Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eroticising the landscape, and the method of successive approximations

The method of successive approximations is the way to go, I decided last night, as I tried to beat my latest story into shape. Sometimes I think I'm just too much of a scientist to be a writer - always looking for some theory or clever trick to capture or explain the creative process. Well anyway, it's my latest way of thinking about writing. Start with a broad idea, write it out, however it comes out, and then gradually shape it closer and closer to the 'ideal' in one's mind. It's kind of obvious in a way, but I find it a more helpful way of thinking about writing than a linear write-it-from-beginning-to-end type of model, which tends to lead to me obsessively reworking paragraph one to the brink of perfection or extinction.

The other day, I came up with this:

In the clog of the river, the slow sick froth and stagnation she’s lain for three days, face down and slowly swelling with the stench of the crime. Gone the girl, the beautiful girl, she’s long fled among the reeds, the cicada song, the thrips and the swooping kingfishers, she’s rushed out like a gasp into the starry chill. That is her in the long, elegant step of the heron, her in the silky fall of dusk, her in the crushed breath of eucalypt, the sigh of night breeze.

The thing down there in the river bend is not her, is nothing, only the carcass, the bag: a corrupted sac of virescent meat. The river stings and itches with flies, and plops with gases, and gathers the scum of decay in its teeth of rotted trunks and boughs. The thing-that-was-once-a-girl goes to collect there too, to slowly bloat and stink and simulate life with its sighing and popping and subsiding, as if restless with sad thoughts. It forgets itself and farts and belches and lets itself go completely, gets fat with death, does not even care that the rats tear flakes from its soft, white edges, that the maggots swarm on the water line and fill its skin like a piƱata. It embraces decay unreservedly, loses unity and becomes a multitude, a human-shaped colony of crawling and microscopic things, her once fine, splendid flesh softening, loosening, dissolving away, so that soon all that once clothed her in loveliness will break up like suds and the bones will rise out, a reminder that a life cannot so easily be unmade. The bones will rise out, white as stones, severe and fragile, to sing in the twilight of lost and forgotten things, of love unmade and deeds undone.

Somehow it seems unlikely to become a short story, more likely the novel I write while I'm not writing the novel I'm supposed to be writing. Am I really considering some Wolf-Creek-Ivan-Milat-Joanne-Lees suspense thriller here? Hmm, we shall see...

I think I mentioned that I convened a writers' group last year, beginning with writers who have all been published in the Sleepers Almanac, but now expanded beyond that somewhat. I call us the Almaniacs in my mind, but I'm not sure anybody else knows that. Anyway, we are privileged to have some fine writers in our small tribe, and none finer than Jessica Au, whose story 'Leopards' is probably my favourite from last year's Almanac and who, at the age of twenty-very-little, writes absolutely Winton-esque prose. She's been presenting chapters from her novel in development for our delectation in recent meetings. I wish I could post some of the lines here, but that would be presumptuous. I can't however resist the one quote, something about "girls with salt in their hair and bodies struck with sunlight". "Bodies struck with sunlight" - how simple and gorgeous. I read this chapter with a feeling of sick excitement and jealousy. Trust me, you read it here first: this book will win prizes, and if it doesn't sell as well, then you're all crazy you hear me?

I heard David Malouf on the Book Show on Radio National talking about "eroticising the landscape" when he writes, and that is exactly what Jess does so beautifully: she manages to scoop some of the essential and the sensual out of whatever she describes, so that what comes off the page is somehow more vivid and sublime than the real thing.

I went back to my own half-finished offering after the group finished feeling curiously dispirited and inspired (impossible, I know, but true). I just had to get some of that same vividness into it. Writing about erotic love, I realised I was sentimentalising, vaselining my lens. I was missing the irregularity and uniqueness of my subject. Everything was getting emulsified, and in the process actually losing its eroticism. So - the method of successive approximations - I started trying to write in these unexpected, even jarring elements. My perfectionism can be a killer, but it also means I get better, I hope. I'm always seeing the David (Malouf?) in the marble and trying to chip him out.

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