The Overland Master Class for Progressive Writers, conceived and facilitated by Overland Associate Editor, Rjurik Davidson was as inspiring as it was constructive. We were blessed, not only by Rjurik’s witty wisdoms, but those of prominent industry professionals, Tony Birch, Cate Kennedy, and Lucy Sussex.
Let me introduce the nine writers in the class: Alec Patric, Angela Meyer, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ilia Rosli, Warwick Sprawson, Daan Spijer, Koraly Dimitriadis, David Azul, and me.
Day One saw us huddled in the bowels of the Trades Union Hall in Carlton, shivering away under fluorescent light like all good subversive political writers should (I think). We made an eclectic bunch, the nine of us, and any nerves we might have had about criticising each others’ work, soon dissolved as we threw ourselves headlong into the task.
It was a privilege to read and give feedback on nine great stories, all ripe with potential. One of the best things about discussions and workshops on writing is that it’s so damn subjective. What I loved, another person didn’t, and vice versa. And still, there are always elements where the same response holds true for the entire group, and as a writer, these are those cherished moments where you tear up the paper in your hurry to get these criticisms down. They’re the ah-ha moments, where you hear your reader, loud and clear.
Tony Birch spent three generous hours with us on the Friday afternoon, and was bursting with knowledge about developing a set of ethics to guide your writing and taking ownership for what you produce. Tony talked about not being afraid of the obsessions that drive your own writing, and defending the story when you truly believe in it and in the characters you’ve created. You will always offend someone and Tony suggested, in no uncertain terms, you must get over that. He spoke about finding your writing heroes and continually going back to them to ask yourself why you love their work so much.
My own story was critiqued by the group on day one and it was well received by everyone. (At which point I actually started to breathe again. I did wonder why I was turning blue, I mean, it wasn’t that cold in there.) I got some invaluable feedback and will squirrel myself away for the next few weeks, re-drafting it.
Day Two saw us all arriving (in a blisteringly cold wind) with blankets, fingerless gloves and hot coffees (except me, of course, because I’m still on this damn detox and had to bring a nose-bag full of raw veggies – mmm, just what one feels like on a glacial winter day…) We spent the morning critiquing, debating, and deconstructing three more great stories, and were then blessed by a visit from one of my favourite writers, Cate Kennedy. Cate whipped up a sandstorm of creative energy in a little under five seconds and kept the pace up for a solid three hours that felt like five minutes. The ah-ha moments came thick and fast. She was extrememly generous. We discussed and practiced how to put pressure on your characters and how to crack that story open by starting it at the latest possible moment; that place where a character is at the brink of change. We were pushed to look at our work and ask ourselves – why am I showing the reader this? How did it come to this? What is at stake? What event will force the character to make a choice that will reveal something about them? What’s the unarticulated conflict?
The morning of Day Three saw the group in a meaty debate about Post-Modern ficto-criticism (yes, yes, I say I’m dumb… but really I’ve been fooling you all this time…) that got us forgetting about the cold and had us leaning in close and waving our arms about in that progressive writerly kind of way.
We were visited by Age reviewer and writer, Lucy Sussex, on the last afternoon and Lucy challenged us to think about the role of science in political writing. She gave us a Sci Fi writing exercise and 15 minutes to do it, and did I, with my already very vocalised dislike of Sci Fi, freak out? Pfft. Of course I did. I sat there for five minutes in what I like to call my ‘maths head’ – the state of mind I get thrust into immediately someone asks me anything mathematical: blank and terrified. After five minutes of blank and terrified that stern little voice in my head (that sounds awfully like my mother, but that’s a whole other blog post…) popped up and said You’re a writer, aren’t you? So write. So I did, for ten minutes, and you know what, I totally surprised myself by writing something halfway decent. What d’ya know!
Overland Editor, Jeff Sparrow came in as we were wrapping up and declared it beer’o'clock and off we trundled, leaving our strangely comforting cold room behind. You know the only downer of the whole three days? Jeff picked up his beer and asked me what my novel was about. Did I give him a concise, you-have-to-publish-this-masterpiece-sort-of-pitch? Course I didn’t! I gave him a rambling, incoherent description of a book that even I didn’t like the sound of. Sigh.