear these days as a commentator).

The current world number one, Novak Djokovic, is very much Lendl-like, and while we all admire Roger Federer as the greatest player of the modern game – Agassi calls him “the most regal player I have ever known” – flamboyant he is not. Ditto Andy Murray. Perhaps only Rafael Nadal in full flight has something to captivate the imagination.

Andre Agassi burst onto the tennis scene at about the same time Ivan Lendl was at his peak and as the game’s other great entertainer – Enfant terrible John McEnroe – was nearing the end of his career.

Complete with enormous hair (actually a hair piece because he was going bald), earrings, colourful outfits and the most amazing return of serve and ground strokes the game has ever seen, Agassi shook the tennis foundation to its core, reaching his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1990 aged just 19 and winning Wimbledon two year’s later, a tournament he admits to hating for its rules and snobbery.

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Agassi ended up winning just as many grand slams as Lendl, (he won all four majors, something Lendl never achieved) doing so in an era dominated by another machine-like competitor, Pete Sampras. Without Sampras to thwart him, Agassi could have won as many majors as Roger Federer.

All the more amazing his success, given that Andre Agassi hated playing tennis.

“I hate tennis most of all,” he tells his friend, the actor Kevin Costner soon after winning Wimbledon, in Open.

“Right, right. I guess it’s a grind. But you don’t actually hate tennis.” – Costner says. “I do,” Agassi replies.

This conversation repeats itself throughout the book, becoming almost its mantra.

Forced to practice for hours and hours under the Las Vegas sun by his mad Iranian father and later sent away to be force-fed tennis at the Nick Bollettieri academy, Agassi says he despised tennis.

The problem is, he wasn’t much good at doing anything else, so he stuck to it, becoming, against the odds, one of the all time greats.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Open is the window Agassi gives into the world of professional tennis. The endless travel and hotel rooms. The dieting and fitness regimes. Overcoming injuries. Dealing with hostile sports journalists. Encountering rivals and finding ways to beat them. The physical and mental strain of competing and the agony of losing.

Of course there is also the joy of numerous come from behind victories, his most incredible being at the French Open in 1999 – a tournament which marked Agassi’s comeback from injury, disillusionment, dabbling with drugs and extracting himself from a soulless marriage to the actress, Brooke Shields. Agassi, ranked 141 in the world, fought back from two sets to love down against Russian battler Andrei Medvedev to win in five sets. Rousing himself from the jaws of defeat, Agassi writes brilliantly about how he started to win the mental battle after winning the third set:

He’s (Medvedev) has had too long to think about winning. He was five points away from winning. Five points, and its haunting him…

Open is a real ‘rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches’ tale and Agassi tells it well, especially when he’s in the cauldron of the packed arena slogging it out, somehow finding the will to win. His battles with Pete Sampras in particular are riveting blow-by-blow accounts of epic encounters.

Agassi comes across asschmaltzy, painfully honest and very likeable – the same can not be said for Jimmy Connors (a pompous prick), his ex-wife Brooke Shields (a vacuous airhead) and to an extent Pete Sampras (the accountant of the tennis world).

His coach Brad Gilbert, who helped turn his career around, comes across as an eccentric genius.

Agassi’s pursuit of Steffi Graf – told with embarrassing relish – is quite comical, particularly, the numerous rebuffs, but the lashings of syrupy cards and flowers leave one feeling a tad ill. The same can be also be said of Agassi’s choice of inspirational music which includes Michael Bolton, Celine Dione and Kenny G and his brief dalliance with “finding God”.

Whatever his musical shortcomings or sugary sentimentalism, no one has since entertained quite like Andre Agassi, who played his last professional match – almost ten years ago – at the 2006 US Open.

And Open is one of the best accounts of a life of tennis you will ever read.

The freshlyworded 2 minute review: ‘Compliance’ – a very disturbing experience

Compliance_Movie_PosterWhat’s being reviewed?

Compliance

What is it ?

A movie made in 2012.

What’s it about?

