Writing is a solitary activity, and writing a book takes a long time, so long that there are days when I’m beset with doubts: Is this any good? Will it contribute anything true to humanity? Should I really gag the world with another book?
Although Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard said that these doubts are no more than mosquitoes to be ‘repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged’, dissenting voices in my head are not easily quelled. The support and belief of family, friends, and bodies such as Arts SA, strengthen my resolve, and give me the means, to keep going.
The category name – Emerging Artists Mentorship – is itself a hopeful one; it lends itself to the belief that an artists can emerge, from someone, somewhere, and that mentorships facilitate that process. This hope compels me to continue to sharpen the tools in my toolbox, to continue to string words into sentences, tame sentences into paragraphs, and sculpt paragraphs into stories.
The story I want to tell is the story of Adelaide, made up as it is of the stories of many people, some who have undertaken perilous journeys to get here, to make this place their home. The genre is creative non-fiction. The title is Place of Refuge.
I tried to write Sabah and Lamia’s story but nothing worked. I tried to imagine what it was like in their home in Baghdad but I could not conjure up sounds or smells or faces or places. I tapped into my imagination but found nothing there that was remotely Iraqi. And why would there be? I am Malaysian Chinese.
So back to the drawing board. Back to transcribing the interview. Close my eyes. Listen to their voices. Off to the library. Borrow (almost) every book on Iraq. Google Map Baqubah, Baghdad, Amman – satellite view, map view, photos.
Arnold Zable, writer and story teller, said that good story telling (both fiction and creative non-fiction) is about imagining. If the writer is immersed in the story, he or she will be able to bring the reader along. Imagining is sensual – see, feel, hear, taste, touch, then recreate the scene in prose.
My fast food approach to writing – quick and expedient – failed miserably. My inner landscape needs more work. Imagining is like cooking up a good stew, you really need to take care to brown the meat in batches – don’t overcrowd the pan, take time to sweat the chopped veggies over low heat, add the spices and fry till fragrant, pour in the stock and slowly simmer till the meat falls off the bone, the sauce is thick and rich, and the smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen to the dining room to the lounge and eventually fills the whole house.
In my garden, there is a patch of brown dirt that is unremarkable. My irrigation line doesn’t extend here so the earth starts to dry out in summer. By February fissures appear like cracks on a chocolate cake when it’s almost done. Visitors walk past it without a glance.
But sometime in March, a small, white tip pokes through the soil. From the hard earth, more delicate spears emerge and, after a few days, blossom into six-petalled blooms that transform the dirt patch into a carpet of purple autumn crocuses.
This patch is just outside my study, where I’m trying to cajole Sabah and Lamia‘s story into a work of creative non-fiction. To help me is Mark Tredinnick‘s Little Red Writing Book. On Creative Writing, he advises, ‘Write most quietly when the politics are shrill. That’s when quietness and calm and inconsequential beauty are most exquisitely needed.’
Back to my writing I turn. As I write Place of Refuge, I keep, at the back of my mind, a picture of the delicate spears, surprising in their strength, finding a way through rain-starved soil, catching visitors by surprise with colour and beauty where once was only nondescript brown dirt.
Creative non-fiction is a genre defined by what it is and what it is not. It is creative; it is not fiction. What is the opposite of fiction? Fact? But if I say that I’m writing creative facts, it just sounds as though I’m lying. Creative non-fiction is the telling of true stories in a creative way.
At yesterday’s SA Writers’ Masterclass with historian and author, Miranda Richmond Mouillot, I learnt the plot points in a narrative arc: opening scene, crisis, resolution, the dark night of the soul, the sun shines again, the end. Mouillot said that the movie Legally Blond hit all the right points in all the right places.
So watching Legally Blond is on my To Do list, right after my interview with a couple from Iraq for my book, Place of Refuge, a work of creative non-fiction. I have been intrigued by little snippets of their story, gleaned from casual conversation, and I am looking forward to the chance to hear more.