Accessing the creative mind – How fiction writers write

Wow! How can I begin to describe Sue Woolfe‘s workshop Discovering the Power of One’s Own Voice? Insightful? Inspiring? Life changing? Let’s say, all of those things.

Sue Woolfe is an award winning Australian author who teaches creative writing at the University of Sydney. Festival organiser and director of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Morrin Rout, introduced the session by telling the  eagerly awaiting participants how lucky we were to be able to attend one of Sue Woolfe’s workshops. I heartily agree with her.

Sue Woolfe started the workshop by quoting publishing phenomenon, Stephen King, who said ‘Plot is the last resort of the good writer and the dullard’s first choice.’  This statement turns on its head any traditional notion of story writing which tells you take a blank page, write Chapter One at the top of it, start at the beginning and keep on going until the story is finished. Most budding authors facing this prospect don’t know where to start, feel they’re stupid and give up.

Early in her career, Sue Woolfe realised this approach didn’t work for her. She wrote her first novel,  Painted Woman, in what she describes as a haphazard fashion. She wrote fragments here, bits there and then put it all together. She spoke to fellow author, Kate Grenville, about this and discovered she did a similar thing. They decided to investigate further and interviewed other authors. In 1993, they published Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written. The results were conclusive – all these authors wrote haphazardly. It appears this is the way to write fiction.

The first thing writers need to do is still the mind. The imagination is a huge resource we seldom access. We live in our logical brain, ordering, sorting, reasoning, planning. To access our imagination we need to still the mind. There is neurological evidence to support this. In 1975, Colin Martindale investigated the thought processes of people he called Creatives and Non-Creatives. He asked them to think of  ‘table’. The Creatives all started with a stage of low brain activity before they burst into action. The Non-Creatives kept brain activity at a steady rate. The Creatives used more mental range. Their associations were more varied and unexpected.

In the workshop, Sue Woolfe encouraged us to still our minds and start blurting – let it all out. She set exercises which involved observing a real person in profile and imagining what was on the other side of her face. She got the person to leave the room. Where has she gone? Who is she meeting? Write freely and don’t edit anything until you’ve discovered your story. And then, edit only for suspense. ‘Plot goes on only at the end like a beautiful mantle,’ she says. ‘And that is why it is the last resort of good writers.’

If you’d like to read more about neuroscience and writing, get your hands on a copy of The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady. If you’d like to see how Sue Woolfe’s theory translates into practice, her new novel The Oldest Song in the World is a treat for lovers of literary fiction. Her website is informative and, if you ever get the chance to attend one of her workshops, go for it!

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