01 November 2016

Writing in Fellowship


Today is November 1st, which means for some people it’s the first day of National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. For those not in the know, participants of NaNoWriMo attempt to write fifty thousand words – just enough for a decent length novel – over the course of November. It is both thoroughly admirable and extremely difficult.  A vibrant community, both online and in the ‘real world’, has gradually built around the yearly challenge. We delved into the ACT Heritage Library’s collection to see what we could find to inspire the NaNoWriMo people in Canberra.

School children busily writing in classroom, Narrabundah, 1953
School children busily writing in classroom, Narrabundah, 1953
Image Source: ACT Heritage Library image 009524
Canberra (and the surrounding region) has a long literary history, going back to the quintessential Australian novelist Miles Franklin; she of the brilliant career with two major literary prizes named in her honour. Franklin grew up in the Brinabellas, and Mt Franklin (on the ACT border) was named after her family. Other writing legends found among the region’s ranks include Manning Clark, A. D. Hope, Rosemary Dobson, Judith Wright and the inimitable Jackie French.

Writing by Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson and others
Writing by Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson and others
More recently Canberra has been featured by writers Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis as a city full of spies and intrigue. In a similar vein, Frank Moorehouse completed his Miles Franklin-winning ‘Edith’ trilogy with Cold Light, set in 1950s Canberra. Authors like Daniel O’Malley, Anita Heiss, Sean Costello, Pamela Burton, and many others have either written books in Canberra or about Canberra. Local NaNoWriMo-ers can be rest assured that they are in good company.

Novels written in Canberra or about Canberra
Novels written in Canberra or about Canberra
Indeed, while writers like Virginia Woolf and Orhan Pamuk talk about the importance of working alone, NaNoWriMo is all about working together. In fact one of the oldest organisations in Australia is the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), which provides opportunities for writers of all levels to share their work, advice and experiences with others. The ACT branch of FAW, which originally included people like Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson, still continues to meet under the auspices of the ACT Writers Centre at the National Library of Australia.

The records, publications and newsletters of FAW ACT are held at the ACT Heritage Library. In addition to be being peppered with manuscripts from writers like Neilma Sidney and Alan Marshall, HMSS 0048 Fellowship of Australian Writers, ACT Branch Records are a treasure trove of useful writing information, which range from the general to the genre-specific. For example, when penning a romance novel one publication advises to ‘Never write tongue-in-cheek.’ Other advice warns that ‘slovenly writing comes from slovenly minds.’ There’s even one long correspondence between several grammar-loving members about the minutiae of semicolon usage.

Manuscripts of members of FAW ACT
Manuscripts of members of FAW ACT
But for NaNoWriMo participants, who aim for length rather than perfection, one particular presentation from a 1986 writer’s workshop may be more helpful. Some suggestions even seem especially relevant for Canberrans (note that typographical errors are original).
Having written some things down. Select some of you better jottings and TYPE them. Anything looks better typed (including rubbish written in the public service).It will encourage you to edit and work on it. If you are bereft of any ideas dosome[sic] typing .Remind yourself that soon you are going to need to be bettertypist[sic]  or wordprocessor[sic]  person.
Hand drawn figure wielding large pen, used on FAW ACT newsletter
Hand drawn figure wielding large pen, used on FAW ACT newsletter

Other advice may prove useful in the long, caffeine-fueled month ahead.        
I am sure that many of us quite often give up and don’t finish stories that we start to write because... We imagine stories that seem quite good in our minds but put something down on paper and it invariably frustrates and disappoints us... Experiment and work out what works for you. Playing games is much more fun than work. Until recently I used to gather all my writing notes together and sit down at a table to write. It rarely worked. It reminded me too much of studying accountancy. My mind invariably wandered.... Now I get comfortable in my favourite chair. I’ve made writing a game that is just as pleasurable as reading a book.
In addition, if there are any NaNoWriMo-ers in need of inspiration – or even just a distraction – they could do worse than to look at the region’s history. For example, once upon a time, a convict escaped and held up his master’s property  before running off to become bushranger. Another time an unidentified masked woman, known only as ‘Mother’ dressed up as Santa Claus  for reasons left up to the viewer to guess. There was also the time a Prime Minister died suddenly in his hotel room and his ghost was reportedly sighted around the place for years afterwards. Once, in a surprising plot twist, a pilot died crashing his aircraft midway through the opening ceremony of Parliament House.

Marked up manuscript proof of FAW ACT Publication Australian '75
Marked up manuscript proof of FAW ACT Publication Australian '75
While not every member of FAW ACT wrote about Canberra, and certainly novelists are not required to write what they know (or even write where they live) then as now, writers agree it’s good to be in fellowship with other writers. Whether the NaNoWriMo people are writing about Canberra, or London, Mumbai, Narnia or outer space, we wish them the very best, and hope that the fellowship and community of NaNoWriMo proves fruitful. As former FAW ACT president, Sally Clark said, ‘Best wishes for success in your writing this month,’ (FAWord, no. 85, November 1995).