Carmel Bird on the many sources of creative inspiration

One of the great classics of creative writing teaching in Australia is Carmel Bird's Dear Writer. Warm, wide-ranging and filled with practical tips, sound advice and inspirational quotes, it has been loved and used by wannabe writers (including yours truly) since it first came out in 1988. Of course, I was merely a child then. :-)

Last year the clever people at Spineless Wonders released a brand new edition called Dear Writer Revisited and I have been thumbing through it and doing the exercises ever since I got my new copy hot off the presses. Indeed, I have been so inspired by Carmel's wisdom in this wonderfully quirky little book that I am offering my own creativity classes in 2013. And you can bet I will be urging my students to buy themselves a copy of Dear Writer Revisited.

Taking the form of an epistolary exchange between neophyte writer Virginia O'Day and the godlike "Writer," each of the letters in this book provides a look at a different aspect of writing, concentrating on the craft of writing fiction but most often applicable across the board. Bird is one of those who, like me, is confident that the craft of writing can be taught, and it is in this spirit that she created this immensely useful and constantly stimulating book.

In introducing the book Carmel Bird reminds us:

"A writer needs to be a reader, to know how to read, and how to think about reading and writing. Needs to understand something about the history of fiction and to know a great deal about the present context, the present world of writing."

Oh that such words could be etched above the doors of writers' centres and adult education colleges everywhere! No-one can start cold - we all need to be immersed in the creative world in which we hope to make our mark.

There are many, many tips, prompts and exercises throughout the book, and each "letter" is organised thematically. But here are 6 sources of inspiration I took from reading the book:

1. Childhood - we all looked at the world with fresh eyes when we were young. We can apply some of that fresh seeing to our writing now, no matter how old we are.

2. Explanations - unexplained happenings and wild coincidences do happen in life, but in fiction they are unsatisfying. You need to have a total world worked out in your head. If you can explain it, the reader will probably believe it - even if you haven't spelled it all out on paper. Anticipate the doubting Thomases.

3. "Reality notebooks" - write down the real things you see and encounter each day that strike you as interesting. This little notebook will be gold when it comes to writing and describing. The act of writing is a constant process. Even when not plonked down in front of our computers we can be finding inspiration in everyday life, and often some of our best material can come from these mundane observations of how things really are.

4. Wit - my favourite rule ever when it comes to creative writing: Don't be boring. If you can observe this rule scrupulously, you will always have happy and satisfied readers. So glad that Carmel Bird agrees with me, who agrees with Evelyn Waugh, who agreed with Nancy Mitford. The very worst thing your writing ever could be is dull.

5. Outside - Bird confesses to writing in graveyards when she was younger, which is a wonderfully romantic touch. My own outdoor destinations are more run or the mill - cafes, libraries and - perhaps more picturesquely - quiet Buddhist temples. But the fact is that almost all writers agree - they write a lot when they leave the house. If you find yourself stuck or not even being able to begin, go somewhere else and write your heart out for an hour or two.

6. Meditation - meditation is all about sitting down and letting the thoughts work themselves out. It’s about not clinging and not remembering. This can be agony for a writer, who is always hoping to remember everything and commit it to paper. But the quiet and mental digestion of meditation can be very effective for writers. Bird suggests that we give ourselves time to simply "dump" on paper - perhaps in a diary format - after periods of quiet or sleep. Just let it all hang out, and later revise it and sift the gold out.

Bird goes on to talk about how writers structure their work and how they fit writing into their lives. She suggests we forget housework and really devote ourselves to a set period of writing, or to an acceptable word count. We need to keep eventual publication in mind, but we mustn't let its absence stand in the way of us continuing to produce new and interesting worlds. Many famous authors, she reminds us, spent many years waiting for good news from a publishing house.

In the final section of "Analysis" in the book Bird writes:

"Time and again aspiring writers ask practising writers about the sources of their ideas, and how these sources translate into fiction.

It is one of the key questions in the quester's quest for the secret to writing stories.

Time and again the practising writer will try to explain that there is no secret formula, but the quester comes back again like the fat man looking for the secret pill that will trim his body down.

There is no secret, there is no pill."

Harsh but fair advice, and typical of the great good sense of this really practical book.

Carmel Bird

You can buy a copy of Dear Writer Revisited here


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