Monday, March 21, 2011

Interview: Journeys and the Writer's Life with Beth Yahp, NSW Writers' Centre Newsletter, 14 March 2011

Beth Yahp has published short fiction and travel/memoir feature articles in Australia, South-east Asia and Europe. She is the award-winning author of The Crocodile Fury, a novel, as well as a libretto, Moon Spirit Feasting, for composer Liza Lim, which won the APRA Award for Best Classical Composition in 2003.

This week, Jacqui Dent catches up with her about creativity, the journey and the balance between story and truth in memoir writing.

JD: What is your fascination with journey narratives?

BY: I've always been a wanderer. The child drifting off into the crowd, staying behind on the lift, stopping to stare at nothing in particular, that was me. To a large extent, it still is! It drives anyone I'm travelling with nuts. When I was small, the only way to get me to sleep was to bundle me into the car and drive around. I've always been attracted to movement and wandering/ wondering. These things are connected. The story of the journey is part of the journey—how we imagine the path of our travels even before we've gone anywhere, and then how we re-shape those travels after we've come back, into something meaningful, something that makes sense, even if only to ourselves.

What do you do to entice creativity into your writing?

If only there were a sure-fire formula, I'd bottle it. I'm going to sound very boring, but I've found that creativity mostly comes from practice—from preparing the ground for the spark to catch. Of course, there are moments of intense inspiration and the white-hot energy to carry a sudden idea through to wholeness on the page. But these moments are rare. In my experience, what Alice Walker said always applies: 'In order to invite the Muse, you have to make room'. She suggested meditation. Virginia Woolf suggested walking. Both of these are good. Walk, look, be silent, be still, listen. Then write fast—in order to circumvent that ever-present critic passing judgement over your shoulder. If your medium is words, images, and story, immerse yourself in your medium, and master it—a big part of writing is craft, after all. Be a wordsmith as a blacksmith is to metal. Read, read, read—not just for story but also for craft—how and why a story works. Gathering in a group is also good for sparking creativity—there's nothing quite like the buzz and energy of a group writing together, in speed, and community.

When it comes to memoir, how do you tread the balance between a good story and a true story?

It may be somewhat paradoxical, but I'm not sure it's possible to write a 'true story' when you're writing memoir—because you're writing it through the filter of your own experience, your perhaps imperfect knowledge of the facts (not to mention the penumbra of half-facts and what-ifs that surround the facts of any event), and your personal point-of-view, your world-view. If like me, you're no all-seeing, all-knowing deity in your own life, then you can only tell what's true for you, from your limited point of view. If you take that as your starting point, it frees you up as a writer to assume responsibility only for telling your version of the story-as well as you can. In any case, whether they're invented or remembered, all stories are constructed—they are made from words, not from life. And our experience of words in a story is linear, while our experience of life is not. [...]

Maybe the real question for memoir writers isn't about balancing what makes a good story and what makes it true, but about accepting and exploring the limitations of the genre. What makes my story a good story, period, whether it's true or otherwise? Why do I need to write it? Can I, and the people in my life, live with what I've written? Can I treat every character in my story as I would like to be treated myself? There is a definite connection between our stories and our lives, whether we write memoir or fiction, except that in fiction the connections are more hidden. This doesn't stop people trying to find those connections, though, however well you think you've hidden them. There is more 'hiding' in fiction, more invisibility for the author, and therefore perhaps more freedom to reveal deeper, more universal truths. There's much more pussyfooting around in memoir—especially in the writing process. It's maybe not so much about balance, but the paradox of being ruthless as well as compassionate; in forcing yourself to be not only yourself, the narrator, but every character that you write.

What's something you've learned and something you still need to learn as a writer?

I think I've learned patience—something along the lines of writing not being a means to an end, and that writing won't make me a better, richer, wiser etc. person. When I first started, years ago, I used to think I could live vicariously, through writing, and indeed one can-but this is only one kind of living, and a wounded kind. The opposite is also true—living your life to the brim, setting your writing aside, putting it last in your long list of things to do and see and get done. That's also only a kind of half-living-for a writer. These days I find myself thinking there's no separation between living and writing-but how to live and write holistically? That's something I still need to learn. I have a sneaky feeling it involves winning the lottery, somehow.

The first thing you ever wrote...

Not the first thing, which was probably my name, but the best thing I ever wrote was a dream book; I mean one that I wrote in a dream. It was the best writing experience I've ever had, penning a string of words onto a sheaf of concertinaed, sand-coloured paper that unravelled as I wrote. Both the words and the paper unfurled, the words racing across the paper beyond my pen, and both flapping and unfurling beyond me, out into the world. There was a lot of wind, and sea, and sand. I don't remember any of the words, just their movement, and the feel of an old-fashioned fountain pen in my hand. The kind of dream that wakes you up, laughing.

Beth Yahp will teach a six-week journey, memoir and fiction course Creativity and Craft: Journey and Life Writing at the Centre starting Friday 1 April 2011, 10am - 1pm.

Bookings and info:

NSW Writers' Centre
PO Box 1056
Rozelle NSW 2039

Phone: 02 9555 9757
Fax: 02 9818 1327

1 comment:

  1. Great interview! Love the dream and waking up laughing... And winning the lottery.