Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Populating a landscape – writers and writing

In an earlier post (Train reading – Conversations: Interviews with Australian Writers) I mentioned that I had been reading Paul Kavanagh and Peter Kuch (editors) Conversations: Interviews with Australian Writers(Collins/Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1991). Reading that collection, one phrase came to mind to describe the writing task: we take what we will and use it in our own ways for our own purposes.

We all mentally populate the worlds we live in. We impose order, patterns, create the familiar. You know how it works; photos on the desk; finding that favourite coffee shop; the shape of the buildings or country that we travel through all the time; and so it goes on.

The writer faces a particular problem because he or she is trying to bring the reader into a world that is often not familiar to that reader. The landscape has to be created in the reader’s mind by the reader based on what you write. Simple description won’t work, You have to attach a degree of emotion, build in such a way that the relatively ephemeral task of reading for a short time builds into a landscape that, if not familiar, is at least understandable.

You might think that this is just the domain of the novelist, poet or playwright where they are starting from scratch creating an imaginative journey. That’s not true. The same challenge is faced by other writers, including journalists, travel writers and historians. Each part of the craft has different rules, faces different issues, but the challenges are similar.

With a travel writer, there are hooks and tools to be used to attract the reader. A journalist can usually assume some base degree of familiarity. A novelist’s challenge is different again, for here the novelist is creating a new world. Most novels are situation and location specific, with novelists writing from their experience or research. However, the best novels transcend this in their ability to cross time, location and culture. 

An historian faces a different problem. Most historians write for a niche or, if popular, for a specific market segment. Like the novelist, the best histories at least partially transcend time, space and culture to reach out to a broader audience whose personal landscape is very different. They stand as literary works and are popular for that reason. 

I want to try for that for personal and professional reasons. To do this, I am trying to intensely populate my landscape, in this case New England,  over time in my own mind. I walk the streets and landscape,so that I know what they look like. This is both good historical practice and necessary for the picture being created in my own mind. I look for patterns and constraints, I smell the air.

Now before going on, consider this piece by Tod Moore on the Morpeth Review. I found it because I was trying to think of a story for my next Express column. St John’s College, arguably the first and very early tertiary institution in Australia outside a capital city, began in Armidale before moving to Morpeth.  There it and the short-lived Morpeth Review had an impact on Australian thought, an outlet for Christian humanism.  Look at some of the names; Burgman and Elkin can be taken as examples. 

Tod writes from a particular perspective, as do I. We are on different sides of the political fence. But when I look at the material, I see interface after interface with the work that I am doing; I  know the St John'’s building in Armidale; I have just walked the streets of Morpeth, although I did not get to the College site; I know or know of most of the people referred too; reading the names, I am aware of the links to Professor Anderson at Sydney University; but there is so much more than this. Local, Northern and national intertwine with events and thought elsewhere.

This is a writing post, not a history one. I am not arguing a case, just illustrating. So how might this fit into my history?  More than you would expect. There are so many interconnections with different parts of the New England story, of thought and political action. How many words? Perhaps 500 in a 100,000 word book, but interspersed over time; from the coal fields to depression Newcastle to attitudes about the Aborigines; from Christian humanism to worker education; It’s part of a story that illustrates and adds colour.

I thinks that’s both nice and exciting. However, it’s only a first step. The populated landscape in my own mind has complex physical and human dimensions. As I read and learn more, as I walk across the physical landscape and add that to the mix, the landscape constantly evolves. Facts, thoughts, stories and images swirl, forming new patterns. To write, I have to freeze all this. With so much detail, I have to select and then write sparsely, constantly building patterns. This is the writing challenge.

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