Based on a true story – or more accurately many true stories – Compliance is about a hoax phone call made to a fast food joint. The caller pretends to be a police officer and forces Sandra, the manager of the story to detain and strip search Becky, a pretty, blonde employee who works behind the counter. ‘Officer Daniels’ says Becky stole money from a customer and is being investigated for other crimes. He tells Becky she can either be stripped and searched in the back office of the restaurant or be taken to the police cells and locked up for the night. Later when the restaurant gets busy, Officer Daniels suggests that Sandra put a male in charge of watching over Becky, now naked, except for an apron…

If you only know one thing…

As unbelievable as it sounds, this film is an accurate depiction of real events at a McDonald’s in Mt Washington, Kentucky in 2004. It is one of about 70 hoax calls made across the USA where the caller duped managers of fast food outlets into strip-searching, humiliating and sexually abusing customers and staff. The caller was thought to be a 38-year-old prison warden, who was brought to trial but found not guilty by a jury due to lack of direct evidence. The caller used a disposable mobile phone and a pre-paid call card.

Is it any good?

Yes,I found it utterly engrossing and very disturbing. The acting is excellent and needs to be for the audience to accept the unlikely series of events that unfold. The acting is particularly good from Ann Dowd, who plays the do-good manager Sandra, Dreama Walker as Becky and Pat Healy as the creepy Officer Daniels.

What I liked most about it?

It’s voyeuristic quality, where it draws the viewer in and makes them almost complicit in the vile acts. It also makes you question, how you would behave in the same situation, from each character’s point of view. You want to watch and turn away. I also like the setting. The film is set almost entirely in a fast food restaurant called ChickWich on a snow winters day. The diabolical deeds go on in the back office while customers eat burgers and chips, drink sodas and socialise.

Famed film critic, Roger Ebert liked the film: “There is the uncomfortable realization that if a TSA agent (the person who screens you at a US airport) wanted to strip-search us at an airport, we might agree. Or would we? Would you?”

An interesting thing to ponder:

While you may balk at how easily Sandra, the store manager was sucked into the hoax or be disgusted at how Van, Sandra’s boyfriend followed orders, a famous 1960s experiment by behavioral scientist Stanley Milgram found that subjects would administer potentially lethal – so they believed – electric shocks to others even though they could hear their screams and pleadings through the wall. They did so because Milgram,  dressed in a white laboratory coat, stethoscope and clipboard, represented authority and most test subjects simply obeyed his orders.

How much time do you have to invest?

Compliance is just over an hour and twenty minutes long.

How do I watch to it?

If you’re living in Australia, you can watch Compliance for free on SBS on Demand (as of February 2015). Otherwise, search for it online. Here’s the official website.

Can you recommend something similar?

Happiness, a film made in 1998 by Todd Solondz filled with weirdos and perverts, plus a great performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Travels through literature, alcohol and America: A review of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by Olivia Laing

The trip to echo springErnst Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver had at least two things in common: they are all giants of 20th Century American literature and…they were all confirmed, raging alcoholics.

These two commonalities are the basis for ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by English author Olivia Laing, a writer and book reviewer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers.

The title of the book refers a line said by the sexually conflicted character Brick in Tennessee Williams’ great Southern play ‘Cat on a Hat Tin Roof‘.  He says it to indicate he is going to get a drink of whiskey: to numb the pain of his “mendacity”.

Laing sets out to explore how these six writers – whom she admired greatly and who shaped the course of American fiction – experienced, thought about, wrote about and dealt with their addiction to alcohol.

She does so by undertaking a physical trip across America in the Spring of 2011 starting in New York and staying in the Elysee, a hotel in Manhattan’s theatre district where Tennessee Williams spent his last days, and finishing in Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the upper north corner of Washington State, where Raymond Carver lived the last years of his life  and wrote some of his best short stories while living with the poet Tess Gallagher.

In between, Laing heads down to New Orleans to sit at the hotel bar where Tennessee Williams came in for a drink and to pick up young men and to attend the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, flies south-east to balmy Key West, Florida to visit Hemingway haunts, takes a train west to Baltimore and North Carolina to follow Fitzgerald’s own journey and then chugs out west to Illinois and Minneapolis, tracing the fatal path of the poet, John Berryman.

