Shortlisted in the Tasmanian Premier's prize!

I'm so delighted that The White Room Poems has been shortlisted for the Margaret Scott Prize, one of the categories in the 2017 Tasmanian Premier's Literary Awards. The announcement at the Theatre Royal in Hobart last night thrilled me to bits.

I have received such positive feedback and warmth from everyone who has read the book, it really encourages one to keep writing.

As one of the three shortlisted authors, I do encourage you to vote in the People's Choice Award!

The prize itself will be announced at Government House on 27 November 2017.

Anne Kellas after the announcement of the shortlist nominations

Some news about the Tasmanian Premier's Literary Awards

My book has been selected in the longlist for the Margaret Scott prize – one of the categories in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards. The shortlist will be announced at the start of the Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival on 14 September, at a special event at the Theatre Royal.

All ten writers featured in the longlist (as well as the ten longlisted for the Tasmanian Book Prize) are revealed at http://tasmanianartsguide.com.au/plp/

The prize itself will be announced at the end of the year.

Margaret Scott Prize, longlist 2017

Can you (really) write in workshops?

I've met some writers who say they can never write poems in workshops and it has always puzzled me.

Today I have been working on a poem I wrote in a workshop given by Australian Irish poet Robyn Rowland. I've been working on it for the past two years and it might turn out to be one of the best I have written in recent years.

It certainly is not a "workshop poem". It followed no recipe or prescribed pattern. It was not a group activity or a guided meditation. It just burst onto the page as I sat in a somewhat disengaged mood among a dozen or so poet friends looking at sheets of paper and photographs that Robyn handed out. Interestingly, I don't recall the "activity" that prompted the words of my poem in the way I recall other "workshop exercises".

Also, I don't recall who was sitting next to me when I wrote this poem but I can recall the angle of the shaft of sunlight, in the Friends School Meetinghouse. And for two years since, I have often recalled what I wrote about. It informed a key passage of my thesis and the poem has been growing.  This serendipitous kind of writing that produced a piece of writing I could work with has happened on only one other occasion, in a day-long workshop lead by Arnold Zable. These two expert writers know how to bring the listener-writer to a point within their own creative generative selves where something unique might happen.

Even so, many of the writers I know say they can't produce anything worthwhile in workshops, and I am keen to explore why, seeing that I too offer writing workshops from time to time.

I think the answer to writing well in workshops has as much to do with giving oneself permission as it does with the workshop leader. I mean a certain kind of permission: to sit in a group and yet not be swallowed up into the belly of the group, a permission, rather, to be swallowed up in the moment, concentrating – not on your self, or others, but on the work.

Obviously, I hear to you say. But let's go back a paragraph ... "concentrating – not on your self, or others, but on the work."

Those three things – self, the other, and the work – are the only things a writer has to manage, wherever they are. I nearly wrote, they are the only things a writer has to "worry about" but immediately wrote instead, to "manage" ... And there, in that action, is the crux of the matter.

If you "worry" –  about self, or others, especially in terms of what others might think of you yourself writing, then that is precisely where everything goes wrong, especially in a writing workshop. You need to give yourself permission not to worry. About anything. To glide. To slip into a time and space you have paid for, after all, in this workshop. Any workshop. To concentrate not on the person at your elbow or behind you writing, but on the work on the table beneath your fingers, growing. Getting rid of self-consciousness especially in relation to your peers is pivotal for letting your words flow. Wherever you are.

Manage your "self" and your attitude towards "others", and then I believe, your work will flourish. Practice this by writing in cafes or public spaces. See how it goes in your next writers' workshop. I'd be interested to know what happens.

Professor Ginsberg’s Notes on the Beats

THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION
A Literary History of the Beats
By Allen Ginsberg
Edited by Bill Morgan
460 pp. Grove Press. $27.

REVIEWED in The New York Times: "Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s longtime bibliographer, biographer and friend, has condensed the 100 or so lectures Ginsberg gave in the five courses he taught on the Beat Generation between 1977 and 1994, totaling almost 2,000 pages of transcripts, into a compact and often spellbinding text, preserving intact the story of the literary movement Ginsberg led, promoted and never ceased to embody."

"Far away is close at hand"

Photographic exhibition by Giles Hugo, Nolan Gallery, 3 March 2017

The launch speech for this exhibition is now on the Communion Journal website.

The exhibition was held a few months back at the Nolan Gallery. Jane Williams, who co-curates Communion with her partner Ralph Wessman, has called the speech a "found love poem" – I hope you will "find" the photographs that inspired the speech by visiting the gallery! Some of his photographs are on the wall but a lot more can be seen in drawers in the gallery.