Amongst all this travel, are Laing’s reflections and contemplations of the alcoholic lives of these writers interwoven with meditative observations of the vast, constantly changing American landscape, mostly from her train window. She writes:

“In Alabama the earth was red and their was Wisteria in the trees. Somewhere deep in the country the train stopped in a pine forest. It was very quiet. A needle dropped lazily through the warm air. The woman beside me was on the phone…”

“Between Tuscaloosa [Alabama] and Meridian [Mississippi] we ran through uninterrupted miles of forest. The hills were covered in bone-grey timber, split and weather-worn into fantastic shapes. Then open country with cows grazing…

I awoke again at dawn. This time the world outside was white. North Dakota, flat as an ironed sheet.

The constant travel not only gives the book it’s part travel-guide feel, but also it’s momentum. Laing is not only on a journey to discover more about her literary heroes and their afflictions, but is also on a journey of self-discovery; making sense of a disjointed, dysfunctional upbringing and one washed through with alcohol. Her mother’s partner was a violent alcoholic.

One of the great strength of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring” and a sign of its success is that makes you want to go out and read (or re-read) the works of Williams, Hemingway, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Berryman and Carver, reminded as you are of their massive contribution to the world of literature despite the booze, blackouts, collapses, rehabilitations and relapses.

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

Just off the top of my head I could reel off a dozen books, plays and poetry collections I’ve now added to my “must read” list:

– The Glass Menagerie (Williams)
– Sweet Bird of Youth (Williams)
– For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
Death in the Afternoon (Hemingway)
– Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald)
– The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald – AGAIN!)
– Cathedral (Carver)
– Dream Songs (Berryman)
– Recovery (Berrryman)

Already, a copy of Cheever’s novel “Falconer” about a jailed heroin addict is waiting beside my bed and I’ve begun to read the opening scene of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from an old paperback that was tucked into the book shelf. And I am waiting for the opportunity to watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as Maggie and Brick.

Laing has great empathy for her heroes because of the writing they produced,  but she does not sentamentalise them, brush aside their faults or criticise their weaker efforts. Nor is their any glamorization of alcoholism:

[On Cheever’s drinking in 1966]: “…his drinking had passed well beyond normal measures now, even bearing in mind the norms of the time. When he wasn’t on location [filming his short story ‘The Swimmer’] he wrote in the early hours of the morning and by half past ten could be found twitching in the kitchen waiting for his family to disperse so he could administer the first self-soothing scoop of scotch or gin. If they didn’t leave quick enough he’d drive himself to the liquor store, where he’d buy a bottle, motor on to some pretty back street and sit there suckling, inevitably spilling a good slug down his chin.

All six writers were at times monstrous personalities, capable of inflicting great cruelty on their wives, children, lovers, friends and families: Raymond Carver almost killed his wife and was resentful of his own children, Tennessee Williams once defecated in a university hallway, John Cheever projected his closeted homosexuality into rage against his wife.

The book is rich with analysis of the works of fiction these writers produced as well as their non-fiction articles and memoirs. But she is no literary snob, relishing the opportunity to join a tour group visiting Hemingway’s home and museum in Key West or do a Tennessee Williams walk in New Orleans or enjoy meals with retired farmers on her train journeys.

The conclusions she reaches about these writers are not surprising – that they drank to deaden the pain of their childhood, their parents, their sexuality, their broken-ness, their perceived and real failures, while writing was a way to try to become whole again.

None,  apart from John Cheever, managed to stop drinking though they all tried. None lived into old age and two – Berryman and Hemingway –  died at their own hand.

But ultimately it is the journey that Laing takes you on through the minds and immense body of work of these giants of fiction that is the real joy

Not the destination.

Links:
An interview with the author, Olivia Laing  (Buzzfeed)
A review of The Trip to Echo Springs by The Times Literary Supplement
Olivia Laing’s personal website

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

– Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

– Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.