"Time machine" © Giles Hugo 2017

"Does writing help? Or not?"

I was asked this question recently by Arthur W. Frank*, a scholar I so admire, who specialises in dialogical narrative analysis and narrative therapy. I had written to tell him how much his work had inspired and helped me when writing a very difficult thesis about the death of one of my sons.

"Does writing help? Or not?"

In his reply to me, Frank said this question had been in his mind for many years as he wrote and researched his "illness narratives" – At the will of the body, The wounded storyteller.

I find his question hard to answer in the way that writing a poem is hard: the answer runs away at the edge of the page, refuses to be pinned down in easy phrases. And yet the poem is, and the question is, soaringly liberating, and liberating to wrestle with.

His email to me explained that all the while he wrote, his wife had been busy interviewing bereaved parents like me, "bringing home stories of these parents, their grief, and how they found ways to go on ...  So I think that parental bereavement has been part of my thinking since I began this work." Knowing nothing until now, of the atmosphere of parental bereavement in which Frank had been putting forward his beliefs on narrative analysis, there I was, a bereaved parent so attracted to his work, as instinctively as a moth to a candle.

As with his books, like Letting stories breathe, Frank’s question unlocked something for me. It got me thinking about writing on many dimensions, and about the different kinds of writing I have done over the past 10 years:

  • participating in an email-based bereavement study conducted by a group of PhDs in Holland – a three-month intervention I undertook early in my grief
  • journalling, using the Progoff method of intensive journal writing
  • writing poetry – for me a very stop-start, haphazard form of writing where there is not always an easy relationship with one’s writing/life
  • teaching writing, which always excites me and takes me into new directions
  • academic writing, and finally, 
  • writing prose and poetry, post-thesis.

Looking at that list of different kinds of writing, and asking, "Did writing help? Or not?" I find this apparently small question extends long tentacles into my understanding of grief. At some level, writing does not help. Grief remains. As I would wish it to. Who could want to ever forget François?

When applied to academic writing, the question is deeply radical for people who, like me, write autoethnographies. In some ways the idea of writing as therapy, of writing to help the author, undermines the very purpose of autoethnography, which is to help critique culture: autoethnography aims to serve wider cultural purposes.

However, autoethnography is persistently misunderstood as self-writing. Recently an academic colleague said she regarded autoethnography as blogging culture. No, writing culture, I countered, citing Clifford & Marcus's book by that title, which explains the ethnographic roots from which autoethnography sprang. Autoethnography developed over three decades ago, long before the clumsy word "blog" made such an impression on our consciousness.

Returning to Frank’s question, Does writing help, my own answer is a qualified "Yes... writing helps, but ..." You can hear the "No" in the wings.

My qualified "Yes" comes from a deep experience at one narrow point in my thesis, where I felt ill with stress. I felt impelled to analyse my grief, for once and for all, instead of persistently ignoring it as instructed by my university's ethics committee guidelines. This grief writing came to the fore in an intense session of Progoffian journal writing. That intense writing, to my surprise, lead me on to write about something underlying my grief, which was fear.

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear", said CS Lewis, in the opening chapter of A grief observed. Examining my fear, in turn, lead to an insight for my thesis: that at the heart of my story lay stigma.

That insight, which started out as an exploration of the physical pain of grief, completely turned my thesis results chapter around, and made it face into the direction where all the work of the autoethnography had been leading all the time: how very deeply the twin issues of shame and stigma were ingrained in almost every level of my story of youth mental illness.

Wrestling with grief and fear as if with the proverbial thorn in my side, discovering how stigma was deeply embedded in my story and in society's response to difficult accounts of the lives of contemporary youth, helped my thesis find its way down the path to its conclusion.

Until I did that piece of intense writing, I had been blind to the full implications of my story and my son's. Here, writing, even writing against the grain and into the headwinds of something proscribed, helped. Yes, overwhelmingly yes, writing helped! After all, as Laurel Richardson has told us, writing is "a method of inquiry".

We could leave it at that. But sometimes, writing does not help. And what of those times, when the answer to Arthur W. Frank's question is No?

Do writers write about those times? The experience of writer's block is, like fear, always an experience of something else being blocked just as fear is a fear of something else deeper. Here is where I turn to Progoff's method for unlocking more than mere "creativity" through journalling: writing into the answers. Or at least, towards them.

This post was revised on Monday 18 September 2017.

* Arthur W Frank is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Calgary, where he has taught since 1975. He is currently professor at VID Specialized University, in Norway, where he teaches on narrative practices and the intersection of healthcare, therapy, and ethics. He is also part of the core faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice in Boston.